On July 24, 1864, Lt. William McKinley, later the 25th President of the United States, served on the staff of Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, who later became the 19th President. As the Union lines collapsed, Hayes rallied his brigade on Pritchard’s Hill, which is now preserved by the Kernstown Battlefield Association. Hayes looked around and saw that one of his regiments, Col. William Brown’s 13th West Virginia was standing firm on the east side of the Valley Pike, valiantly battling the overwhelming numbers of John C. Breckinridge’s attacking division. It was apparent that Brown’s regiment would be cut off and captured if it did not withdraw soon. So intent in battling the Confederates in their front, the West Virginians remained unaware of their plight.
Hayes saw their plight and sent Twenty-one year old Lt. William McKinley of Niles, Ohio to order Brown to fall back before disaster hit. McKinley mounted his “wiry little bob-tailed horse,” and raced down the hill toward the Mountaineers in the McCardle Orchard. As he neared the bottom of the hill, a rebel shell struck the ground under his horse and exploded, sending dirt, debris and smoke high into the air and hiding “Billy McKinley” from view. Hayes and the crowd atop Pritchard’s Hill thought that they had seen the last of their young favorite, but in a flash McKinley galloped out of the smoke, dashed across the field and successfully warned Col. Brown. Brown fired one last volley, and then the 13th West Virginia fell back down the Valley Pike toward Winchester, stopping every now and then to turn and deliver a volley into the following Confederates.
It is almost comical, but McKinley’s Civil War career has come to be defined by his monument at Antietam which honors his role as a commissary who brought coffee to the 23rd Ohio on the evening of September 17, 1862. He displayed true valor on several battlefields throughout 1864, and his service during the Civil War was honorable in all respects.