I ran across this article I'd written for Masonic Travels back in 2009. It's a great story, so I thought I'd share it again. It's one of those stories I ran across too late to use in the Famous American Freemasons series--I'd already profiled William McKinley when I discovered it.
25th President of the United States
The Battle of Opequam took place in Virginia very near the end of the Civil War in Virginia-very shortly before the decisive Union victory at Gettysburg. The battle is more commonly referred to today as the last battle of Winchester. Winchester, Virginia, where this battle took place, was a hot-spot during the Civil War, and it was very well defended by the Confederate Army. Three major battles were fought there during the war. The Union Army won only the last one.
Shortly after the last battle of Winchester had been fought and won by the Union, a Union officer went with his friend, a surgeon, to a field where about 5,000 Confederate prisoners from the battle were being held under guard.
Very shortly after they passed the guard, the officer noticed his friend, the doctor, was talking to and shaking hands with some of the Confederate prisoners. He also noticed that the doctor was handing out money from a roll of bills he had in his pocket. It was a considerable sum of money the doctor was handing out, and he handed it all out before rejoining his friend.
The Union officer wasn’t sure what he’d seen. Curious, he asked the doctor about it after they left the camp.
“Did you know these men or ever see them before?”
“No,” replied the doctor, “I never saw them before.”
“But,” he persisted, “you gave them a lot of money, all you had about you. Do you ever expect to get it back?”
“Well,” said the doctor, “if they are able to pay me back, they will. But it makes no difference to me; they are Brother Masons in trouble and I am only doing my duty.”
The Union officer decided at that moment to become a Freemason. He recalled thinking to himself, “If that is Freemasonry, I will take some of it for myself.”
That Union officer’s name was William McKinley. He would later become the 25th President of the United States. On May 3, 1865, a few months after visiting that camp with his friend, he became a Freemason at Hiram Lodge No. 21, in Winchester, Virginia.
If I stopped right here, I think I’ve told a pretty good story. It’s a story that tells us a lot about the character of one of the most virtuous men that ever sat in the office of President of the United States-a man who was moved to join Freemasonry after witnessing an act of kindness and charity.
But there is another side of this story-a side that reveals a great deal about the character of the institution that McKinley had resolved to join.
McKinley was true to his word. He took his degrees in Winchester just few weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and just two weeks after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater. To say this was a tumultuous time in American history is an understatement. This was a period in our history when emotions ran high on both sides. Many in the North felt the South should be punished for the war and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Many in the South who felt General Lee shouldn’t have surrendered the Army rallied to raise the Confederate Army again. Most citizens on both sides of the conflict wondered if the wounds of the Civil War could ever be healed.
However, at the height of this turbulent time in our history, a group of Masons in Winchester, Virginia, put their differences aside, and together, North and South, put on the degrees. In fact, the Worshipful Master of Hiram Lodge No. 21 was a Confederate chaplain, and along with Masons that had served in both the Union and Confederate Armies, they performed the degrees. William McKinley was raised a Master Mason.
William McKinley is often overlooked by history-actually much of the reason for this oversight was his exemplary character. He was trusted. He listened much more than he spoke. He was willing to admit when he was wrong. But McKinley’s greatest character trait was his honesty and integrity. He twice turned down the nomination for President because he felt each time that the Republican Party had violated its own rules in nominating him. He squashed the nomination both times-something a politician today would probably view as an unthinkable act.
Politics at the turn of the last century is much as it is today-full of scandal, corruption, and greed. McKinley was pretty boring compared to many of his contemporaries. Never embroiled in a personal scandal or controversy, McKinley’s virtuous character hasn’t given historians and biographers much to comment on. And of course, it didn’t help McKinley’s memory that he was assassinated before his full vision for America could be realized. He accomplished some remarkable things, won the Spanish-American War, and began many more important projects and initiatives. Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley’s larger-than-life successor, often receives credit for completing many of the initiatives that William McKinley actually began.
William McKinley is a very good example of what a true and upright Mason should be.