American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 5

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At Camp Chase—The Twenty-third Ohio Infantry and its Officers—A First Engagement—In Washington—Battle of South Mountain.

The trip from Youngstown to Cleveland and then to Columbus did not take long, and arriving at the latter place, the Poland recruits were immediately marched to Camp Chase, a beautiful spot well adapted to the purposes of mustering troops into the United States service.

Here every volunteer had to be examined physically, and it may well be supposed that William McKinley was exceedingly anxious concerning this part of the proceedings. He had set his heart upon going to the war, and had he been rejected on account of his health, he would have been sorely disappointed.

When his turn came, he found himself in the presence of General Fremont, known as the "Pathfinder of the West," because of his trip of years before. General Fremont looked him over, thumped him on the chest, gazed into his clear grayish eyes, and then said pleasantly, "You'll do."

It was a great relief from a mental strain, and McKinley hurried back to his tent with his face full of smiles.

"I guess you're going, Will," sang out one of the volunteers. "He didn't turn you down, did he?"

"No; he said I'd do," answered McKinley. "And I'm going to do—the very best I can."

The Poland volunteers became Company E of the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and were mustered into service for three years on June 11, 1861. The regiment was in many respects a remarkable one. Its first colonel was William S. Rosecrans, afterward Major-general and Commander of the Department of the Cumberland; its lieutenant-colonel was Stanley Matthews, afterward United States senator, and associate justice of the Supreme Court; and its first major was Rutherford B. Hayes, who after the war became governor of Ohio and then President of the United States. Before the regiment went into the field, however, Colonel Rosecrans received a commission as brigadier-general in the regular army, and was succeeded in command by Colonel E. P. Scammon.

It was a solemn proceeding when the regiment was sworn into the service of the United States, a proceeding which none of the young recruits forgot for many years afterward. The swearing-in was followed by constant drilling, and each soldier was measured for his uniform and given a rifle, ammunition-box, knapsack, and blanket.

It is said by those who were in the regiment with him, that William McKinley took to soldiering naturally and learned his Hardee's Tactics with scarcely an effort. With one who had been so studious, this was not to be wondered at; and it will surprise nobody when told that he was always on hand when wanted.

Fourth of July was passed in camp by the soldiers, who did what they could to make the day a patriotic one, with the firing of guns, and huge camp-fires at night, around which the boys congregated to sing "Hail, Columbia," "America," and other songs. Then came orders to go to Clarksburg, West Virginia, and hither the regiment went, late in the month.

Hardly had the regiment reached Clarksburg when it was ordered to Weston. The Rich Mountain range was full of guerillas,—lawless men who cared only for plunder, regardless of the rights of the North or the South,—and these were chased over and around the mountains and through the deep ravines. It rained almost constantly, and the soldier boys were often wet to the skin, and had to sleep that way during the night.

"Tell you what, this is tough," growled one volunteer. "I didn't bargain for it, when I joined."

"We'll have to take the weather as it comes," said McKinley, philosophically. "We are no worse off than the men we are fighting."

The regiment had been divided into two parts, but on the 1st of September the wings came together at Bulltown, and then joined the forces under General Rosecrans and moved on Carnifex Ferry. Here the Confederates under General Floyd were drawn up in battle array, and it was here that William McKinley received what soldiers would call his " baptism of fire." As a private of Company E he marched to the firing line, musket in hand, alert, and ready to do or die as the occasion might require. He was but eighteen, full of patriotism and the fervor of youth. Floyd was beaten back and retreated across the Gauley River. The rain came down in torrents, rendering it difficult to pursue the Confederates, but it was attempted, and a number of prisoners were taken as a result.

After this engagement there was but little for Company E to do, and, as cold weather came on, the majority of the regiment went into winter quarters, although some companies pushed through a blinding snowstorm to the Blue Stone River, driving a detachment of the enemy before them.

The winter proved an unusually hard one, and there was much sickness in the camp. But the rugged outdoor life, instead of breaking William McKinley down, built him up, until he was as healthy and strong as any of his fellow-soldiers. The war records show that during his whole term of service he suffered from no serious sickness, and that he was absent only once on furlough.

There was constant recruiting, drilling, and discipline, and often the soldiers had to sit up and wait upon those who were sick, and who could not get into the overcrowded hospital. Of this latter work McKinley did his full share, and many stories are told of his good-heartedness, of how he gave up his dry tent to a sick soldier whose tent was wet, and of how he loaned his blanket to the suffering. These noble deeds are not recorded on paper, but they are recorded in the hearts of those who were thus comforted.

One day, early in April, came a little surprise for William McKinley the private. His actions had been noticed by his superiors, and now he was appointed commissary sergeant of the command. To those who may not know what a commissary sergeant is, let me say that he is an under-officer who looks after the cooking and serving of food to the men in the ranks. Although humble, the place is, after all, quite important, for men must have their eating, and have it regularly; and if food is not properly cooked, there is much danger from sickness. The newly appointed commissary sergeant entered upon his duties at once, and how well he performed them, even under great difficulties, we shall see later.

Coming out of its winter camp, the regiment proceeded to Princeton. It was expected that a battle would occur at this place, but, fearing they could not hold the town, the Confederates set fire to it and retired. Rushing in, the Union soldiers did what they could to stop the flames and then quieted the inhabitants.

After the taking of Princeton, nothing of importance occurred for several weeks; then the regiment was ordered first to Green Meadow and then to Camp Piatt, on the Great Kanawha.

"We are bound for Washington!" cried some of the soldiers, and the report proved true. From Camp Piatt the regiment took transports to Parkersburg and from thence travelled in cars to the capital.

It was William McKinley's first visit to Washington, and when he had a few hours to himself he lost no time in inspecting the Capitol Buildings and the White House. But in those days it is not likely that he ever thought to occupy the chair then filled by Abraham Lincoln, or that he, like Lincoln, would fall by the hand of a foul assassin. All he thought of was to do his duty fully and faithfully, and let the future take care of itself.

The victory at Bull Run had inspired the Confederates in Virginia with great confidence, and while General McClellan was in Washington, doing his utmost to bring order out of chaos and put our army on a proper footing, previous to a contemplated campaign on the peninsula, the soldiers of the South followed up their advantage by defeating General Pope. This brought them close to the Maryland line, and under the command of General Lee they crossed the Potomac, marched along the eastern slope of Catoctin Mountain, and directed their steps toward Frederick, the state capital.

The people of Maryland who were loyal to the old flag heard of the coming of the Confederates with great alarm, and instantly McClellan was appealed to, to save them from the invaders. As a result the Union forces moved out of Washington and the neighborhood, eighty-seven thousand strong, marching by five routes, so that the enemy would not have any chance to move around them and thus assault Washington or Baltimore.

With this vast array of soldiers went Company E of the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteers. William McKinley had never before seen such an army, and as he marched along, with musket on his shoulder, doubtless he dreamed of all the possibilities of a soldier's life and wondered if he would ever rise from the ranks to lead a company, a regiment, or a brigade.

A great battle was expected at Frederick, but it failed to materialize, and the Union troops occupied the city with comparatively little resistance.

"They are afraid to meet us," said some of the Union soldiers. "Before long you'll hear of General Lee retreating to the south."

Leaving Frederick, the Confederate army had found its way to South Mountain, and here it held a strong position on the hillside and behind the rocks and trees. To South Mountain marched McClellan's army, and with this went the Twenty-third Ohio, commanded by Lieutenant-colonel Hayes.

"You will advance by yonder road and attack the enemy," was the order sent by the division commander; and along the muddy and broken road hurried the regiment, and was the first to get into the contest which led up to the bloody battle of Antietam. From behind rocks and trees the Confederates poured in a deadly fire of musketry, grape, and canister, filling the air with smoke and dirt and a din which is indescribable. Men began to drop here and there—Colonel Hayes had his arm broken, a captain was shot through the elbow, several lieutenants were wounded, and out of a force of three hundred and fifty that went into the action nearly a hundred were either killed or wounded. Colonel Hayes was taken from the field, but soon reappeared, with his wound half dressed, and insisted upon continuing the struggle.

"We are going to lose the day!" was the cry, when, with a cheer, the balance of the division hove into sight, on the double-quick, and with renewed courage what remained of the gallant Twenty-third Ohio Infantry pushed on, until the Confederates were forced to give up their position and take a new location in the woods beyond.

McKinley had had great trouble in bringing up his supplies for the regiment, but he was on hand with all that was necessary when the fighting ceased, and soon gave to the tired soldier boys the food and drink they craved. But to hurry supplies forward during the battle that followed was much harder work, and what this led to, through the pluck and persistence of the young commissary sergeant, will be told in the chapter to follow.