As a follow on to my previous posts regarding leadership in the Cavalry Corps, I am going to focus this month on one officer who appeared repeatedly in early drafts of my new Small but Important Riots manuscript. Unfortunately, he always appeared on the periphery of the story, and wound up being excised from most of the narrative in favor of a fast-paced tightly focused account. He did not appear on the margins of the story due to incompetence, however. Rather, I believe he appears on the margins for the exact opposite reason.
In his study Wellington at Waterloo, author Jac Weller speaks of Wellington, who had led cavalry early in his career, as having little use for his mounted arm later in his career. Wellington did so, in part, because he believed his horsemen lacked “officers of professional competence.” Though Wellington never questioned the bravery of his officers, “he doubted,” according to another historian, their tactical skill. Wellington is cited as writing, “I considered our cavalry …inferior to the French from want of order… As numbers increase, order becomes more necessary. Our men…could not preserve their order.” He saw officers as “the worst offenders.”
By way of bracketing the Civil War, let me cite a comment attributed to the legendary Col. Selah Tompkins, 7th Cavalry, in the early-20th Century. “I have 400 men who have never seen a horse, 400 horses who have never seen a man, and 12 officers who have never seen a man or a horse.”
During the Civil War, Col. Robert Williams, 1st Massachusetts, opined that cavalry officers needed “talents and physical capacity of high order,” including a “quick, active intellect.” He believed an officer should be “capable of leading his men…into the most desperate encounters with coolness [and] the greatest rapidity…above all, should admit nothing, in the power of man and horse to accomplish, as impossible.” In referring to specific officers within his regiment, Williams spoke of them as either possessing or lacking what he termed “energy of mind.”
Rather than offering commissions to the most popular men or the most religious men, one wartime governor sought to offer commissions to men who “had been trained to learn.” One regimental commander sought men with “the impulsive ardor of the morning of life.” Others used words like vigor and vitality. Whatever the phrase, cavalry officers needed quick agile minds. They needed to be able to process information quickly and respond instantly and instinctively. Cavalry relied upon speed and momentum and cavalry officers needed to be able to process the ever-changing battlefield quicker than their men moved in a charge.
The basic fighting component of the cavalry was the two-company squadron, led by a captain or a lieutenant. Beyond the battlefield, the nature of cavalry service during the war, especially the daily routine of picket and reconnaissance duty placed a premium on talented captains and lieutenants. In today’s vernacular, we might refer to them as self-starters, men who could think for themselves without relying upon a senior officer to tell what to do and when to do it. And so, we come to the subject of this post – Capt. Samuel McKee, 1st U.S. Cavalry.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Samuel McKee received an appointment to West Point from Utah in 1854. Unfortunately, his academy application file provides little information regarding his youth, his family or why he was in Utah.
Upon being graduated in 1858, McKee received an appointment to the 3rd U.S. Mounted Rifles before being transferred to the 1st Dragoons in 1859 and heading west for duty at Fort Tejon, California. He married Matilda H. Finley in 1860. She died in childbirth the following October, shortly before McKee and his regiment sailed from California to Washington, D.C. Upon arriving, McKee, who had been promoted to captain in November, took command of Company B.
Neither Brig. Gen. John Buford, commanding the Regulars, nor Capt. Richard Lord, commanding the 1st U.S., mention McKee in their reports of the Stoneman Raid, though I believe he led his company during the raid. Stoneman’s efforts in late-April and early-May 1863 did little to aid army commander Joseph Hooker’s spring campaign but proved especially destructive to the command’s horses.
Throughout the several months during which the Army of the Potomac remained camped in Stafford County, along the Rappahannock River, the Cavalry Corps maintained remount and rehabilitation facilities at Dumfries, Stafford Court House, and Point Pleasonton (also known as Pleasonton’s Landing). Several notable officers oversaw one or more of the depots, including Alfred Duffie and William Gamble. Duffie failed miserably and lasted only a few days before being replaced. Buford’s Regulars camped near Dumfries following the raid, and on June 3, and at Buford’s direction, Captain McKee took command of the facility at Dumfries. He arrived with ten men from the 6th Pennsylvania and asked that he be allowed to retain the men, as “they are much needed here.”
Several thousand men remained at the three facilities awaiting fresh horses, when their comrades moved toward the Rappahannock River on June 8, in preparation for their attack the following morning. The large number of men awaiting fresh horses forced Pleasonton to take two brigades of infantry with him as a means of replacing the missing men. Shortly after the fight at Brandy Station, McKee asked the regiment’s commanding officer, “Will the regiment make an effort to procure the body of Col. Davis & send it to West Point to be buried in our ground?” Benjamin Franklin Davis had been a comrade of McKee’s in the 1st Cavalry before accepting a volunteer commission as colonel of the 8th New York. In the opening moments of the fight on June 9, Davis had been mortally wounded. That McKee did not know that Davis had been carried from the field before he died suggests he had remained at the remount facility and missed the battle.
Losses incurred on June 9, both men and horses, exacerbated the manpower concerns within the corps and prompted General Pleasonton to tell McKee to “forward the men from your camp as fast as they are mounted.” Three hundred horses reached Aquia Landing on June 13, earmarked for McKee, who was told by a quartermaster at the landing to take custody of them immediately. Two hundred additional horses may have been waiting at the landing, as the same officer told Pleasonton that he could now mount 500 men. The officer also told a subordinate to “issue what horses are on hand to dismounted men of the Regular Brigade. Fill that up first.” These 500 men would have been from McKee’s camp at Dumfries, but other events now interfered, leaving questions as to the exact the number of men remounted at the time.
On June 13, the long march to Gettysburg began when Hooker ordered his men to evacuate their camps and supply depots, including the remount facilities, along the Rappahannock River. The last horses to reach Dumfries arrived unshod. Without time to shoe the horses and forward them to the Cavalry Corps, McKee had to drive the freshly arrived horses, along with the horses being rehabilitated, back to the depots at Alexandria. In other words, the fresh horses now walked back to where they had been put aboard ships a few days earlier. At least 1,000 troopers and even more horses joined the throngs of soldiers, wagons, and every other piece of equipment heading north in two vast columns. In a contemporary letter, a trooper from the 9th New York counted men from the 6th and 8th New York, along with comrades from his own regiment, as well as troopers from the 6th, 8th, and 17th Pennsylvania, all under the command of Capt. Wilbur Bentley, 9th New York. The postwar regimental history for the 9th New York suggests men from the 8th Illinois, 3rd Indiana, and 3rd West Virginia may also have been part of the large detachment. All these men came from Point Pleasonton. They met McKee’s regulars at Dumfries, with McKee assuming overall command.
The men did not leave the depot at Dumfries until June 15, after another 300 freshly remounted men had been sent to their regiments. The fluid nature of the situation as the army evacuated the depots in Stafford County left McKee in a tug-of-war between Pleasonton, his corps commander, and Hooker, his army commander. Pleasonton wanted the captain to send his remounted men to join their comrades near Manassas. Hooker, on the other hand wanted McKee’s mounted force to join him at Fairfax Station, while his dismounted men, about 500, continued to Alexandria. In the end, McKee’s entire force proceeded to Alexandria where 500 horses, enough to mount the remainder of the force, waited. Reaching Alexandria in the evening after a wearisome march, McKee found a message from Hooker telling him to “have your command ready to march at daylight the 17th sabres ground, horses shod and all in order.” As badly as Pleasonton needed McKee’s men, Hooker had other plans for the brigade-size force.
Commanding 1,000 men from nine or more regiments would have required an especially competent officer. A certain number of the men were almost certainly the laggards and skulkers who traded the rigors and dangers of front-line service for the ease and safety of the depots by abusing their animals. Once in the city of Alexandria, with Washington, D.C. just across the river, a certain number of these men might easily have slipped away from the command if not for the watchful eye of an especially attentive commander. Volunteers also tended to resist or rebel against regular army discipline and would have tested Captain McKee’s mettle from the start. McKee, or possibly General Buford, had found a way to ease this last concern by placing Captain Bentley in command of the volunteers, while McKee retained overall command.
