Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

John White Geary (1819–1873) was a courageous individual who gallantly served his country, fighting in both the Mexican War of 1846–1848 and the American Civil War, and dutifully led his Commonwealth as governor for two consecutive terms, from 1867 to 1873.

Born near Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, he attended Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Washington County, from which he graduated in 1841. He worked as a clerk in Pittsburgh following graduation but began studying law and civil engineering. He eventually became assistant superintendent of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Geary made his first foray into military service in 1835 when he joined a militia company as its lieutenant. In December 1846 he organized the American Highlanders, a company of Cambria County soldiers which was incorporated in the 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment as Company B. Captain Geary and his soldiers took part in General Winfield Scott’s invasion of Mexico and successfully stormed Chapultepec Castle which defended the western approach to Mexico City on September 13, 1847. Mexico City surrendered the following day and Geary served as its first U.S. commandant. He became colonel of the 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteers less than two months later. For his commendable service during the war, President James K. Polk appointed Geary the first postmaster of San Francisco, California, on January 22, 1849. The city’s voters elected him their first mayor in 1850. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1852. Four years later President Franklin Pierce appointed him governor of the controversial Kansas Territory. Geary again returned to the Keystone State in 1858.

In late June 1861 Geary was mustered into military service not long after the outbreak of the American Civil War at the age of forty-one and made colonel of the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The regiment’s first major engagement with the enemy occurred in October at Bolivar Heights, near Harpers Ferry. His rise in the ranks of the Union Army was meteoric, and he saw action at Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wauhatchie, Lookout Mountain, and Mission (or Missionary) Ridge. The year after the war ended Geary campaigned for the governor’s office in Harrisburg against Hiester Clymer and won.

On September 20, 1863, Brigadier General Geary was presented his White Star Division Identity Badge by “His Staff with Love and Esteem.” The badge is elegantly engraved with the names of the battles in which Geary’s White Star Division fought. Made predominantly of silver and trimmed with brass, the badge is inset with small rubies set in brass sockets. The obverse side of the presentation badge is missing its original eagle motif within a silver star.

One hundred years after the badge was presented to Geary, it was found on June 6, 1963, on the grounds of Fort Simcoe, a fortification established in Washington state by the U.S. Army to house soldiers assigned to monitor the activities of Native Americans. Historians believe Geary’s estate sent the badge to his brother, Edward R. Geary, who lived in Oregon. The badge was given to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1972 and is in the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg.

Geary’s White Star Identity Badge appeared as an illustration in Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders, written by PHMC staff member Richard C. Saylor and published by the Commission in 2010. Copies of the lavishly illustrated and national award-winning book can be purchased at The State Museum Store.