Lt. William McKinley at the Second Battle of Kernstown

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.

McKinley 2nd KTHayes 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.

Lt. William McKinley @ 2nd Kernstown


Filed under Battles

11 responses to “Lt. William McKinley at the Second Battle of Kernstown

  1. Tom Stager

    Very well put Scott!

  2. Just wondering when your book on Third Winchester will be coming out ??

  3. John Maass

    Just an FYI. the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, DC will be publishing an overview of the 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley later this year. This will also include Lynchburg and Monocacy as well. More details will be available at

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  5. Eric Sterner


    Love your books. Thanks for tackling a campaign that often gets overlooked in the general histories. The volumes I tackled in my general Civil War reading tended to end with Early’s return to the Valley and start with Sheridan’s arrival. You’ve helped fill a huge gap.

    I just wrote a short piece for ECW about McKinley’s ride. I didn’t have too much luck finding first-hand contemporary sources for it. The story you tell seems generally accepted and, my guess, is based on the recollections of Russell Hastings, which were retold several times in subsequent biographies of McKinley. The Hayes Library recently digitized his memoir, written after the war, and he notes in it that he didn’t personally witness the ride.

    So, I thought I’d ask if you found any eyewitness accounts written at the time or very soon thereafter? I don’t doubt the account, but I suspect it grew in the retelling as McKinley’s political career flourished. I’ve been studying the battle a little bit this summer after accidentally discovering the battlefield when out in the valley for a Kunstler signing event. They’ve really done a great job protecting and restoring it.

    In retrospect, I probably should’ve asked you first!

    Thanks and best for a good summer.

    • Thanks. Those future presidents have the advantage of everyone telling reminiscences of them during the post war era. Do you really think that Sheridan remembered specifically seeing William McKinley in Newtown on the morning of Cedar Creek. Think how many brigadiers accomplished so much more than Hayes did but they don’t have taxpayer funded institutions funding research into their historical legacies. I have wartime accounts of the 13 WV but no specific mention of McKinley.

    • It’s been a while, but I want to share another perspective on this story. Staff officers routinely engaged in the dangerous mission of carrying orders on the battlefield. Many were killed, wounded or captured in the process and never fulfilled their mission. In the heat of battle, couriers came and went throughout the course of action, with all of them frequently at great risk. As such, a particular courier doing his duty as he and his fellow couriers always did on the battlefield did not attract undue attention. However, this staff officer went on to become President of the United States and everything he did took on inflated meaning. Although dozens of staff officers and couriers throughout Crook’s army risked their lives at Kernstown that day, McKinley was the only one to rise to fame. And it was that fame in later life that illuminated his deeds during the war above and beyond what they were at the time.

  6. Eric Sterner

    I pretty much suggested that McKinley’s ride was remembered largely because he had the OH political machine behind him. Perhaps it’s important to remember because it represented the thousands of rides by anonymous staff officers through combat zones during the war, which largely went unremarked or unnoticed. Surprised to hear that the account from the 13th WV you found didn’t mention him. Disappointing, to be sure. Of course, they were rather busy!

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