On Antietam and Hot Coffee

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.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

11 comments… add one
  • Samir Jul 11, 2014 @ 7:58

    This is yet another disgusting belittling of a Union soldier and historic revisionism by a neo-Confederate. McKinley had two mules shot out from under him, in withering fire. That coffee and that food could save your LIFE and McKinley was willing to give his life to make sure his fellow soldiers had it. What were you doing at 19, exactly? Probably not half of what McKinley did that one day. I’ll take the evaluation and thanks and cheers of his fellow soldiers over you, thanks.

  • Whit Jul 16, 2013 @ 18:33

    After visiting the battlefield and having learned that the actual statement that led to widespread knowledge of McKinley’s deed was not made until 30 years after the fact leads me to question whether or not McKinley actually came under fire that day while approaching the 23rds . To believe so, you would have to believe that the 23rds position was beyond untenable with Confederate units literally behind them with McKinley forcing his way through a Confederate line of battle at some point and/or that McKinley’s route was so out of the way that he unwittingly lost his bearings way beyond the left flank of the entire Union Army. The battle maps indicate that the 23rds brigade was the 3rd across the lower forward, meaning any semblance of Confederate Skirmish or Battle lines (remember that Toombs defended that flank with only 500 men) would have been long gone.

    I have no doubt the 23rd appreciated the chow that day but it does raise the specter of altered memories used to bolster a political position years later. It would not be the only instance on either side.

  • Scott Sep 6, 2011 @ 6:26

    Returning to Ohio from Baltimore this Labor Day, I took my kids to Antietam and made sure to take them to the McKinley Monument. Perhaps most comical of all is not the words, but the bas-relief on one side of the monument. Soldiers are prone behind cover, dead and wounded are scattered about, but there on the forward position stands McKinley with his coffee bucket, fully exposed and clearly more brave than any soldier merely manning the line. A picture truly worth a thousand words; sadly I cannot find an image of it to link to, so go see it in person. And don’t worry – you will see see the battlefield and know that every man who stepped into the cornfield, held their ground at the sunken road, stormed the lower bridge, or otherwise engaged in battle that day was a true hero not detracted by this one silly monument..

  • Adam Arenson Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:56

    Yes, indeed.

  • cg Aug 11, 2011 @ 5:02

    Reminds me of a line from Drew Faust’s lecture posted here a few weeks back in re: the Manassas Reenactment which she (rightly) dismisses, “Will the reenactors tell only an old ‘battle piece’ of courage and glory and how sweet and proper it is to die?” I know Dr. Faust had nobler things on her mind than buckets of coffee, and I know that the monument is only there because McKinley was a martyred Republican president, but still, it seems like an unusual opportunity. Should battlefield markers be *only* the stone versions of reenactors, telling the story “of courage and glory and how sweet and proper it is to die?” Other things happened that complete the battlefield experience. I can’t even imagine how meaningful it was for soldiers right from combat to have hot coffee and warm food right there. There is as much humanity in that moment as in any bayonet charge, no? (Reminds me of the story of a young Maryland Confederate mortally wounded at Gettysburg who requested, while lying filthy and in agony on a hospital cot, that someone simply comb his hair before he died… I read that while standing at Spangler’s Spring and it had me in rare tears.) Are there any other monuments that offer that perspective? (That’s a real question, because I don’t actually know.)

    It also offers an opportunity to talk about and reflect on the experience of mundane duties of commissaries, quartermasters, artificers, paymasters, and other “support troops” who contributed to the operations of the armies. Is a bloody battleground the right kind of place for those things? Maybe not, but until visitors start beating a path to places like C.S. Quartermaster W.W. Pierce’s office and warehouse in Raleigh (basically, Finch’s Diner on Peace Street), then its as good as any.

    • Adam Arenson Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:18

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I use Drew Gilpin Faust’s book in my class as a clear model of envisioning all that is going on at a battlefield, and our effort to bring other concerns back to those spaces. I try to sketch out a few more moments — like the deathbed memorial at Fredericksburg — in upcoming posts.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:29

      Hi Chris,

      You said: “Other things happened that complete the battlefield experience. I can’t even imagine how meaningful it was for soldiers right from combat to have hot coffee and warm food right there. There is as much humanity in that moment as in any bayonet charge, no?”

      I certainly agree with that statement, but isn’t Adam’s overall point that a coffee run would probably not have been considered worthy of remembrance had it not been for the fact that it was McKinley. As I understood the post, the monument is not as much about battlefield coffee as it is about postwar politics.

      • Adam Arenson Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:47

        Kevin, I think it can be about both! But yes, my emphasis here is definitely on what empowers memorial-building — less the momentary event during the war but the rationales afterward.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:55

          I wasn’t suggesting otherwise, but your post does raise the question of intention when it comes to memorialization. In this case it seems clear that the organizers were looking for something to establish a memorial for McKinley on the battlefield and the coffee story provided the means.

      • cg Aug 11, 2011 @ 10:29

        Yes, absolutely, Professor Arenson’s post *is* primarily about post-war politics, historical memory, et. al. I hope I didn’t appear to be disputing that! Clearly that monument is there only because McKinley was president, not because some corporal delivered hot coffee. (I didn’t know, however, about the intentional McKinley-Lincoln connection Republicans made in an effort to reinvent the party in 1903. Interesting.) Any disputation I might have expressed arises from a general disgruntlement, not from this excellent post. (Can I work in anymore dis-words?)

        Anyhow, the fact that the McKinley monument is an appropriation of historical memory in 1903 for very a specific purpose, it make me less disinclined (there’s one!) to re-appropriate it to dwell on concerns common to people now. I wonder what other non-combat arms monuments are out there that could tell an unexpected story that would expand our view of the battlefield?

        • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2011 @ 13:39

          You mean, that regardless of the intention behind it you like the fact that it provides a jumping of point to discuss a broader range of issues related to the battlefield. I completely agree, Chris. Thanks for the follow-up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *