John W. Geary: The Epic Biopic

Zoe Kazan: ok let’s play a game. what is the historical event/person you want someone to make a big epic movie about, except they never will because it would cost 100 million dollars & like three people would go see it?

Mack: John W. Geary has a hell of a life story. He was a solidier, Union General, postmaster, alcalde and mayor of San Francisco, governor of the Kansas Territory, and finally governor of Pennsylvania. Wounded at least 10 times in various battles. In SF, Geary Blvd is named for him.


The first act of the John Geary Biopic (JGBP) would center on the Battle of Chapultepec, during the Mexican American War: An assault on a castle in Mexico City that was an important defensive position and a wildly cinematic battle with enough plot twists and heroics on both sides to fill a Ken Burns documentary. Geary was wounded five times during the battle and still led his regiment to victory.


Returning from the Mexican American war as a Colonel, the next act of the JGBP is his appointment as postmaster of San Francisco by President Polk. Geary had just turned 29 (born Dec 30 1819, we just passed his 200th birthday!). A year later he was elected as the last alcalde of San Francisco, including serving as the judge of a very rowdy town in the grip of the gold rush. California became a state and Geary became the first mayor of city, and is still the youngest person to hold the post. He returned to the East coast because his wife fell ill, however she died in 1853.


The third act of the JGBP begins with his appointment by President Franklin Pierce as governor of the Kansas Territory. Geary has to somehow keep the peace during Bleeding Kansas, where the ideological and political debate between pro-slavery and free-staters was murderous. Though not initially an abolitionist Geary quickly became one, and was in constant conflict with the pro-slavery legislature.

In this act of the JGBP, his personal safety is constantly in question. His efforts to stem the bloodshed and guide Kansas toward free statehood were unpopular and he was not reappointed by President Buchanan. He fled eastward armed with two guns under cover of darkness.


The fourth act is by far the most dramatic, and is steeped in the bloodshed of the Civil War. He raises regiments and enters the theater of war, is immediately wounded and captured, exchanged, and returns to service. After his captivity he was promoted and took command of a brigade and was engaged in the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia. Among the confederate commanders Geary faced in this overnight battle was Robert E Lee; Lee fought alongside Geary at the battle of Chapultepec. Cedar Mountain was a Union defeat, and Geary was wounded in the arm and leg. Despite the severity of his injuries, he returned to service two months later, as a division commander. At the battle of Chancellorsville, Geary was grazed by a cannonball and knocked unconscious. As the war dragged on, Geary was also involved in the battle of Gettysburg.

In October of 1863 Geary’s under-strength brigade was defending Union supply lines near an important bridge over the Tennessee River, and were taken by surprise in a nighttime raid. This was the battle of Wauhatchie. Geary’s position was blocked from reinforcements, and Geary’s son, Edward, was fighting under his father’s command in the artillery. Edward was mortally wounded in the fighting, and died in John Geary’s arms. Despite being cut off and beginning to run out of ammunition, Geary led the beleaguered soldiers through the night and they held fast in their defense. In the morning reinforcements arrived and the confederates were forced to withdraw, thus solidifying the union supply lines.

Though he lost his son, Geary remained in command through more battles and Sherman’s march to the sea. Geary oversaw the surrender of Savannah and was military governor of the city. This ends the fourth act of the JGBP.


The final act is concerned with Geary’s campaign to become governor of Pennsylvania. Geary’s opponent, Hiester Clymer, ran with white supremacy as his platform. Clymer attacked Geary’s support of suffrage for black Pennsylvanians. Geary won the election and served two terms as governor, working to curtail special interest legislation, particularly to oppose the political power of the railroads.

Less than a month after his second term ended, Geary suffered a heart attack while preparing breakfast for his infant son by his second wife, Mary Church Henderson. These are the final moments of the life of John W Geary. He died at 53 years old.

Geary was physically huge (6 foot 6) and his tendency to overcome injuries in battle made him a literally imposing figure, but his life is marked by service in a series of remarkable pivotal moments in American history. Arriving in San Francisco is something many people did in 1849, but a young postmaster becomes so popular that he is leading the booming city and responsible for the people’s welfare while the city practically burnt to the ground several times between 1849 and 1851. His term in office in Kansas was critical to the future of America, and the cause of abolition. As the country was at the precipice of war, a resolve to make Kansas free and stop the expansion of American slavery was so important to the cause of emancipation.