After the US assault on Kanghwa Island in 1871, that resulted in the death of Lt. Hugh McKee, along with two other US servicemen, Lt. McKee's body was sent back to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky for burial. For a long time, I wondered how, in an age where refrigeration was almost unknown, Lt. McKee's body could be shipped thousands of miles without severe problems?
I received correspondence from Ms. B.J. Gooch, archivist at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. [She has been helping me search for the items that were donated to Transylvania U by Hugh McKee's mother back in the 1870s. To date, only the bronze 'bulangipo' cannon has been accounted for, although all the items were known to be in TU's possession as late as 1950. Hopefully, the other items will show up in due time.] Included in the correspondence was a copy of a newsletter called the "Civil War Round Table," dated January 18, 1965. One section talked about the 1871 action and the death of Lt. McKee. The section dealing with the disposition of his remains is as follows:
"The Statesman [Kentucky Statesman] of Aug. 25, 1871, contained an eyewitness account of the charge led by Lt. McKee and reported that the naval officer's body, embalmed and encased in a lead coffin, inside a wooden box, had reached Lexington on Aug. 22. It was taken to the Second Presbyterian Church where it was guarded by a detail of Co. A, Fourth U.S. Infantry, then stationed in Lexington. The body was not removed from the coffin and box.
At 4 P.M. on Aug. 24, the Statesman recorded, "an immense concourse of our people" gathered at the church to "do honor to one of Kentucky's noblest natures and most gallant spirits." The box, decorated with the flag and flowers, was placed before the altar and the Rev. George W. F. Birch, pastor, read the service and tribute. The procession from the church to the Lexington Cemetery was led by the band of the Fourth U.S. Infantry, sent from Frankfort, and the hearse was followed by soldiers of the Mexican War, who bore the flag under which Cols. McKee and Clay had fallen at Buena Vista. Services at the grave were read by the Rev. J.S. Shipman of Christ Church, Episcopal, and as the coffin was lowered three volleys were fired by the military escort.
Burial in the Frankfort Cemetery, near the grave of Col. McKee, had been considered, the Statesman reported, but Lt. McKee had expressed a desire to be buried in the Lexington Cemetery where lay the bodies of Tommy Morgan, Scott Dudley, Charley Milward, Gordon Vorheis and others of his friends."
Now that mystery has been answered.
On a related note, it is somewhat sad that his fellow KIA Americans (Marine Pvt. Denis Hanrahan and Navy landsman Seth Allen) may never be found. The island where they were buried is known, but whether their remains are still there or were dug up by angered Koreans following the US pullout in July 1871 is still unknown. Hopefully, a future research expedition may answer that question.
Copyright © 2001 Thomas Duvernay