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Rutherford B. Hayes as a major during the Civil War, 1861, Rutherford Hayes Presidential Center
February 16, 2021

Presidential Brothers in Arms: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley

The 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment was raised outside of Columbus in June 1861 as a three-year regiment. Its colonel, William Rosecrans, would go on to have a controversial military career and later, served as the American representative to Mexico to be followed by consolidating the Southern Pacific railroad. Rosecrans wasn’t the only person of distinction from the 23rd OH. Several members went on to have careers in public service – notably the 19th and 25th presidents of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley, respectively. 

Rutherford Hayes was a 38-year-old attorney practicing law in Cincinnati when he volunteered to fight in the Civil War. He joined the 23rd OH as a major, and as one of Rosecrans’s staff officers. William McKinley, by contrast, was an 18-year-old teacher living in Poland, Ohio. McKinley had volunteered for the Poland Guards, which soon after was consolidated into the 23rd OH.

Hayes’s non-military professional experience served him well as a leader in the unit.  As a lawyer, he knew how to speak and rally his soldiers. Hayes’s devotion to his men was both legendary and mutual. He took care of them, and they, in turn, revered him. Moreover, Hayes was quite the war hero. In his four years in uniform, he had four horses shot out from under him, and was wounded five times — once severely. Though he was one of five presidents to serve in the Civil War, he was the only one who sustained wounds in battle. Hayes was recognized for his bravery and competence and rose through the ranks steadily. By the end of the war, he was a Major-General.

“On more than one occasion during these engagements, General Hayes bore an honorable part. His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring. Having entered the army as a major of volunteers at the beginning of the war, General Hayes attained by meritorious service the rank of brevet major general before its close.” 

– Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs

While Hayes was a leader amongst the 341 men in the 23rd OH, and William McKinley was but a private, the two men more than connected. McKinley proved himself time and again on the battlefield, especially at the Battle of Antietam. When news of McKinley’s bravery reached Hayes, Hayes suggested McKinley be promoted. With his promotion to Second Lieutenant, McKinley then served on Hayes’s staff when the latter was a colonel. At the war’s conclusion, McKinley was a Brevet Major. 

The relationship between the two men most likely began when McKinley served on Hayes’s staff, and grew into a long-lasting bond. In an 1862 letter to his wife, Lucy, Hayes described McKinley as a “handsome, bright, gallant boy,” in addition to being “one of the finest officers in the Army.”[1] For his part, McKinley considered Hayes a lifelong mentor whose input was not limited to the sphere of war. In 1867, McKinley’s first foray into politics was to stump for Hayes, who was running for governor of Ohio. As McKinley’s profile in law and politics grew, his path would cross with Hayes even more. In 1875, he attended the Republican state convention at which Hayes was nominated governor for the third time.  The following year,  McKinley, in the midst of his own congressional campaign, found the time to campaign for his old army comrade, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was then making a bid for the presidency. 

During Hayes’s tenure in the White House (1877-1881), the McKinleys were frequent guests, considered an honorary son and daughter-in-law to the Hayeses. Rutherford Hayes made sure to introduce his protege to key political contacts who would later help McKinley on his journey to the White House in 1897.  When Rutherford Hayes died in January of 1893, his funeral procession was led by William McKinley, then himself the governor of Ohio, along with President-Elect Grover Cleveland, also a veteran of the Civil War.[2]

The role of the military in shaping the characters and careers of various presidents is fertile territory, and as seen here, the Civil War unquestionably helped put both presidents on the path to political careers.

  1. Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War, (Kent: State university Press, 2000) by William H. Armstrong, p. 46
  2.  James Garfield actually served as the chief of staff to Rosecrans, who had been the first colonel of the 23rd OH before being promoted to Brigadier General in the Regular Army.
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