American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 4

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Bombardment of Fort Sumter—McKinley hears the News—The Call for Volunteers—The Enlistment—Off for the War

One day a horseman, covered with dust and dirt, came into Poland on the gallop and drew up in front of the general store and post-office.

"Fort Sumter has been bombarded!" he cried to the crowd gathered around to receive the mail.

"Fort Sumter bombarded?" questioned half a dozen men. "You are sure of this?"

"Yes, the news came into Youngstown an hour and a half ago."

"If it's true, it means war!"

Instantly there was great excitement, just as there was excitement in every town, village, and hamlet throughout the length and breadth of the land. As the news travelled from mouth to mouth, the people gathered to talk it over and speculate upon what would be the outcome.

"It means a long war," said one.

"Oh, pshaw! there will be no war at all. It will all be over in two or three months," added another.

"The South can't fight, and one big battle will finish the whole thing," said a third.

Nobody dreamed of what was in store for the Nation,—four long years of a bloody contest, fathers and brothers slain, families divided, fortunes lost, business paralyzed, and the best of friends made the bitterest of enemies. It was truly a time to try men's souls. Nobody knew what to expect, nobody knew what would happen next.

In the post-office, sorting out mail matter, was William McKinley. He had given up teaching the district school and was now acting as an assistant postmaster. As the talk from outside sifted to his ears, he looked up in wonder.

"So the South has started the war?" he said.

"Yes, the South has started the war, William," said a man who was waiting for his mail. "They're foolish to do it, for they can't hold out long."

At this McKinley shook his head. "I don't know about that. They have a good many men down there, and they have seen to it that they are pretty well provided with guns and cannon. I read of it in the papers."

"But they can't stand up against us," put in another man. "We will soon knock the spots out of 'em."

"Don't you be too sure of that," came from an old soldier who sat near the door, on a cracker barrel. "I fought alongside of some of those fellows in 1812, and in the Mexican War, and I tell you they can fight just as well as any of us. If war comes, it will be a long and bloody one, mark my words."

The news concerning Fort Sumter proved true. "The shot that was heard around the world" was fired on Friday, April 12, 1861. The cannonading was fast and furious, and Major Anderson, in command of the fort, could do little either to defend himself or in retaliation. The Unionists held the quarters for thirty-four hours and then accepted terms of evacuation offered by General Beauregard, and marched from the place a few hours later.

This was on Sunday, and all day long the people of the North wondered what President Lincoln would do. Great crowds walked the streets at night, and the little village of Poland shared in the general anxiety. On Monday the President issued a proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand men to put down the rebellion.

Seventy-five thousand men! The eyes of the nation were opened at last. Grim war was a reality. The excitement grew, and as the call to arms was made in every city, town, and hamlet, men, young and old, poured forth, to fight for the flag they so loved. And while this was going on in the North, those of the South were equally active and equally anxious to strike a blow in the defence of their principles.

The town of Poland was as patriotic as any in the North, and when recruiting began at the old Sparrow House tavern, William McKinley walked over to listen to the speech making and see who enlisted. He had already been over to Youngstown with a cousin to see some soldiers off, and this had fired his patriotism. The old tavern was gayly decorated with the stars and stripes, and on a board was posted Lincoln's call for volunteers. On a small box on the porch of the tavern stood a recruiting agent, talking earnestly to all who had gathered.

"Our country's flag has been fired upon," said the speaker, pointing to Old Glory. "It has been trailed in the dust by those who should have cherished and loved it. And for what? That this free government may keep a race in the bondage of slavery! Who will be the first to defend the glorious stars and stripes?"

There was a painful silence, and one man looked at another. Then a veteran of the Mexican War spoke up.

"I will go. Come on, boys. Show what you are willing to do for Uncle Sam!"

"I will go," cried one of the young men, who had been McKinley's schoolfellow.

Then several others stepped forward and put down their names. One or two looked at William McKinley.

"Are you going, Will?" asked a friend.

"I expect to go," was the answer.

"Then why don't you put down your name?"

"I want to tell mother first," he answered, and hurried away. It did not take him long to reach the house in which he lived, and rushing in, he found his mother hard at work in the kitchen.

"Mother, I am going to enlist," he said.

"Enlist, William?" she said slowly, and dropped her broom.

"Yes. They need soldiers to fight the South and put down this rebellion. The others are enlisting, and I don't want to hang back."

"But you are so young," pleaded the mother. "And you are not very strong."

"Oh, I'm stronger than I was. Of course, if they reject me, I'll have to stay home."

The mother demurred, for she loved her boy greatly; but at last, when she saw that his heart was set upon going, she consented. Back to the tavern he rushed, and put down his name on the list of volunteers.

"Hurrah! we'll have great sport," cried one of the young volunteers. "We'll soon show those rebels how to behave!"

"It will not be sport to kill people," replied McKinley. "And the sport, as you call it, may be on the other side. In the Revolution the soldiers of the South fought as well as did the soldiers of the North. They are surely in earnest, or they wouldn't have bombarded Fort Sumter."

"Oh, they knew they had a sure thing there," was the reply. "It was their game from the start. But when we meet them on an open battlefield, they will sing a different tune."

So the talk ran on, the majority thinking that going to war was to be very much like a huge "picnic," as some expressed it. A few thought the rebellion would last six months, but the majority thought that thirty or sixty days would see its conclusion. Could they have foreseen those four long years of blood and carnage, how they would have shuddered!

The volunteering of the recruits was followed by drilling on the town green. There were no uniforms, and not enough muskets to go around, and the officers wore only belts and swords. At first the company was an awkward one, and the mistakes made in military tactics were laughable. Here William McKinley learned to "line up," "march," "wheel," and the like, and likewise learned the manual of arms. It was a busy time, and the green was always crowded with those who desired to see how the young soldiers were progressing.

At last came the day when the volunteers were to leave Poland, march to Youngstown, and there take the train first for Cleveland and then for Camp Chase at Columbus. It was a holiday in the town, but a sorrowful one, for many who marched away so bravely were never to return. Flags fluttered from many windows and housetops, and an old cannon roared out a parting salute. In the ranks marched William McKinley, a private, going to fight for the Union which he, in later years, helped so greatly to prosper. On the sidewalk were his folks, his mother weeping silently, and the others scarcely less affected.

"Good-by!" he shouted bravely, even though there must have been a strange lump in his throat. "Good-by all!"

"Good-by, and God bless you, my boy!" said the fond mother, and then the drum rattled, the fife piped up its merry tune, and the Poland volunteers were off for the war.