In the hot summer of 1861, an 18-year-old Ohioan who had never traveled more than a couple hundred miles away from his boyhood home joined the Union army. His name was Will McKinley. The young man, externally humble and internally ambitious, had realistic expectations of what this new venture might bring him and certainly “harbored no expectation that it would transform his life”.
But not long into his first military deployment, the gift of leadership became evident in his life and was observed by those he served alongside in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. His superiors observed these leadership skills too and in the spring of 1862, McKinley was promoted to Commissary Sergeant.
As Commissary Sergeant McKinley, was placed in charge of distributing all non-weapon supplies such as food, blankets, and feed for the horses. For months his managerial skills were applauded. One superior described the young leader in glowing terms: “We soon found that in business, in executive ability, young McKinley was a man of rare capacity, of unusual and unsurpassed capacity especially for a boy his age”.
Young McKinley’s ability to manage resources was obvious. But leadership is about more than mere resource allocation and managerial acuity. And on September 17th Will McKinley’s leadership meddle would be put to finally be put to the test. At the Battle of Antietam Creek, Robert E Lee’s Confederate Army clashed with the Union Army led by George McClellan. At dawn, on a beautiful, crisp Sunday morning the battle began. It raged on for hours as Will McKinley’s Ohio 23rd Infantry fought to take an important bridge that would have aided the Union Army in cutting off Lee’s escape route. By later in the day, it appeared that the Ohio 23rd’s ability to fight was waning. The Infantry became pinned down by the Confederate troops and was severely weakened by hunger and thirst as the men had not eaten breakfast before the battle had begun early that morning.
“When Commissary Sergeant McKinley, posted two miles behind the lines, heard of the brigades plight, he resolved to get sustenance to the beleaguered unit”. McKinley hitched up a wagon full of food and other supplies and rode through two miles of enemy fire to reach his men. On his ride, his wagon was struck by shells and even, at one point, a canon ball. And yet, McKinley eager and willing in the face of tremendous danger, fulfilled his duty as a leader and miraculously arrived safely to cheer of his infantrymen. McKinley, in a moment of unspeakable danger, modeled what true leadership looks like.
The Union Army would go on to claim victory at the fierce and bloody Battle of Antietam. A battle that served the significant function of ensuring that the Confederate Army did not win a decisive battle early in the War on Union soil. The teenaged hero of Antietam was changed forever by his efforts during the Civil War. “He went to war as an unseasoned teenager with only a vague sense of who he was or what he would do with his life, He left the army an adult who had been severely tested in questions of intellect, administrative ability, leadership, and courage”. (Merry P.33)
And whatever happened to William McKinley? He would go on to be a successful lawyer, a powerful congressman, and eventually, the 25th President of the United States. The timely, courageous, and selfless service of William McKinley is a reminder of what true leadership is. Leadership is service. A willingness, to serve others by providing them with whatever they need to accomplish a shared goal, even when at great personal costs, is where leadership begins.
*All excerpts can be found in Robert Merry’s excellent biography on William McKinley “President McKinley“.