1861 Ball's Bluff Flag








An Unsolved Mystery

The 1863 Murder of Capt. Thomas McKay



John Perry of the 20th Massachusetts had planned on going to Harvard Medical School, but with a young wife and family plans he could not afford it. He decided instead to attend the "Scientific School" from which he graduated with sufficient training to perform the medical duties of an Assistant Regimental Surgeon. Perry's wartime letters were "compiled" (and polished) by his wife, Martha Derby Perry, in 1906 as Letters From a Surgeon of the Civil War. Large excerpts from that book were recently reprinted in Robert E. Denney's Civil War Medicine: Care and Comfort of the Wounded (NY: Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., 1994).The following extract from the original 1906 book has less to do with medicine, though, than with murder, mystery, and (perhaps) Martha's taste for the macabre. At the time of the events depicted, Henry Abbott was in command of the 20th Massachusetts (the "Major" depicted in the piece) and John Perry was still suffering from a leg badly broken by a falling horse the previous spring.


Chapter VI


On the 5th of October, 1863, a horrible murder occurred in the camp of the Twentieth Massachusetts, and as the facts concerning it extended through many weeks, it seems well to collect and give them as a whole.

Our corps were encamped in a thick wood within a few miles of Culpeper [Virginia], & its presence could be detected only by the clouds of smoke from camp-fires curling above the trees. Close to our rear was a regiment notorious for its drunken brawls & lawlessness. It was composed principally of conscripts, substitutes, and New York rioters, among them many jail birds, and force and arms were often necessary [81] to quell the incessant rows and disturbances among these rough characters.

On the evening of October 5th, taps had sounded in the Twentieth Massachusetts, lights were out, every man was in his tent, and the silence of the night was broken only by the wind which swept fitfully through the pines. Only the officer of the day and I were in camp, the others being on a visit to another regiment, and the soft little glimmer of light which shone forth in the prevailing darkness came from the tent outside of which Captain McKay and I were seated....The Captain had enlisted as a private when the regiment was first organized, and by his intelligence, bravery, and good fellowship had reached his present rank. Company F, which he commanded, was made up of the worst elements in the regiment, which was otherwise unusual for military deportment and manly bearing.

We sat talking of the incessant delays in hostilities, when a shout interrupted us, followed by yells and drunken laughter.

"The fellows in our rear," I said, after a moment's pause; but the Captain's face was anxious.

"No," he answered, "those are my men; they are drunk and quarrelsome; something tells me there is trouble brewing to-night; ever since I punished the ringleaders in those rows they have been sullen and out of temper. In the drill this afternoon I did not like their mood"; and asking me to stand ready in case of need, he left and sauntered towards the company's tent.

I heard the Captain order his men to their quarters, but in so calm a voice that it seemed to me he dealt too gently with the brutes; and on the instant there was a shot and then a moan. I reached the spot in time to see the Captain leap into the air and fall, and to hear him cry, "Doctor, I am murdered!"

By the flickering light of the same little [83] candle by which we had just sat, we bore him into the tent; but he was dead when we reached it. Dead! A little enough word, but with such weight of meaning!

Instantly the sergeant, then aroused, ordered the men of the Captain's company into line; the officers were sent for, and, on their quick return, the roll was called, and every gun examined. Every man was present, and each had his gun, but many of them were so drunk they could barely stand. Those who were sufficiently sober knew that they stood not only in the presence of a crime, but of their murdered captain, whose body was now stretched upon the ground before them. Neither moon nor stars shone upon them; no other light than the uncertain glimmer of a camp-fire and tent candle, which only added to the ghastly pallor of the men.

During the inspection I stood by the body, facing the lines, intently watching every movement, alert to every sound. [84] Soon there was a murmur of astonishment, and we saw in the ranks before us an Italian boy,--a raw recruit, half-witted, or at least so dull that his officers had been able to do but little with him. There he stood with a smoking musket. His hands hung limply by his side, his eyes without light of expression in them were fastened upon his weapon. The spent cap was on the nipple; the smoke still issued from the muzzle and the lock was blackened by the discharge.

We looked from the gun to the boy; to the murdered,--he, with neither years nor wit?

"Tell your story," said the Major, looking steadfastly into the boys eyes, to hold, if possible, the fellow's scattered wits.

This roused him, and throwing himself upon his knees, with tears streaming over his cheeks and a voice thin and styled, he gave, by a few words here and there, by expression and gesture, a clear enough ac[85]count of all he knew, making us understand that he had neither tent nor blanket; had been cold and sleepy; and so, leaning his musket against a tree near the fire, his cartridge and cap-box beside it, dropped to sleep at its foot. The shot roused him; he saw some one carried off, and when he heard the sergeant call the roll he made a grab for his musket, but not finding it, supposed it had fallen, and while groping for it in the darkness he tripped over it as it lay concealed in the bushes; then he caught it up, suspecting nothing, and rushed to his place in the ranks.

There was silence now; all the officers had judged the lad, and in our own minds felt him guiltless of the crime, but in the absence of any other clue he must be dealt with.

He was taken to the body, and before all those assembled was made to kneel, kiss the Bible, and with his left hand over the dead man's heart, the other raised, to swear [86] before God that he was innocent of the deed. This he did with the weariness of a bewildered child, and, inspite of circumstantial evidence, the conviction of his innocence was so universal that the lad was allowed to wander to the warmth of the still smouldering fire, where exhaustion and sleep soon wrapped him in oblivion.

Attention was again riveted upon the ranks. Was the murderer facing us from among those men in line, or was he creeping stealthely away through the darkness?

The officers gathered about the body of the murdered captain, and after a brief consultation it was decided to dismiss the men and wait until the morning for further action. The body was removed to a large tent, where the sergeant and I watched over it for the remainder of the night. The wind moaned and whistled, things creaked and flapped in the blasts, and in this weary vigil ever the monotonous tramp, tramp of a sentinel outside the tent took its place in [87] the tragedy. The night wore on, and in the bleak and cheerless dawn all the officers of the regiment gathered about the dead Captain to hold a council. After long deliberation it was decided that the men of Company F should march into this tent, one by one, kneel, kiss the Bible, and, with one hand on the heart of the murdered man, each should swear before God that he was innocent af all implication in the crime.

In the solemn silence of this Court of Officers, under the concentrated attention of all present, when not the flicker of an eyelid could escape observation, each man faced the ordeal without flinching, with no sign of guilt; and many bore themselves with the dignity of honest freedom, though in the presence of conditions before which even an innocent heart might quail. The experiment was a failure, and hours passed in which all available means to discover the assassin were fruitlessly tried. Even the lawless men of the Captain's company were shocked into good behavior, and in their bearing expressed respect and love for their dead commander. Indeed, the Captain's death has cast a deep gloom over the entire regiment. The old Twentieth, which has so long borne the name of "Gallant," now bears the burden of stigma. We constantly questioned ourselves and others as to all possibilities in respect to the murderer: we wondered if he was lurking in the riotous regiment which was quartered in our rear; but what cause had we for such suspicions? Possibly one of the Captain's men owed him a grudge for punishment received, and had bartered the revengeful act with one of those neighboring ruffians. A reward might settle the question, and for this purpose a sum of money was immediately collected and offered to anyone who should give information in regard to the murder, with the added promise of a furlough home. As for me,--I wish I could give the rest of [89] my pay while in the service to have the murderer caught and shot. I cannot recover from the shock.

Just at this moment orders to march arrived, which instantaneously changed the scene. Tension and strain yielded to bustle and activity.

The sergeant and I carefully watched the placing of the Captain's body in an ambulance bound for Alexandria, where the remains would be embalmed before the journey home.

My horse had been disabled by a shoulder wound, which I now examined with some anxiety, lest the animal might become useless during the move of the army; but he seemed in a satisfactory condition, and with his good services I felt sure of holding my place in the ranks in spite of my lame leg.

As we were about to start we saw a stranger in officer's uniform approaching us, who asked where he could find the [90] officer in command of the regiment. The Major, who happened to be near, heard the question, and said, "What is your business with me?"

"I hail from the same place as the Captain who was killed last night," answered the man. "I've served my time and am on my way home, and, if you like, will take charge of the body and see that it arrives safely."

The Major became interested. It seemed a most fortunate arrangement, especially in a time of so much hurry and confusion, and after a brief conference with the other officers of the regiment, it was decided that the opportunity was too good a one to lose, and that they had better accept an offer of such disinterested services. A sufficient sum of money was raised to cover all expenses, as well as to recompense the man for his trouble, and the ambulance, with its solitary burden, was delivered into his hands to begin the long [91] and tedious journey towards the New England town.

The army was quickly on the move, and for a time all went well with me, but before many hours had passed my horse became lame, soon proving utterly unable to carry me. In this plight I dismounted, not a little dismayed, yet so determined to persevere that I held to the saddle, and by aid of the horse walked painfully on. In spite of every effort to keep my place, I slowly but surely receded to the rear and there met the ambulance which bore the body of the dear captain; changing my hold from the horse to the tailboard of this ambulance, I pulled myself along.

The onward push of men and artillery, the deafening medley of noises, the dense clouds of blinding, suffocating dust, and my own suffering for a time completely absorbed me, but my thoughts finally centred upon the ambulance with its burden. Walking by the side of the vehicle was the [92] Captain's friend, who, seeing that he was recognized, joined me. He told me that he had served his time, was sick and tired of the life, and glad enough to go home. The man's voice was sullen, and his head hung forward and down.

A noise in the ambulance turned my attention to a water-cask, which I saw had broken loose, and was rolling over the body.

"Fasten that cask, will you," I said to the man at my side, "or it will injure the Captain's body."

"D- the Captain!" came like a flash from the lips of the man; but with an instantaneous glance at me he mumbled: "Oh, what did you say, Doc? Oh, the water-cask! Yes, I'll fix it"; and he jumped inside the wagon and fastened the keg in its place.

This oath, flying out in hate and scorn from the lifelong friend and neighbor of the Captain, was startling to say the [93] least. I turned and looked the man well over. The more I looked, the more I shrank from something despicable in his gait and aspect; a sneak, and a cowardly bully, I'll be bound, I thought. I would not trust him out of sight, and, although the man continued his desultory talk, my heedless answers finally silenced him.

