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The Bravest Bean: Of Coffee, War, and Presidents

No one in history, perhaps, has ever appreciated a cup of coffee more than a soldier. A soldier on active duty? Even more so. A soldier involved in what would come to be known as the bloodiest battle on U.S. soil to this day? More than we can imagine…. So what if you were that soldier, […]

No one in history, perhaps, has ever appreciated a cup of coffee more than a soldier. A soldier on active duty? Even more so. A soldier involved in what would come to be known as the bloodiest battle on U.S. soil to this day? More than we can imagine….

So what if you were that soldier, and what if the person delivering you that warm cup of coffee, a real battlefield brew, would later become the President of the United States?

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“Coffee Bill” William McKinley.

William McKinley has to be a strong contender for the title of Most Under-appreciated President. He was our 25th president (which you ought to remember, because it’s easy). He has over a dozen monuments dedicated to him across the country. He once had our nation’s highest mountain named for him, Mount McKinley, until it was officially renamed “Denali”. He was the last Civil War veteran to serve as President. And he ushered the United States into a new period of modernity: from the 19th century to the 20th century, his period of Presidency is marked by both global expansion of U.S. influence as well as economic policies that favored domestic growth.

OK, So He Was a Great President, But What Does He Have to Do With Coffee?

William McKinley was born in 1843. He enlisted in the Union Army in Ohio in 1861, when he was just 18 years old and the Civil War was just taking shape. In less than a year, he found himself promoted to commissary sergeant, a position responsible for overseeing the dispensation of food and supplies to the soldiers– and that includes coffee. Coffee was crucial to Civil War soldiers: in the 1850s, Andrew Jackson added a daily coffee allotment to Army soldiers, as a more cost-effective and morally-upright alternative to the traditional rum/whiskey ration. Soldiers received a little over an ounce a day of coffee, often in green bean form, which they roasted for themselves in iron pans over campfires.

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Coffee Klaatsch in 1862. Photo from beaverheritage.org

Coffee became a comfort beverage, a little luxury, and an important part of a soldier’s routine and morale. As Captain Robert K. Beecham wrote in his book Gettysburg: The Pivotal Battle of the Civil War,

The power of the soldiers to endure the fatigue of the march and keep their places in the ranks was greatly enhanced by an opportunity to brew a cup of coffee by the wayside.

“Battle Barista” William McKinley

In 1862, McKinley’s regiment joined the Army of the Potomac in its march to cut off the Confederacy’s northward advance; this mission would shortly become the Battle of Antietam, memorable as the bloodiest battle ever fought on U.S. soil. A grueling experience for both sides, the battle of Antietam would last the entire day and cost 23,000 casualties, nine times greater than the number of American casualties on D-Day during World War II.

Rutherford B. Hayes, another future president and an officer in the same regiment as McKinley, describes it:

That battle began at daylight. Before daylight men were in the ranks and preparing for it. Without breakfast, without coffee, they went into the fight, and it continued until after the sun had set. Early in the afternoon, naturally enough, with the exertion required of the men, they were famished and thirsty, and to some extent broken in spirit.

Cue young William McKinley, newly-appointed commissary sergeant, who leapt into his own form of duty: preparing sandwiches and coffee for the fighting men and setting off, with two wagons in tow, for battlefront delivery. He wasn’t aware, he later reported, that serving men during active battle was not part of his expected duties. He did it anyway.

As the story goes,

It was nearly dusk when we heard tremendous cheering from the left of our regiment. As we had been having heavy fighting right up to this time, our division commander, General Scammon, sent me to find out the cause which I very soon found to be cheers for McKinley and his hot coffee.

–General J.L. Botsford, Quoted in The Life of William McKinley: Soldier, Lawyer, Statesman, by Robert P. Porter. Cleveland, 1896

A Monument to Hot Coffee, Warm Food, and Bravery

President McKinley was killed by an assassin on September 14th, 1901. After his death, a monument to William McKinley was erected on Antietam battlefield, which you can visit to this day. The text on the monument reads as follows:

Sergeant McKinley Co E. 23rd Ohio Vol. Infantry, while in charge of the Commissary Department, on the afternoon of the day of the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, personally and without orders served hot coffee and warm food to every man in the Regiment, on this spot and in doing so had to pass under fire.

"Hot Coffee" McKinley Monument at Antietam

McKinley Monument at Antietam

The monument includes a carved depiction of William McKinley handing a cup of coffee to a soldier:

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Funnily enough, there’s a small roadside monument in Wilmington, Delaware, added only a few years later in 1908, that also includes a relief of teenaged McKinley slinging battlefield brew to his colleagues.

McKinley Coffee Monument Delaware

Image from roadsideamerica.com.

This Memorial Day, Raise a Mug

Antietam was an important battle, considered a key Union victory, and one that led to Abraham Lincoln’s landmark Emancipation Proclamation. And sometimes, it’s the things that seem most insignificant that make a significant impact. Who knows what difference a cup of coffee can make? To one person; to a hundred people; to a battle; to a war.

As we at the Beanery get ready to celebrate Memorial Day, our thoughts turn to stories like this, and the role coffee has had in bolstering the bodies and spirits of those who have been in active service. We say a silent thank you for their sacrifice and raise a mug to every soldier, and every small act of bravery: as important to our country, today, as every small bean is to a great cup of coffee.

Cheers, and Happy Memorial Day!

 Team Bean Box
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