The confusion concerning McKee’s ultimate destination continued the following day, when McKee told Hooker, “Every effort is being made to equip my command and shoe their horses as rapidly as possible. I will have every available man ready to move tomorrow morning.” McKee closed by telling Hooker, “We cannot equip them all.” Though he did not explain his statement further, other records confirm a shortage of vital items such as saddles and carbines.
McKee’s message suggests he planned to meet Hooker the next day. However, Gen. Rufus Ingalls, Hooker’s quartermaster, believed McKee would rejoin Pleasonton, and told the corps commander, “McKee is fitting up at Alexandria. Am giving him 500 horses today. He will join you tomorrow I suppose.”
Shortly before 3 a.m., June 17, McKee advised Hooker, “Command will move and be in position as directed.” Though McKee did not mention his destination, a trooper’s letter details the route the command followed on June 17. Rather than marching west toward Fairfax Station or Manassas, McKee led the column north on what the trooper termed a “forced march.” Under a scorching sun, the men crossed the Aqueduct Bridge into Georgetown. McKee then followed the C&O Canal northwesterly for several miles before again turning north to Rockville, Maryland. There, McKee turned west, churning up clouds of dust as the men passed through Poolesville. Continuing to the small hamlet of Monocacy, Maryland, the men received a hasty fusillade of gunfire from Confederate pickets, who then “fled as soon as possible.”
Late that evening and after the bloody fight at Aldie, Pleasonton learned from Hooker that McKee, with all the men who “could be gotten ready,” was at the mouth of the Monocacy River. According to Hooker’s aide, Daniel Butterfield, two infantry regiments and a battalion of engineers and their bridging equipment were to meet McKee the following day. Butterfield then told Pleasonton “If you want assistance, you can send for McKee and the infantry, if within your reach.” Hooker’s largesse did not last long, however, and McKee continued to find himself caught between the needs of his two superiors.
On the chance he would have to cross the Potomac River, Hooker had begun to consider several possible crossing points. By June 17, and with elements of his army nearing the river, Hooker needed to secure the fords being considered. Captain McKee’s force proved to be available and large enough to meet Hooker’s immediate needs. Having met the challenge of shepherding 1,000 men from Dumfries to Alexandria, McKee now found himself on the north bank of the Potomac River, charged with the vital mission of securing the several fords and protecting the engineers and bridging equipment until infantry reached the south bank.
At 4 a.m., June 18, McKee told one of Hooker’s aides, “Have the bridge. No enemy here now.” Five hours later, he received instructions from Hooker to “seize and hold Noland’s and Hauling Fords,” upstream from Leesburg. By mid-afternoon, he had secured Hauling Ford, but he did not mention Nolands Ford (also known as Nolands Ferry). He also reported the arrival of the pontoon train but he still waited for the promised Union infantry.
Confusion mounted as Hooker’s orders regarding the bridge went to Henry Benham, commander of the engineer brigade. But Benham was in Washington, and the orders were not reaching the engineers at Monocacy. So even though Benham explained on June 18 that he had received instructions at 2 a.m. the previous day to build the bridge “at Noland’s Ford by noon of the 18th,” his engineers remained in the dark. As Maj. Ira Spaulding told Benham from Monocacy on the 18th, “I have no orders where and when to build the bridge.” On the 19th, and contrary to what he had said the previous day, Benham told one of Hooker’s aides, the engineers at Monocacy “are in doubt where to lay the bridge as the Head Quarters order of about noon of the 17th only ordered the trains to the Monocacy but did not order the bridge be laid.” According to Benham, Spaulding deemed McKee’s cavalry as insufficient to protect the engineers and their equipment. Benham also relayed the anxiety that must have gripped everyone at Monocacy, when he mentioned that McKee and the engineers could hear the fighting around Middleburg, without knowing what the fighting indicated. Benham reported that McKee had sent a party of men across the river the previous night looking for the promised infantry. “Until something is heard from the head of our column,” Benham continued, the fighting “would seem to endanger the …bridge.
As further evidence of the confusion, one of Hooker’s aides told Pleasonton on the 19th, “As soon as you know that McKee can come on and reach you by Leesburg, Virginia, order him to join you. Of course, you will only do so when you are sure that he can do so without danger to his command.”