As soon as possible the circumstance was reported to the officer in charge, but although it was certainly considered suspicious, there did not seem sufficient evidence to act upon, and before long I watched from a growing distance the ambulance, with its single guard shambling by the side, wending its separate way. I wish to God, I thought, that the man was back and well secured.

Weeks passed without trace of the murderer, although the search was constant and persistent. Warm letters of sympathy were sent from the camp to the girl at the North who was waiting now for the dead body [94] of her lover,--letters which assured her of the safe transportation of the remains, guarded as they were by a lifelong friend of the Captain's,_____by name, who was on his way home and had offered his services.

More weeks passed, when one day, while the officers were together at mess, an orderly handed a letter to the Major in command of the regiment.

"By Jove!" said the latter, glacing at the postmark, "this letter is from the Captain's poor girl," and tearing it open, he read the contents aloud. They stated that neither the body of Captain McKay nor the man who left the camp with it in charge had arrived; nor would they ever do so, for she was absolutely certain that that man was the assassin. Sometime ago she had refused his offer of marriage and, when he heard of her engagement to the Captain, he swore he would kill him, if it were necessary to enlist for the purpose. [95] Subsequently he had enlisted in a New York regiment, from which she also knew he was dishonorably discharged at the date of the murder.

Consternation settled upon every face at the conclusion of the reading. So! It seemed that the murderer had calmly and freely walked off with the body of his victim! What fools he had made of us all! And the grotesqueness of the trick the creature had played upon us grew, and with it grew the determination to track that man on whatever road he might be, and to serve him his due.

Wider interest in the matter was raised; more funds subscribed and detectives sent in all directions. The contents of the letter soon spread among the men of the regiment, and those concerned in the drunken brawl on the night of the murder finally confessed that the man who travelled from camp with the dead captain was the same who gave them whiskey the night he was [96] shot; that this man did his best to incite them to the murder, and, when he failed in this, grabbed the boy's gun, crouched in the bushes, and fired the fatal shot himself.

In course of time news arrived of the capture of the murderer in a Western regiment, and that he was then on his way back to our quarters under strict guard. The satisfaction of officers and men was immense, and not one would have tossed a penny to save the wretch's life. We had all the necessary proof, and every witness of the deed was present.

When the man arrived, a court-martial was immediately convened. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged; but before the execution could take place the necessary papers must be supervised in Washington, and during this delay the prisoner was strictly guarded night and day.

Time crept slowly on, until eventually an official document postmarked "Washington" [97] arrived, was handed to the officer in command, who, in the presence of his staff, opened it with the composure of assured success; for had they not possession of the man, and sufficient proof to hang twenty like him?

"Read! read!" we cried, but the Major, staring at the page, seemed barely able to see the words, then with a round oath, he flung the paper upon the table.

"That man," he said, "the murderer of our captain, is free--scot free--as free as a North American Indian! A legal flaw has been discovered in the paper sent to Washington which renders it absolutely invalid. There is no redress, and nothing can be done."

Amazement and consternation overpowered us. Was there no loophole of escape by which we could hold the prisoner and in time enforce the punishment?

No! the order to liberate the prisoner must be immediate. This was given, and [98] erelong we saw the murderer leave the camp, heard him jeer his would-be executioners, and, with his thumb upon his nose, we saw him wave his fingers in derision, and vanish into mystery.


The roster in Bruce's history of the 20 MA lists McKay as "assassinated" on Oct. 6, 1863, but the episode is overlooked in the text.

In Henry Abbott's published letters we read:

"You have of course heard how Capt. McKay was assassinated by a conscript named McClusky, who shot him in cold blood in the night as McKay was standing near the fire.The fellow knealt behind a tree and took deliberate aim. He has managed to escape, but $2,000 reward has been offered, $1,000 by the officers of the regiment, $500 by the officers of the brig., and $500 by the officers of the regiment, who felt the thing deeply, for McKay, though a very strict disciplinarian, was just the man to win the love of soldiers. He was a devlish fine officer and I felt his loss terribly, particularly from the manner of his death." (letter of 10/17/63; Fallen Leaves, p. 223)

However, Robert Garth Scott, editor of Abbott's letters, added the following footnote:

"Thomas McKay was murdered the night of Oct. 5. The soldier named McClusky, whom Abbott originally thought guilty of the crime, was later found to be innocent. Although Abbott mentions nothing of it in his letters, the actual murderer was a snubbed suitor of McKay's fiancee who had enlisted in a New York Regiment brigaded with the 20th for the sole purpose of killing McKay".

Scott then summarizes the Perry version of the tale, and directs the reader "for the full story of the case" to the chapter presented in full above.

That still leaves us asking...who killed Captain McKay?

There is an answer out there somewhere, in court martial records, compiled service records, newspaper articles, family correspondence, scuttlebutt. SOLVE THE MYSTERY OF CAPTAIN MCKAY'S MURDER and we will feature your findings prominently in this web page. After 130 years, it is time to lay this ghost to rest.


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