John White Geary was a lawyer, Civil War general, mayor and territorial and state governor.
John W. Geary was born on December 30, 1819 in a log house in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania near Mount Pleasant. His parents were Richard and Margaret White Geary. His father was an ironmaster and a schoolmaster. Geary would grow to be six foot five and a half inches tall and weigh 260 pounds, which would be a large man today and was a giant in the 1800’s. John was a very religious teetotaller and abolitionist with a sharp temper.
John began studying the law and civil engineering at age 14 at nearby Jefferson College. He was active in the state militia. But the death of his father interrupted his studies, as John assumed his debts and left school. He worked as a land speculator and surveyor in Kentucky until he could return to college, graduating in 1841.
Geary then went to work as a construction engineer and assistant superintendant for the Allegheny Portage Railroad. He Margaret Ann Logan in 1843, and they would have a number of sons together.
In December of 1846 John was commissioned as captain in what became the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry, and was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel. The regiment was formed at Pittsburg and rafted down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans before taking ship to join Scott’s army at Vera Cruz. He was lightly wounded five times leading his regiment in the storming of Chapultepec Castle. His heroic leadership at the Belen Gate, where the 2nd Pennsylvania was the first regiment inside Mexico City, led to his promotion to colonel. When the fighting was over Geary would be appointed Military Governor of Mexico City. They remained in Mexico City until 1848.
Geary was appointed United States Postmaster for California by President Polk on January 22, 1849. He, his wife and son Edward moved to San Francisco, sailing to Panama and crossing the isthmus, fighting bandits and natives, reaching the city in 1849. On January 8 1850 he was elected Alcalde of the city, the youngest and the last before California became a state. Geary was not a member of the State Constitutional Convention at Monterey but was very influential in persuaing the delegates to adopt the Free State Clause, aligning California against slavery. On May 1, 1850 his office of alcalde turned into that of mayor, San Franciso’s first. He served until May 4, 1851. His wife’s health deteriorated after the birth of their second son, Willie, and caused him to return with his family to Pennsylvania. Geary gifted land to the city that would become Union Square, and Geary Boulevard, a major artery, was named in his honor.
Margaret died in 1853. After his wife’s death Presidant Pierce wanted to appoint Geary governor of Utah Territory, but he declined. But on July 31, 1856 he accepted the appointment of governor of Kansas Territory. Geary did his best to be a neutral peacemaker, disbanding and reforming the existing Kansas militia. He toured the territory to get feedback from the citizens and tried to steer a course between proslavery forces and abolitionists. But he couldn’t escape the conflict. Proslavery men even assaulted his private secretary, Dr. John Gihon.
With the election of James Buchanan to president Geary submitted his resignation. Armed with two guns, Geary left Kansas on March 21 and temporarily returned to Washington. He spoke at a number of public meetings about the troubles in “bleeding Kansas” before returning to his farm in Pennsylvania in 1858. After he returned Geary married the widowed Mary Church Henderson in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The couple soon had a daughter, Mary.
Early Civil War Years
At the beginning of the Civil War Geary raised and outfitted at his own expense the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. In an unusual situation, the regiment raised so many men it mustered in 15 instead of the usual 10 companies, with enough extra recruits to form Pennsylvania Independent Battery E (Knap’s Battery.) In October of 1862 the five extra companies were split off and would become the heart of the 147th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.
Geary commanded along the upper Potomac River, and on March 8, 1862 was wounded and captured near Leesburg. He was quickly exchanged, though, and retuned to his regiment, and on April 25, 1862 was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade in Nathaniel Banks’ Second Corps of the Army of Virginia. At the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, Geary was badly wounded in the arm and leg.
It was October before Geary returned to duty, commanding a division in Henry Slocum’s 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He would continue to command the division, known as the “White Star Division” for its 12th Corps symbol, for the rest of the war. He led his division at the Battle of Chancellorsville, narrowly missing death from a near hit by a cannonball on May 3 that knocked him unconscious.
Battle of Gettysburg
Geary’s division arrived after the fighting on the first day was over, and took up position on the right of the Union line at Culp’s Hill. During Longstreet’s attack on the second day the hard-pressed Union left asked for reinforcements, and Geary was ordered to leave one of his brigades behind and take the other two to reinforce the left. Following what he thought was another division with the same orders (but were probably a group of stragglers) he marched his brigades completely off of the battlefield to the south. He never reached the left flank, but brought his men back to Culp’s Hill before dark, rejoining his remaining brigade who had been involved in a desperate fight against heavy odds.
Transfrer to the West
Slocum’s 12th Corps was transferred to the Western Theater to help save Chattanooga, and Geary’s Division played an important role. At the Battle of Wauhatchee, fought during the night of October 28-29, Geary’s son Edward was killed and died in his arms. Geary did outstanding service at the Battle of Lookout Mountain on November 24, leading the charge up the mountain in what would become known as “the Battle Above the Clouds.” The division went on to fight through the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea.
After Sherman’s army captured Savannah Geary was temporarily made military governor, and received a brevet promotion on January 12, 1865 to Major General of Volunteers for “fitness to command and promptness to execute.” He and his division then took part in the Carolinas Campagin and the surrender of the last Confederate forces in the east.
Postwar Career and Death
Geary was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1867. A lifelong democrat, he was elected as a republican, but built a reputation as a political independent. The second of his three year terms was up in January of 1873. Just three weeks later, on February 8, 1873, he died of a heart attack in Harrisburg at the age of 53.
John Geary is buried in Harrisburg in Mount Kalmia Cemetery (now Harrisburg Cemetery.)
In addition to Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, there are a number of memorials to him around the country. There are Geary Streets in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a Geary Avenue at Gettysburg. There is a Geary Hall dorm building at Pennsylvania State University. Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania has a monument to Geary in its town center. Geary County in Kansas was renamed from Davis County (originally named for Jefferson Davis) in 1889. Geary, Kansas is an entire town that was named for him – but since 1905 it no longer exists!
There is also a mounment to John Geary on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg.