McKinley: From Commissary Sergeant to U.S. President

By Dr. Peter Skirbunt
DeCA historian

Today, Nov. 8, many Americans will be headed to the polls to vote for their next president. One hundred fifty-four years ago, one American president, William McKinley, began his journey to the White House by feeding Union troops during the Civil War battle of Antietam.

During the Civil War, before commissary resale facilities existed, commissary sergeants in the Union and Confederate armies worked in subsistence warehouses, selling goods to officers and distributing rations. They also provided food to mess halls, and prepared meals at posts and in the field.

But they did not usually do this in the middle of a battle.

On Sept. 17, 1862, Union and Confederate armies fought near the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle would be named both Sharpsburg, for the town, and Antietam, for the creek around which the battle raged. Whatever its name, historians agree this battle was the bloodiest single day of the war.

Today, at the top of a hill in the Antietam National Battlefield Park, there’s a monument to the courageous actions of 19-year-old William McKinley, the commissary sergeant of the Union’s 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry – and future president of the United States. During the battle, McKinley risked his life bringing food and coffee, under fire, to his regiment.

During the battle, one of his wagons was disabled by Confederate artillery, but he got the other across a bridge – today known as “Burnside’s bridge” – and up a hill the regiment had just captured. There, the regiment, which was now one of the Army’s lead elements, physically exhausted and mentally numbed by the carnage they had witnessed, rested.

Orders to advance farther on the battlefield never came. Instead, while waiting two hours for reinforcements, McKinley brought coffee and fed a hot meal to hundreds of these tired, hungry men.

Among the men of the regiment served by McKinley was the regiment’s colonel, Rutherford B. Hayes, who recommended McKinley for promotion to second lieutenant for his bravery under fire. Just 15 years later, Hayes became president of the United States in 1877.

That means the 23rd Ohio was the only Civil War regiment to have two future presidents in its ranks – because McKinley, the commissary sergeant, was elected president in 1896. He was the last president to have served in the Civil War, and the only commissary sergeant, officer, or employee to ever hold that office.

Later in the war, McKinley gallantly distinguished himself in battle and became a captain. He was also promoted to brevet major by President Abraham Lincoln, two weeks before Lincoln’s assassination.

Although the modern commissary benefit is no longer delivered by men and women in uniform, today’s Defense Commissary Agency workforce of 15,000-plus civilian employees remain dedicated to serving military members and their families at nearly 238 commissaries in 13 countries.