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Major McKinley
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See William Armstrong's other titles in the Bibliography

by William H. Armstrong (PC staff/Ethiopia 1966–68,
PC Director/Swaziland 1968–71)
Kent State University Press, $18.00.
248 pages
May 2000

Reviewed by Ted O. Hall (Peru 1966–68)

IN HIS BOOK, MAJOR McKINLEY, William Armstrong considers the early years of William McKinley, the man who would become President of the United States, particularly his experiences in the Civil War.
     Other than the author’s Peace Corps experience, I was at first confused as to why would select the Civil War experiences of a little known President as the subject for a book review. However, as I began to read, I found the premise: The author makes it clear that the Civil War was our nation’s first great battle for civil rights, and McKinley — raised in an abolitionist family — joined the Union army as a private fully committed to the fight to end the slavery of black Americans. This is really the story of a young man’s idealism and his commitment to civil rights, which ultimately propel him to the pinnacle of political power. The Peace Corps of course was built by committed young idealists, most of whom had a fundamental concern for human and civil rights. After completing the book, I found its subject matter entirely consistent with the Peace Corps experience.
     The final chapter discussing McKinley’s post war life was most provocative. After the war, he continued to work for civil rights — he returned to Ohio, became a lawyer, and worked for Negro Suffrage. Despite being considered a civil rights radical, he was elected to Congress in 1877. And throughout his years in Congress, McKinley continued to speak out for the rights of black Americans.
     In 1896 McKinley was elected President, and at that time his reputation had earned him the respect and following of most in the black community. However, after ascension to the Presidency, he abandoned his lifelong struggle for civil rights, and political unification of the country became his most dedicated effort. As he reached out to integrate the South into the political process, he compromised his former unrelenting advocacy of civil rights.
     McKinley turned out to be a rather inconsequential President. Great Presidents are those who enter office with a clear vision of what it is that they wish to realize while in office, and they leave office seeing their vision flourish. Sadly, McKinley abandoned his vision while in office.
     On closing the book I wondered what history would have recorded had President McKinley continued to pursue his vision of equal rights for black Americans. Would the movement for civil rights in this country have been advanced had he remained true to the great cause of his youth? If so, would he now stand next to the Great Emancipator in reputation, instead of resting in the obscure pages of US history?
     For students of the Civil War, this book is well researched and full of stories of military life during the war. It contains detailed descriptions of many battles that surrounded McKinley’s wartime service. For some, this reading may be a bit tedious, for others it will be a rewarding review of a rarely studied figure in the annals of US history.
Ted Hall is a member of the Southern Nevada Peace Corps Association. He is a published author of legal and accounting texts, and is working on his first novel from his Peace Corps memoirs.
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