The November 2016 issue of the Pennsylvania Freemason magazine honors those who have served our country in military and civil service. Featured here is a short biography of one Pennsylvania Mason who epitomizes a life of public service. The issue will be delivered to mail boxes during the first week of November.
Brother John White Geary is probably one of the most important and influential Pennsylvanians to have ever knelt at the altar of Freemasonry. Yet, today, few know his name or story. Geary was a dedicated public servant, a Civil War veteran and governor of not just one, but two states. We can learn much from his selfless dedication to doing the right thing, even when it wasn’t the easiest or most popular choice at the time.
He was born on Dec. 30, 1819, in Mt. Pleasant, Pa., in Westmoreland County. Like many Western Pennsylvanians, he was of Scotch-Irish descent. At the age of 14, Geary began attending Jefferson College (now Washington and Jefferson College), in Canonsburg, studying civil engineering and law. However, due to the untimely death of his father, he was forced to withdraw from school and begin working. His jobs included teacher, store clerk, and railroad engineer. Later, he would resume his studies and graduate at age 22. In 1843, he married Ann Logan. The marriage proved fruitful and the couple had several sons. But, Geary’s true passion for public service was soon to find him and change the course of his life.
In 1846, while active with the Pennsylvania Militia, he was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel with the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry. The unit was needed for fighting in the Mexican-American War. Before his departure, however, his Masonic career would begin. He was made a Mason at site in Philanthropy Lodge No. 225.
During the battle of Chapultepec, while leading the assault on Chapultepec Castle, Geary would first rise to fame. While leading his men, he suffered no less than five wounds. Many believe he was an easy target for enemy fire because of his stature. A large man, even by today’s standards, Geary stood 6-foot-6-inches tall and weighed 260 pounds. Noted for his commanding presence during the Mexican-American conflict, he served as military governor of Mexico City, his first administrative post.
Following the conflict, Geary was appointed Postmaster for the City of San Francisco, Calif., by President James K. Polk in 1849. In 1850, he launched a campaign for the office of Alacalde (a traditional Spanish title for a municipal magistrate). This naturally led Geary to offer himself as a candidate for the newly formed office of Mayor of San Francisco, which he won handily, making him the first such office holder of that city. In 1852, he left the West Coast to return to the Commonwealth to care for his ailing wife. Sadly, Ann passed away in 1853. Soon after her death, President Franklin Pierce requested Geary become governor of the Utah Territory, but he declined.
Geary spent three quiet years in Westmoreland County until the call of public service lead him on his next adventure. This time, President Pierce offered him the governorship of the Kansas Territory, which Geary accepted in 1856. Known to be anti-slavery, he was not a popular choice at the time of his appointment. This was a tumultuous period for the Kansas Territory, with bloody civil unrest as a result of the argument over whether Kansas was to be a free or slave state. Pierce was a Southern sympathizer and provided Geary with little support. After only serving one year as governor, Geary resigned and returned to private life in Pennsylvania.
The tribulations that he faced in Kansas were prescient, as the Civil War would again bring Geary out of private life and into the public spotlight. Raising the 147th and 28th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments, Geary ascended to the rank of Colonel and was immediately put into action with his units. On April 25, 1862, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. He and his unit saw action in the Shenandoah Valley, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg battles, among others.
At the conclusion of the war, Geary was in charge of the surrender of the city of Savannah, Ga., receiving a brevet promotion to the rank of Major General and briefly served as military governor of the city. During the surrender, Bro. Geary remembered his Masonic obligations. By placing Federal troops under his command around the quarters of Solomon’s Lodge No. 1, he saved it from looting and damage. Later, the Lodge would send Geary a resolution of thanks while he was serving as governor of Pennsylvania. In his response to the letter he said, “… I feel again justified in referring to our beloved institution, by saying that to Freemasonry the people of the country are indebted for many mitigations of the suffering caused by the direful passions of war.”
Geary’s service was not all heroics, however. During the Battle of Wauhatchie in Tennessee, Geary faced the most difficult day of his life. During the battle, his own son was injured. Arriving upon the scene, Geary cradled him as he passed away from wounds received in the fighting.
Geary returned to the Commonwealth a war hero and quickly found his talents for public service in hot demand. In 1866, he offered himself as a candidate for governor, facing off against Hiester Clymer. Clymer, a noted white supremacist, tried to lampoon Geary’s belief in the equality of man and support of the end of slavery and suffrage for African Americans. Geary never wavered in his belief and won the election. He served two terms as governor of the Commonwealth.
After leaving office, Geary thought he would comfortably retire, but instead, suffered a major heart attack no less than three weeks after ending his gubernatorial service. He died at the age 53.
We can learn much from Bro. Geary’s service to our country and our community. Whether he was leading the charge of battle, assaulting enemy lines or leading the call to abolish slavery and treat all men equally, he was a man of principle and character from start to finish. Every Brother should take Bro. Geary’s story to heart and emulate the example of the most important Pennsylvania Mason that no one knows.
1. Historical Markers John W. Geary [Politics] Historical Marker. (2011). Retrieved August 29, 2016, from http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-3BC
2. John White Geary. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2016, from http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/John-White-Geary.html