American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 8

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The End of a Three Years' Enlistment—McKinley on General Hayes's Staff—Battles at Kernstown and Winchester—A Mission of Life or Death

Early in June, the regiment to which Lieutenant McKinley was attached joined General Hunter's command at Staunton. The majority of the soldiers had now served their full three years of enlistment, and it became a question with these whether they should retire or reënlist as veterans.

"I've seen enough of this war," said one soldier. "I've been in a dozen skirmishes and battles, been shot once, and been sick half a dozen times. I'm going home and give somebody else a chance to bring the rebs to terms."

This sentiment was expressed by a number of others, and those uttering it could not be blamed; for, as they said, they had seen many hardships, and some had not been home since they had enlisted. McKinley himself had been on furlough but once, in December, 1862.

"What will you do, lieutenant?" asked one of the captains when the matter was being discussed.

"I have thought it over, and I am going to stick until the war is ended," was the quiet answer. "I've been lucky not to be shot, and equally lucky not to be sick, and I don't think it would be right for me to leave, when Uncle Sam needs every man he can get." And so he remained, and a number of his war comrades remained with him.

It was a sad day when those who had been mustered out started for home. They carried the old colors with them, for the flag was so riddled by shot and shell that it could no longer be used on the battlefield. There was the parting with tent-mates, with those who had stood shoulder to shoulder when death was close at hand. Many a hand-shaking took place in silence, for those who looked into each other's moist eyes were afraid to speak for fear of breaking down.

Leaving Staunton, after having destroyed a large quantity of army stores, and also some railroad bridges and factories, Hunter's command pushed on to Liberty. The force consisted of the brigades Hunter had originally had with him and also the commands under General Crook and General Averil. The determination was to give the enemy no time to safeguard the railroads. Averil's cavalry had already destroyed large portions of the Lynchburg and Charlottesville railroad, and now the united forces moved in the direction of Lynchburg.

But for once the Union commanders had not calculated truly about the force of the enemy to be overcome. From Richmond Lee had sent reënforcements to Lynchburg. These came up on the 17th of June, and a skirmish took place, which was renewed on the day following. Hunter was short of ammunition, and fearing the enemy was now too strong for him, started to withdraw. The Confederates followed to Salem, captured a number of guns, and then Hunter fell back to a position in the mountains. By the South this was claimed as a victory.

It was at Salem that the Twenty-third Ohio had a severe brush with the enemy. Hunter had passed on ahead with the balance of his command, and when Crook came up, the Confederates fell upon the baggage train and artillery. The shooting lasted nearly half an hour, but strange to say, but few were killed or wounded. The soldiers had marched all day with scarcely anything to eat, and after the skirmish marched to the foot of North Mountain, where they went into camp at ten o'clock that night.

The rumor that a large body of the enemy was close on their heels caused the march to be resumed at four o'clock in the morning. Everybody was tired out and intensely hungry, but no one cared to risk the chance of capture and a term in Libby Prison.

"I'd rather die than go to a Southern prison," declared one old veteran, and his feeling was the feeling of all. On they tramped without a mouthful to eat. Once a wrong road was taken, and the Twentythird Ohio had a march of eight miles that was useless. The men were ready to drop in their tracks, and all sorts of equipments were cast aside as being too heavy to carry. The next day was equally disheartening, and so was the next and the next. Even the officers began to wonder when the suffering was to end.

"Hurrah! There's a supply wagon!" This shout went up when the command reached Big Sewell Mountain. The report was correct, and soon a wagon train came into view, loaded with provisions. What a cheer went up! Breaking ranks, the soldiers rushed for the wagons, and soon everybody was feasting to his heart's content. To be sure the provisions were only army rations, but never had anything tasted sweeter, and sitting in convenient spots the men ate and ate, as if they would never be satisfied. In nine days they had marched a hundred and eighty miles without a single square meal.

The first week in July was spent by the regiment at Charleston, refitting the worn-out soldiers with necessary equipments. The privations of the past two weeks had caused many men to fall sick, and some of these had to be sent to the hospital or invalided home. Among the number were several friends of Lieutenant McKinley, and he found parting with them very hard. But a soldier must do his duty, and soon he was on the way with his regiment to join in an attack on the Confederate General Early, who had pushed his way northward through Maryland to Pennsylvania.

