John White Geary | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


John White Geary

Soldier. Postmaster. Mayor. General. Governor. You could say John White Geary was the original multi-tasker.

Standing six feet, five inches tall, John White Geary was not only a giant in stature for his times, and but also in the history of the Pennsylvania citizen/soldier/politician.

His earliest brush with battle came as a commanding officer in the Mexican War of 1846, where his Second Pennsylvania Regiment became part of General Winfield Scott's army, invading Mexico by landing at the coastal city of Vera Cruz and marching inland to the capital of Mexico City. Upon landing in Mexico the illness of the Second Regiment's colonel put the duty of leading the regiment on Geary. In the final battle to capture the Mexican capital, the Second Regiment was at the forefront, and several bullets tore through Geary's uniform, but he was not seriously injured.

After only a brief time at home in Pennsylvania, Geary obtained an appointment as postmaster of San Francisco. In early 1849 he sailed with his wife and three sons to that city and soon became its mayor. In 1852 he returned to Pennsylvania due to his wife's poor health. Margaret Geary died in early 1853.

In July 1856 he accepted an appointment from President Franklin Pierce as governor of the Kansas territory. Known at the time as "Bleeding Kansas" due to the violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces, Geary's primary mission was to restore and maintain order. Frustrated with a lack of support from Washington and faced with ill health, Geary resigned eight months later in March 1857, and returned home to his farm. On November 2, 1858, John Geary married Mary Henderson and their daughter Mary was born the following year.

The conflict in Kansas was the prelude to the conflict growing within the country as a whole. The attack on Fort Sumter by Confederate forces brought Geary to action again. Authorized to raise a regiment, Geary equipped and uniformed 1,500 troops that were designated the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Geary was commissioned a colonel and given command, while his youngest son, Willie, joined the regiment as a drummer boy. Edward Geary, John's older son, became a lieutenant in Knap's Battery, an artillery unit that was part of the 28th regiment. Geary led the 28th Pennsylvania through several skirmishes in Virginia before he was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of a brigade. Geary was recovering from a wound when his brigade was assigned to the Army of the Potomac, the main federal force in the eastern theatre of the war. When Geary returned to duty at the end of September 1862, he was placed in command of the second division of the Twelfth Army Corps. This became known as the "White Star Division" after their unit emblem.

Geary commanded the White Star Division during the major battles of 1863 at Chancellorsville, VA, and Gettysburg. After the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps were transferred to the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, TN, and merged as the Twentieth Corps. Geary led the White Star Division during the Atlanta Campaign in early 1864 and during the March to the Sea later that year. The march ended with the occupation of the city of Savannah, GA, in late 1864 and Geary was designated the military governor of the city during the army's occupation. In January 1865, now a major general, Geary continued to lead the White Star Division through the Carolinas until the Confederates surrendered in April.

Upon returning to civilian life, Geary entered politics and became the first of four Civil War generals to be elected Governor of Pennsylvania. During his first term Geary opposed the political power of the railroads, particularly the Pennsylvania Railroad. After 108 miners were killed in the Avondale mine disaster, Geary proposed laws to improve safety in the state's mines. Geary won reelection in 1869, and during his second term, he supported governmental reforms, fiscal responsibility and low taxes to promote economic growth. He advocated the calling of the constitutional convention that produced the Constitution of 1873, and signed laws that reformed and lowered the state's taxes.

John W. Geary's second term as governor ended on January 21, 1873. His retirement was cut short at less than three weeks when he died from heart failure on February 8 at the age of 53. He is buried in Harrisburg Cemetery, though his legacy lives on in the numerous places and buildings named in his honor all across the country. Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, Geary Street in Harrisburg, PA, Geary Hall, a residence at Pennsylvania State University and Geary County, Kansas were all named in honor of this remarkable man.


Information for this section was contributed by Bob Hill.

Image Courtesy of US Army Military History Institute

Secondary Sources
  • Harry Marlin Tinkcom, John White Geary: Soldier-Statesman 1819 – 1873, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.
  • William Alan Blair, A Politician Goes To War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
  • Mary Deforest Geary, A Giant in those days, Brunswick, GA: Coastal Printing Company, 1980.

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