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Profile - William McKinley, Citizen-Soldier

A teenage volunteer during the Civil War, William McKinley (1843-1901) would put his military experiences to good use when, as president, he was confronted by a war with Spain.

The McKinley family was of “Scotch-Irish” and English descent, hailing from County Antrim, in Ireland.  David McKinley, a weaver, arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1720s.  His son John McKinley (the president’s great-great-grandfather) was about 50 when the Revolutionary War broke out, but served in Pennsylvania’s York County Militia in 1778 and 1779, when he died.  John’s son, David McKinley (the president’s great-grandfather) enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia in April of 1776.  His company was shortly incorporated into the Continental Army, and he served under George Washington in numerous actions in New Jersey, notably at Amboy, Chestnut Hill, and Paulus Hook, until discharged in 1779.  David’s son, James Stevenson McKinley (the president’s grandfather) served under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe and in the War of 1812.  James’ son (the president’s father) William McKinley, Sr., who did not serve, owned an iron works in Ohio, but with nine children, the family only managed to make ends meet.

When the Civil War broke out, the future president was 17 and working as a teacher in a country school.  He almost immediately volunteered for duty, enlisting as a private in Company E of the 23rd Ohio, in which Rutherford B. Hayes served as second in command.  During 1861 and 1862 McKinley fought in several small battles in West Virginia.  In the late summer of 1862 (by which time he was a commissary sergeant), responsible for feeding the troops, the regiment was transferred to the Army of the Potomac, and saw action at South Mountain and Antietam.  For his coolness at Antietam – where he brought fresh coffee and supplies to the front under fire – McKinley was commissioned a second lieutenant.  Promoted to first lieutenant early in 1863, McKinley later fought at Winchester, Opequon Creek, Cedar Creek, and Fisher’s Hill, while rising to captain.  From late 1864 he became a staff officer, serving under Maj. Gen. George Crook and later under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.  On May 14, 1865 McKinley was promoted to brevet (honorary) major, and was mustered out of the service on July 26th.  Although repeatedly under fire, McKinley came through the war unscathed.

After the war McKinley became a lawyer and an active Republican.  A close supporter of his erstwhile commander Hayes, McKinley served several terms in Congress (1877-1882, 1885-1891), and was governor of Ohio (1891-1896).  Elected president in 1896, upon his inauguration on March 4, 1897, McKinley was immediately confronted with the problem of the Cuban insurgency against Spain, which his predecessor had been unable to resolve. 

The revolution had not gone well for the rebels, confronted by 200,000 Spanish regulars and Cuban loyalists and faced with internal political rifts.  But if Spain was doing well in the field, it had lost politically.  Skillful Cuban propagandists manipulated the sensation-seeking “Yellow Press” to mobilize American public opinion against Spain.  Like his predecessorGrover Cleveland, McKinley attempted mediation, but neither side was interested in compromise.

The Maine disaster, on February 15, 1898, never satisfactorily explained, was seized upon by Cuban propagandist and the Yellow Press, raising calls for war.  As a veteran, McKinley had no illusions about martial glory, and attempted to keep things calm.  But a final effort to secure Spanish acquiescence to Cuban independence failed.  On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war.

The war opened in rather spectacular fashion on May 1st, when  Commodore George Dewey took the Asiatic Squadron past the coast defenses of Manila Bay to destroy a larger, though quite obsolete Spanish squadron, handing the nation a morale-boosting victory, and ultimately securing the Philippines for the United States.

Meanwhile, the country began to mobilize, which created enormous problems.  Having thought small for more than thirty years, the War Department suddenly had to handle the expansion of the army from 27,500 men to 270,000.  The initial result was much privation and disease in the army camps, a great deal of waste, and not a little corruption.

Despite this, the war was pressed with commendable energy.  A blockade was imposed on Cuba, troops were dispatched to support Dewey in the Philippines, and an expeditionary force was concentrated in Florida, while the Navy prepared to deal with a Spanish cruiser squadron that was crossing the Atlantic.  Spanish Vice Adm. Pascal Cervera's squadron would obsess the president, senior naval commanders, and the public for four weeks.  McKinley skillfully dealt with calls by hysterical citizens to “protect” the East Coast from enemy raiders, keeping Cuba blockaded, and forming a powerful squadron ready for a decisive clash.  Soon after the Spanish squadron turned up at Santiago (a fortified port in eastern Cuba) it was bottled up.  This set the stage for the landing of the 17,000 strong V Army Corps near Santiago on June 20th

The improvised expedition, which consisted of most of the Regular Army, plus some volunteer units (including the “Rough Riders”), might have fared badly had Spanish forces near Santiago acted vigorously, but the local commander remained inactive.  Early on June 1, American forces undertook an ill-planned offensive against two separate objectives, Santiago itself and the fortified village of El Caney to the northeast, which protected the city’s water supply.  The resulting day’s fighting was a “near-run thing”.  Though outnumbered 12 to 1, Spanish troops at El Caney held until mid-afternoon, after suffering 65 percent casualties. A several-hour delay of the main offensive on the Heights of San Juan (just east of Santiago) led to unnecessary casualties as assembled troops came under sustained fire. When the attack began at 1:00 pm, regiments quickly became intermingled, Theodore Roosevelt of the Rough Riders recalling that regulars and volunteers, blacks and whites, were mixed together in the confusing assault.  Under heavy fire, Roosevelt led dismounted cavalrymen up and over “Kettle Hill" within ten minutes or so of attacking, while the main body of the corps took on the San Juan Hill, further to the left.  Finally, Regular infantry swept up the south end of San Juan Hill as the cavalrymen swept up its north end, securing it by 2:00 pm, as the Spanish fell back to form a new line.  The day’s fighting cost the Spanish about 600 to 800 casualties, while American losses were 1,400.  With Santiago now closely invested, on July 3, the Spanish squadron attempted to escape to sea, only to be overwhelmed by a greatly superior American fleet.

The defeat of the Spanish squadron effectively ended the war.  Although Santiago did not surrender until July 17 (barely in time to avert the disintegration of V Corps from privation and disease), operations continued in the Philippines and Puerto Rico until an armistice was concluded on August 13th.  Under the terms of the peace treaty, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam were ceded to the US, which was also to occupy Cuba until a government could be formed.  The Philippines proved a problem.  Unwilling to submit to American rule, Filipino nationalists proclaimed independence, and fighting broke out in early 1899. After initial defeats, the insurgents resorted to guerrilla tactics, and the war dragged on into the early years of the new century.

Largely as a result of the highly successful outcome of the war with Spain, helped by a revival of economic activity, progress in civil service reform, and some other domestic initiatives, McKinley was re-elected in 1900.  Just six months into his second term, on September 5, 1901, McKinley was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when he was shot by the anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosz.  Mortally wounded, McKinley died nine days later, the third president to die at an assassin’s hand since 1865. 

The McKinleys had two daughters, both of whom died in childhood.  The president had three brothers, two of whom were older, but neither seems to have served.

BookNotes:  There are several recent biographies of McKinley, including William McKinley: The American Presidents Series: The 25th President, 1897-1901, by Kevin Phillips and Arthur M. Schlesinger, a volume in “The American Presidents” series, and H. Wayne Morgan’s William McKinley and His America   The best short introductory survey of the war with Spain is Al Nofi’s Spanish American War, 1898 (Great campaigns) .

 


 

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