The route lay through Martinsburg to Cabletown, where the enemy first appeared and the Confederate pickets were driven in. Then a brigade under General Hayes was sent out to attack Early's entire army of twenty thousand soldiers. Hayes had with him no cavalry and only two sections of an old howitzer battery which was of little or no use, and it was not long before he found himself completely surrounded by General Early's cavalry.

It was truly a trying moment, and for several minutes it looked as if the brigade must either surrender or suffer a tremendous loss, if not complete annihilation. But the courage of the Unionists was equal to the occasion, and guided by their gallant officers, they made a bold rush, and literally cut their way through the cavalry, not, however, without leaving many dead and wounded on the field.

Lieutenant McKinley was now on Colonel, or rather Acting General, Hayes's staff, and after this battle had a great deal of work to do in getting the different companies and regiments together again. A warm friendship had sprung up between the two future Presidents of the United States, a friendship which was to endure until death separated them.

"I could not help but like the boy," was what General Hayes said afterward. "He was such a clean-cut, bright fellow, honest to the core, and always willing to do anything asked of him. Sometimes he fairly seemed to anticipate my wishes, and he always carried them out, no matter what the cost." And on another occasion he added: "The night was never too dark, the weather never too cold, there was no sleet, or storm, or snow, or rain that stood in the way of his prompt and efficient performance of every duty." What a tribute to the character of any soldier boy!

On the 24th of July a battle was fought near Winchester, in which the Unionists were defeated after a contest lasting from nine in the morning until nine at night. In this engagement the Twenty-third Ohio lost one hundred and fifty-three men killed and wounded, including ten commissioned officers.

Immediately after the military movement narrated above came the battle of Kernstown, near Winchester, and here it was that McKinley gained his highest reputation for courage, performing an act which for daring is not outmatched by any performed during our Civil War.

The Union forces were falling back, when they were attacked by a portion of Early's army. Thinking he could hold the enemy in check, General Crook went to the front with his brigades, which included that under General Hayes. For a while the contest waged furiously, but at last Crook saw that the plan was futile, and the soldiers were called upon to retreat. As the different regiments were retiring, General Hayes saw that one body of soldiery—the Thirteenth West Virginia regiment—had not received any orders and was in immediate danger of being surrounded and captured.

"They must be informed that the retreat has sounded," said General Hayes, and turned to see who could be sent upon that dangerous mission. McKinley was passing, and he halted the young man.

"Lieutenant, do you see yonder regiment?" he asked.

The young officer saluted. "I do, general," he answered.

"Evidently the colonel has not heard the retreat,—does not know that he is alone fighting a force ten times superior to his own. He must be given an order to withdraw. Will you carry that order to him?"

"I will, general."

"It is a dangerous mission."

"I know it, but I will go."

No more was said, and almost as soon as he had spoken McKinley had wheeled around on his bobtailed horse and was dashing down a slight hill and across an open field in the direction of the imperilled regiment, that was fighting desperately, in utter ignorance of its helplessness.

As some of the men saw the young staff officer depart, they gave a faint cheer, but this was hushed when they beheld the grave look upon General Hayes's face and realized what was passing in their commander's mind.

"He can't get through; some rebel sharpshooter will fetch him," said more than one old veteran. "He's sure to be shot down before he's gone half the distance."

One or two called to McKinley to come back,—in utter defiance of the fact that he carried an order from the general,—for they loved him deeply. But he merely shook his head, and soon he was out of hearing.

"He'll never come back alive," came from one of the captains.

"It's facing certain death," added another.

On and on and still on rode Lieutenant McKinley, over the fields, leaping fences and ditches, rough rocks, and low brushwood. Bullets flew in front and behind him, but he appeared to bear a charmed life. His course lay obliquely toward the enemy, and thousands of Unionists and Confederates saw him make the mad dash. Then a battery was turned in that direction, and the whining shriek of a shell was heard as it whizzed through the air, to explode in his rear. The shell was followed quickly by another, and then a third, and in a chaos of smoke, flame, and dirt, McKinley was seen to go down, and his horse with him.