The following day, June 20, Hooker’s aide reversed himself regarding McKee, telling the captain to hold his position until he received further orders. When Southern cavalry made a dash into Frederick, Maryland, McKee sent men from the 2nd U.S. to help repulse the incursion. Officials also began to worry about Southern troops signaling and intercepting Union signals from a post along the dominating heights of Sugarloaf Mountain. These incidents did nothing to relieve concerns regarding the safety of the bridging equipment.
That Hooker had yet to settle upon a crossing point only added to the uncertainty. By June 19, Hooker had begun to shift his attention to Edwards Ferry, but as an aide told Major Spaulding, “Do not lay the bridge at Edwards Ferry, but hold it there in readiness until further orders.” On the 21st an aide asked McKee to report the depth of the water running over Nolands and Hauling fords and to report if they were “practicable for infantry and artillery?” Hooker also told McKee to “send one portion of your force to Middletown, Maryland, another to Frederick City, [to] capture or destroy any raiders of the enemy in that vicinity, reconnoiter South Mountain Pass and Crampton Pass if they are not held by forces and report by telegraph from Frederick City.” Hooker then admonished, “Keep your command together or divide according to best information you can get.” Hooker then told Pleasonton, “Capt. McKee has been ordered to drive out the marauders between Frederick City and Smith Mountain.” An hour later, Hooker countermanded the order, as he now believed “only 17 men came into Frederick.” With the situation appearing to stabilize, the army commander told McKee to “remain where you are.”
The following day, June 22, Hooker instructed McKee to “patrol the river from the mouth of the Monocacy to Sandy Hook,” Maryland, where he would link up with troops from Gen. Daniel Tyler’s command. But after the heavy fighting the previous day around Upperville, Pleasonton needed men and McKee’s command represented a ready source of veteran manpower. Judging McKee to have 1,100 men with him (200 more men than in the entire Regular Brigade), Pleasonton asked that his men “and all other effective men of this command may be ordered to join me at once…If it is deemed necessary that a force from this corps should remain on the Upper Potomac, I request permission to relieve Captain McKee by a regular organized force,” preferably pulled from Washington.
At 11:15 a.m., June 23, McKee confirmed that he had patrolled to Sandy Hook the previous day as ordered and contacted General Tyler. Other men from his command had reconnoitered the area around Frederick and contacted General Slocum, commander of the XII Corps, whose troops now held the south bank of the river. McKee also mentioned Chick’s Ford, one mile below Nolands Ferry. Twelve hours later, Hooker finally released McKee, telling him to report with his command to Pleasonton at Aldie in the morning. But he directed McKee to cross at Chick’s Ford, “if practicable.” Clearly, Hooker was still considering alternatives. Chick’s Ford briefly took center stage, as Hooker followed up by asking McKee, and Slocum, “Is Chick’s Ford practicable for infantry? How far from Leesburg and how good [is the] road?” About six hours later, McKee reported the ford “practicable for infantry. Distance to Leesburg from this point, 13 miles; road good.”
Slocum had reached Leesburg on the afternoon of June 18 and immediately recommended erecting the pontoon bridge at Edwards Ferry, as he deemed it the “most accessible” as well as being protected by several redoubts. He had earlier reported Nolands Ford “as not practicable, even for infantry,” and had suggested White’s Ford, three miles above Edwards Ferry as “the best ford in this vicinity.” As to Chick’s Ford, Slocum deemed it “practicable for cavalry and infantry, but not for artillery or trains.” Hooker ordered the bridging materials to Edwards Ferry the following day but told Slocum the bridge was not to be laid until he sent further orders.
The wider width of the river at Edwards Ferry led to further delays, however, as additional equipment had to be brought up. The necessary delays led Hooker to consider other points, including White’s Ford and Chick’s Ford, before fully committing to Edwards Ferry.
With questions regarding the bridging location finally settled and sufficient infantry now in the area, Hooker released McKee on June 24, telling Pleasonton, “Captain McKee is under orders to report to you today with his whole command.” But a question remains – did he report with his entire command?
