This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.
This is the third in a series.
Walking around the Antietam battlefield, envisioning the bloodiest day in U.S. history, one is hard-pressed for a moment of levity. There is Bloody Lane, the cornfield, and Burnside Bridge, a deceptively idyllic crossing of Antietam Creek. (If you don’t know why it looks familiar, glance at the cover of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom). Site after site is linked to death and suffering, carnage beyond belief.
But then there is the monument to hot coffee.
Just beside the parking lot above the bridge it stands: a single column, topped by an eagle on a globe, a woman sitting, in mourning, the flag furled over a double portrait of the sergeant who,
while in charge of the Commissary Department, on the afternoon of the day of the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire.
Now, it is clearly nice to have coffee and food on the battlefield, and to offer it up “without orders” might deserve thanks. But a grand monument, equal in size and expense to those devoted to the losses or heroism of whole regiments, at Antietam or elsewhere?
The young sergeant who offered up coffee was William McKinley who, as the other side of the monument explains, was a 14-year member of Congress, twice governor of Ohio, and twice elected President of the United States before an assassin shot him at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901, and he died eight days later. McKinley’s death elevated Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency, and it marked the last time a Civil War veteran would serve as President.
The Antietam monument was dedicated two years after McKinley’s death, and the double portrait—young soldier and fallen statesman—served to link his two forms of service.
It is one of at least 15 memorials and monuments to McKinley—a surprising number, perhaps, to Americans who have forgotten him. The National Park Service merely gives the basic details, and the sites here, the forum here, and the site here describe the details of McKinley’s action that day, and his service for troops who, “without breakfast, without coffee, they went into the fight,” as former President, and fellow member of the Ohio 23rd Rutherford B. Hayes recalled in 1891.
One site sums up the common wisdom with the comment that “given the incredible bravery demonstrated by so many soldiers under fire that day…I find it pretty damned silly to erect a large monument to a soldier whose contribution to the Union victory at Antietam was bringing buckets of coffee to the front lines. It just seems preposterous to me.” (A comment there by Ethan Rafuse does note the irony of surviving the bloodshed of September 14, 1862, only to die as result of a gunshot on September 14, 1901.)
But the reason for the monument was not, of course, McKinley’s actions that day, nor even really his rise to the Presidency, but his importance for the Republican Party as it was reformulating itself in 1903. Out here in Los Angeles, the Jonathan Club, which is sponsoring a fellowship I have for another research project, even traces its origins to supporting McKinley’s campaign at that crucial time for the Republican Party.
That McKinley could be linked to the bravery of the Civil War generation only strengthened his power. One orator (J. Griffin Hall, as recorded in the September 30, 1903, Gettysburg Star and Sentinel, via) saw webs of connection between the battlefield and the Presidency:
At Gettysburg our first martyred President—Lincoln—gave utterance to those prophetic words…It was here on this historic ground [Antietam battlefield] the last of our martyred Chief Magistrates—William McKinley—received his first promotion for bravery [for the hot coffee]. Gettysburg and Antietam! Lincoln and McKinley! What emotions of patriotism are awakened by mention of the places and these patriots? Ah! how we regret the untimely departure of these noble men at the hands of cowardly assassins…what a debt of gratitude we owe to the old veteran, both living and dead, for it was he who fought and died that we as a nation might live.
The monument to a young officer who served hot coffee is thus much more about who the sergeant became than what he did that morning at Antietam—though it acknowledged the link between those two moments. For us, it can serve as an important reminder that Civil War memory is often more about those who are commemorating the war’s events than what happened in those events themselves.
My essays introducing the series and on Manassas are here and here; in the weeks ahead, I will write about Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, and Appomattox.