On this day in 1862, Union commissary Sergeant William McKinley braved enemy fire to feed Union troops during the Battle of Antietam – the single bloodiest day on American soil – and earned the praise of Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes.
McKinley, then just 19 years old and serving in the 23rd Ohio Volunteers, drove a wagon loaded with hot food and coffee through heavy fighting, prompting Hayes to describe McKinley as a “handsome, bright, gallant young boy” and “one of the bravest and finest officers in the Army.”
Hayes promoted McKinley to lieutenant. McKinley displayed such gallantry again later in the war when, by this time a captain, he galloped through heavy enemy fire to order an independent regiment to retreat.
Hayes went on to become the 19th President of the United States (1877-1881).
McKinley, meanwhile, left the Army as a brevet major in 1865 and became a lawyer in Ohio. He served multiple terms as a Congressman and two terms as governor of the Buckeye State. He was elected the 25th U.S. President in 1897.
During his time in office, the U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898, adding Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the U.S. realm; the Philippines Insurrection occurred on his watch.
As it turned out, McKinley was safer as a soldier in the field than as a President in peacetime. On September 5, 1901, President McKinley began the first of a two-day visit at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.
The 58-year-old leader was greeted that night by fireworks that spelled out, “Welcome President McKinley, Chief of our Nation and Our Empire.”
His schedule included a reception the following day that his staff wanted to nix because they felt it left him vulnerable to assassination. McKinley refused to cancel. Their instincts were right. While listening to Bach played by an organist that day – and despite increasing security personnel – McKinley was shot twice by a 28-year-old steel worker named Leon Czolgosz.
Jim Parker, who was also waiting to meet the president, punched Czolgosz before he could fire a third time.
The only doctor available was a gynecologist who managed to stop the bleeding but couldn’t find the remaining bullet (it passed through his body entirely). McKinley showed some signs of recovery, but died on September 14, 1901, from blood poisoning — some 36 years after President Lincoln’s assassination (April 15, 1865) and just shy of 20 years after President James A. Garfield’s assassination (September 19, 1881).