The June 30 muster roll for the 1st U.S. Cavalry shows Captain McKee present and in command of Company B. However, a letter written on July 2 by the trooper from the 9th New York, suggests that some portion of McKee’s large detachment returned to Washington, D.C. The copy is difficult to read, but some portion of McKee’s command returned to the capital on June 29 and joined another contingent of dismounted and freshly remounted men, as well as several new regiments, commanded by Col. Percy Wyndham. Wyndham retained the men as a last-ditch defensive force for the capital. Worth noting is the trooper’s estimate of the number of men under Wyndham’s command. “We have now about 5,000 which are mostly supplied with new equipments (The O.R. credits Wyndham with 3,300 men as of June 30).”
As for McKee, he largely slips from the historical record. According to historian Don Caughey, McKee was in New York from August 23, 1863 to January 14, 1864, serving with Gen. Romeyn Ayres, as well as a stint on inspection duty for the Cavalry Bureau in Syracuse.
Mortally wounded in fighting around Cold Harbor on May 31, 1864, Samuel McKee died on June 3. Almost certainly at his request, McKee’s remains were transported to California and buried alongside his wife in Los Angles.
Comrade and fellow captain in the 1st U.S., George Sanford termed McKee “perhaps the best drill officer I have ever known.” His loss, in Sanford’s words, “deprived the regiment of one of the finest and best loved officers who ever followed its colors.”
Capt. Charles Leoser, 2nd U.S., remembered McKee as “as gallant a soldier as ever drew a sabre, and as faithful a friend and as courteous a gentleman as the world has ever seen…”
In his report of June 26, 1864, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt said of McKee, “During the night (of May 29) the picket of the First US Cavalry, commanded by Captain McKee, gave a severe fright and some punishment to a portion of the South Carolina brigade…who came upon them during the night…On the 31st or May…I accompanied the First Cavalry and was convinced that the work would be well done, and quickly. The gallant Captain McKee, leading his battalion of the First, saw what was wanted and, together with the Second Cavalry, promptly turned the enemy’s works, advancing under a galling fire from infantry and cavalry…we lost Captain McKee…who fell mortally wounded in the midst of victory. His loss to the country and service was incalculable. A pure, unaffected, modest man, a chivalrous, educated, accomplished soldier, he fell at the post of honor doing his duty as but few could, and died a true American soldier with warm words of patriotism and valor on his lips.”
Division command Alfred Torbert echoed Merritt, saying of McKee, “One of the severest losses the division and the cavalry service sustained on the 31st was the untimely death of Captain McKee… [no more gallant and accomplished soldier has given his life for his bleeding country].
Captain McKee did not lead his men through any “desperate encounters” during his stint in independent command in June 1863. But he must have been a bit out of his comfort zone. Used to commanding one company (when he returned to his regiment McKee was the only officer in a company of 33 men), McKee had suddenly found himself commanding a brigade. He had done so while posted on the far side of the Potomac River from the rest of the army and while tasked with several challenges, including securing the bridging equipment needed to carry the army across the river and on to Pennsylvania. Though largely forgotten today, Capt. Samuel McKee personifies the important but often overlooked change that had taken place with the Union Cavalry Corps – the growth of the junior officers.
Unpublished documents from the National Archives
The Official Records
Los Angeles Herald
San Antonio Light
Richard F. Miller, “Brahmin Janissaries: John A. Andrew Mobilizes Massachusetts’ Upper Class for the Civil War,” The New England Quarterly (June 2002)
Newel Cheney, History of the Ninth Regiment, New York Volunteer Cavalry
Benjamin Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers
George H. Gordon, Brook Farm to Cedar Mountain in the War of the Great Rebellion 1861-1862
E.R. Hagemann, ed., Fighting Rebels and Redskins, Experiences in Army Life of Colonel George B. Sanford, 1861-1892
William J. Miller, Decision at Tom’s Brook, George Custer, Thomas Rosser, and the Joy of the Fight
Henry Greenleaf Pearson, The Life of John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts 1861-1865, 2 vols.
Theophilus Rodenbough, From Everglade to Canon with the Second United States Cavalry
John Schildt, Roads to Gettysburg
Jac Weller, Wellington at Waterloo