Historical Markers
John W. Geary Historical Marker
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John W. Geary

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
3rd and Bridge Streets, New Cumberland

Dedication Date:
June 10, 1995

Behind the Marker

John Geary on horseback.
John W. Geary, attributed to J. M Boundy, circa 1867.
John White Geary is among the more interesting figures of the Civil War. Born in Westmoreland County in 1819, he stood 6-feet, 5 and 1/2 half inches tall and weighed at least 200 pounds. Photographs show Geary with a full and luxuriant beard; which he kept black with a preparation that some say led to his death by poisoning in 1873.

Deeply religious, Geary was a teetotaler and abolitionist who would do anything to serve his country and maintain the Union. But he also sported a very bad temper, was egotistical to a fault, and was a tireless self-promoter.

Geary had enjoyed great success in life before the outbreak of the Civil War. After dropping out of what would become Washington and Jefferson University, in order to pay off his deceased father's debts, Geary became a lawyer and a civil engineer.

In the late 1830s he served as an assistant superintendent for the construction of the markerAllegheny Portage Railroad, one of the engineering marvels of its day. When war with Mexico broke out in 1846, Geary went off to war as captain of a local militia company that became part of the 2nd Pennsylvania. Wounded in combat, he used his political connections to become a colonel.
John W. Geary in uniform.
John White Geary, circa 1865.

After the war Geary moved his family to San Francisco, where President James K. Polk appointed him the city's postmaster. In 1850, he became the city's first mayor and spent two stormy years doing things his own way, then returned home to Pennsylvania because his wife had become deathly ill. She passed away in 1853.

Three years later, Geary accepted President Franklin Pierce's offer to become governor of the bloody Kansas territory. Although a Democrat, Geary opposed slavery, which made him a target of repeated threats of assassination. Geary resigned in 1857 when James Buchanan became president, and returned to Pennsylvania, where he farmed, practiced law, and remarried in 1858.

When the Civil War began, Geary moved his family to New Cumberland, got himself commissioned a colonel, and raised the fifteen-company 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment. Promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in early 1862, he was seriously wounded leading a brigade at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9. In late September he returned to duty as commander of the Second Division, Twelfth Corps. His division suffered heavy casualties at Chancellorsville, where Geary distinguished himself with personal bravery.

Geary's three brigades arrived on the Gettysburg battlefield late in the afternoon of July 1. There, markerGeneral Winfield S. Hancock sent Geary's men to the Little Round Top area. After moving over to Culp's Hill, Geary's men erected breastworks to shelter themselves in case of attack. When markerGeneral George G. Meade called for reinforcements, Geary was instructed to leave one brigade behind and take the other two to support the Union left flank. Instead of following the First Division of the corps, Geary got lost, perhaps by following stragglers out the Baltimore Pike, away from the battle.

That night he moved his men back toward Culp's Hill, which his New York brigade had managed to hold in spite of heavy Confederate attacks. In the early morning of July 3, both divisions of the Twelfth Corps, supported by other troops, engaged in four hours of combat, which ended with a Southern withdrawal from the hill.
Battle of Gettysburg, 1870, by Peter Frederick Rothermel, side series, <i>Repulse of General Johnson's Division by General Geary's White Star Division.</i> Artist Peter F. Rothermel painted this Oil on canvas scene of Geary's troops repulsing a Confederate attack on their position on the morning of July 3. In the foreground are soldiers with their backs to the viewer and smoke from their gunfire is thick in front of them. In the far background, a fallen soldier lies on the ground while others are being wounded as they charge forward. A black dog leaps out ahead of the charging soldiers. The dog seen here was the mascot of the 1st Maryland Battalion, and was killed in the assault.
Repulse of General Johnson's Division by General Geary's White Star Division

In the fall of 1863, the Twelfth Corps was transferred to Chattanooga to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland. In the night action at Wauhatchie, Tennessee, on October 28, Geary's son Edward, an artillery officer, was slain. Geary would go on to lead his division in the fighting at Lookout Mountain, throughout the lengthy campaign for Atlanta, Sherman's March to the Sea, and into the Carolinas in 1865.

After the war, Geary was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1866. During his two, three-year terms, Governor Geary showed the same toughness and support of reform that he had demonstrated throughout his life. Battling against the Republican political machine controlled by the Camerons, he fought for relief for working people, pushed the Fifteenth Amendment–which gave African American men the right to vote–through the state legislature, despite stiff opposition, and was a leading advocate for the new 1873 state constitution.

Only eighteen days after leaving office, Geary suddenly died on February 8, 1873. Buried in Harrisburg Cemetery, his grave is marked by a full-scale statue of Geary as a major general, the only statue in the cemetery.
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