Geary, John W.

Encyclopedia entry by ,
Angelo State University

John W. Geary. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Biographical information:

  • Date of birth: December 30, 1819
  • Place of birth: Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania
  • Claim to fame: Lieutenant Colonel in the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry during the Mexican-American War; Mayor of San Francisco, 1850-1851; Governor of Kansas Territory, 1856-1857; Governor of Pennsylvania, 1866-1873; Colonel of the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry; Brigadier General in the Union Army; victor of the Battle of Wauhatchie; mistakenly marched away from the field on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg; namesake of Geary County, Kansas, and San Francisco's Geary Boulevard
  • Political affiliations: Republican Party
  • Date of death: February 8, 1873
  • Place of death: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Cause of death: Heart attack
  • Final resting place: Harrisburg Cemetery, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

John Geary declared that Kansas Territory was in “a state of insurrection” when he became its Democratic governor on September 9, 1856. Clashes between proslavery and Free-Soil settlers threatened to tear Kansas apart. Guerrilla forces plundered homesteads, men raided towns, and neighbors slaughtered neighbors. Geary, who was appointed territorial governor by President Franklin Pierce, attempted to bridge Kansas’s proslavery and Free-State factions. He succeeded in pleasing neither.

A governor rallying soldiers against U.S. citizens in his own territory did not sit well with either the people of Kansas or the federal government.

Shortly after assuming office, Geary deployed over 1,000 federal troops against both proslavery forces that threatened to overrun Lawrence and Free-Soil paramilitary groups. A governor rallying soldiers against U.S. citizens in his own territory did not sit well with either the people of Kansas or the federal government. The use of federal soldiers in Kansas soon alienated him from the Democratic Pierce Administration, which refused to endorse the continued deployment of troops. Without sufficient numbers of troops, Geary’s peace was temporary and volatile.

From the outset, Geary failed to garner solid support from his constituents. The winter of 1856-1857 was particularly harsh for the people of Kansas. The Vermont legislature attempted to ease their suffering by offering the territory $20,000 in aid money. Rather than accept the money, Geary rejected the offer of aid, claiming that Kansas was suffering no more than other territories.

Geary soon found himself at odds with Kansas’s proslavery partisans. For the duration of Geary’s governorship, the official lawmaking body of Kansas, which Geary called the “felon legislature” of “Bleeding Kansas,” was an aggressive proslavery legislature. Meanwhile, Geary struck up a friendship with Free-State advocates Charles Robinson and Samuel Pomeroy. Together, these three men unsuccessfully tried to soften the legislature’s harsh stance toward antislavery forces, sparking suspicions that Geary sided with the Free-State cause, even as he claimed to be neutral.

Proslavery partisans saw their suspicions about Geary confirmed in 1857, when he vetoed their bill allowing for a new constitutional convention at Lecompton, Kansas. Under the bill, the proslavery county sheriffs would enlist voters and the proslavery county commissioners would choose judges of election. They ignored Geary’s veto and passed their bill.

Assassination threats, an assault on Dr. Gihon (Geary’s personal secretary), and what he deemed other “nefarious designs” of proslavery forces in Kansas proved to be too much for Geary. After he attempted to resign as the governor of Kansas Territory, President James Buchanan fired him on March 20, 1857. Geary returned to his native Pennsylvania until the outbreak of war. His previous experiences as the first mayor of San Francisco and as a soldier in the Mexican War had not prepared him for the complex, politically-inspired violence in Kansas.

At the Battle of Wauhatchie, Geary’s son, Eddie, died in his arms. Geary managed to rally his soldiers to victory against a surprise Confederate attack, but the experience left him in a fog of “impenetrable gloom.”

“Bleeding Kansas” influenced Geary’s decision to join the Union Army in April 1862, which led to a military career of mixed success. Beginning as a colonel and later promoted to brigadier general, he fought through cannonball injuries at the Battle of Cedar Mountain and Chancellorsville, and he joined General Ulysses S. Grant in his campaigns at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge during October 1863. One of his greatest achievements came only with a devastating personal loss. At the Battle of Wauhatchie, Geary’s son, Eddie, died in his arms. Geary managed to rally his soldiers to victory against a surprise Confederate attack, but the experience left him in a fog of “impenetrable gloom.”

Geary was not always successful in battle. At Gettysburg, he got lost and mistakenly marched 2,500 soldiers off of the battlefield. His soldiers did not see action that day. Only by luck did they avoid falling into an ambush or otherwise damaging the Union cause in this pivotal battle in American history.

Following the war, in 1867, Geary returned to what he loved best – politics. He served two terms as the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, until 1873. As governor of Pennsylvania, Geary often acted independently of party politics and fought against legislation supporting large businesses, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad. He died on February 8, 1873, shortly after leaving office.

John Geary’s military record was mixed, and as Kansas territorial governor he failed (as did his predecessors and successors) to fashion a peace between its factions. Still, his life accomplishments were sufficient enough to inspire the residents of Davis County, Kansas (originally named after then-Secretary of War and eventual Confederate President Jefferson Davis), to change the county’s name to Geary County in 1889.

Suggested Reading: 

Blair, William Alan, ed. A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Gihon, John H. Geary and Kansas: Governor Geary's Administration in Kansas: .... Philadelphia: C. C. Rhodes, 1857.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Cite this page: 
Wolnisty, Claire. "Geary, John W." Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Nov, 18, 2017 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/geary-john-w

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