A Story of Heroism….And Coffee

Perhaps the most prominent of the monuments around Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam is not to a regiment who fought there, or indeed any fighting at all.  It is a monument to coffee.  Well, that and future president William McKinley.

McKinley served as a Commissary Sergeant in the 23rd Ohio Infantry.  The story goes that on September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, McKinley personally served all the members of the regiment with coffee and hot food.  He undertook this action without orders in response to the conditions of the men, who were tired, hungry, and broken down.  In doing so McKinley passed under fire.

Two years after President McKinley was killed by an assassin, the monument was dedicated on October 13, 1903.  It is a grand affair of white stone and bronze tablets depicting McKinley as soldier and president and his distribution of coffee and food on the battlefield.  A tall shaft topped by an eagle rises into the sky while a robed female perches over the relief of McKinley’s face.  A separate marker along the path to Burnside’s Bridge ensured that visitors know where the monument is, as if you could miss it.  You wonder if the monument would have even been thought of if McKinley had not become president.  If not, we would never have known about the brave actions of supplying food and coffee under fire.

Whether or not McKinley’s actions merit such an elaborate monument, it is certainly an interesting point on the Antietam battlefield.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.  (all photos taken by author)