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Get to know William McKinley the military man

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

Veterans Day is a good time to reflect on William McKinley, the Civil War veteran.

McKinley was proud of his service as a member of the Ohio 23rd Regiment. He entered the Army as a private and left as a brevet major. His officer’s sword hung over his desk at the White House.

McKinley joined the organization for Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The GAR was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois. Ohio was one of the states that attended the GAR’s first national encampment in Indianapolis in November 1866. The GAR veterans actually camped in tents at all national and state gatherings — no conference hotels for them.

All soldiers and sailors who served in the Union Army during the Civil War were eligible for membership. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion are the comparable organizations for veterans today.

Besides serving as a fraternal organization, the GAR advocated at the national and state levels on issues critical to veterans. For example, the GAR supported pensions for the Civil War veterans and the establishment of soldier’s homes.

As a member, McKinley often wore the GAR badge on his lapel. The McKinley Birthplace Home in Niles has a large campaign poster of McKinley that shows him wearing his GAR badge.

He was an active member, too, attending meetings at his local post, statewide and national encampments.

McKinley was in demand as a popular speaker at GAR functions as his national prominence grew. He enjoyed reminiscing with his fellow Civil War veterans about their service to their country. McKinley spoke little of his own service; rather, he talked more about the sacrifices of the country as a whole during the Civil War. As he stated in one speech, “the memories of war are sweeter than service in the war.”

McKinley particularly enjoyed attending reunions of the Ohio 23rd Regiment. He attended the 1877 reunion at the home of President and Mrs. Hayes in Fremont. He was the keynote speaker at the reunion with President Hayes and other Civil War generals in attendance. McKinley’s speech was well received, as he gave a history of the regiment when it mustered in at Camp Chase in Columbus until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The GAR was a dominant political force in American politics after the Civil War. The GAR, at its peak, had over 400,000 members in the 1890’s when McKinley was elected president. At the time, the GAR was considered a de factoarm of the Republican Party. All of the Republican Party presidential candidates between 1868 and 1900 were members of the GAR.

There were five GAR encampments during the McKinley presidency. He attended the national encampments in 1897 and 1899. He did not attend the 1898 encampment because of the Spanish American War. He planned to attend the 1900 encampment but canceled at the last minute because of pressing work obligations.

McKinley was scheduled to go to the 1901 national encampment in Cleveland in September, after appearing at the fateful Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. Instead, he lay dying in Buffalo after an assassination attempt. He passed away on September 14, 1901, a day after the encampment ended.

McKinley joined the large number of Civil War veterans who were dying as the new century dawned. As time passed, there was a rapid decline in the GAR membership. The national GAR dissolved in 1956 after the death of their last member.

The GAR may have disappeared, but there are still reminders of the organization to be found today. U.S. Highway 6, which runs from Massachusetts to California, including a stretch of the road through northern Ohio, is designated as the” Grand Army of the Republic Highway.” You can still see GAR halls and monuments in towns across the US. The General James Birdseye McPherson statue was erected on the grounds of the now McKinley Memorial after the GAR McPherson Post No. 16 of Niles secured a passage of a tax levy from the voters of Weathersfield Township in 1882. Look for it on your next visit to the memorial.

Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.

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