Hugh McKee

The Kentuckian Who Died the Death of All Deaths to Be Desired


He Was the First to Grapple With the Enemy and Fighting in the Old Saxon Way


(Written for The Herald.)

The navy of the United States has only fired hostile shots on two occasions since the close of the war of the Confederacy. The last one was when a few years since, in the harbor of Rio [de] Janeiro during one of the customary revolutions of the Latin Republics, the little gunboat Detroit planted a shot close to the rudder-post of one of the insurgent fleet, as a warning tht ships bearing the Stars and Stripes should load and unload at that port regardless of the existing internecine contest. This not only settled effectually this point, but also the revolution against the revolters.

The first hostile shot, however, and with reference to twhich this is written, was fired in the Corean difficulty in 1871, which for immediate results served but one purpose, that of showing that America's sea-fighting men were built of the same old stuff-- that they equally with those who died with Custer on land, did not reason why, but did and died, when the sound for the charge came.

An that which makes it of such special interest to Kentuckians is that the man who led the charge on land after the war vessels had done their little, of navies and marines, and there died as Kentucky soldiers and sailors love to die, with wounds only in front was Lieut. Hugh Wilson McKee, whose father before him, col. Wm. Robertson McKee, had died like a gentleman and soldier, leading his regiment, the Second Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers, on the battle field of Buena Vista, on February 23, 1847.

Corea up to this time was to the civilized world an unknown land, and inhabited practically by an unknown people. Only Catholic missionaries and a few fearless travelers had visited it. The outer world knew nothing of it except some hobgoblin stories of cannibalism and truthful accounts of wanton murder and pillage.

In the latter part of the 60s several American sailing vessels had been thrown upon the coast of this peninsula, resulting as a rule in the murder or captivity of the crews. Protests were of no avail, and finally in June, 1871, a punitive expedition naval force was sent to beard these people in their own land.

The expedition was under command of Rear Admiral [Rodgers], and the squadron consisted of the double-decker wooden frigate Colorado, of civil war fame, the Alaska, Monocacy and Palos.

To divert for a moment, the Monocacy was one of two paddle-wheel, double-enders, the other being the Ashuelot, then in the dock for repairs at Shanghai, designed for service in our own rivers during the civil war, but were not completed till after the war. They were of thin iron, very faultily constructed, and whenever they delivered a broadside from their eight-inch guns it was no uncommon thing for planks to be ripped up and other damage done. At any rate, they were finally sent to be of what service they could to the Asiatic squadron. The Palos was a bit of a wooden gunboat, with one gun fore and aft.

This formidable squadron started, their objective point being Seoul, the Capital of Korea, or the nearest point to it that could be reached. Seoul is situated on the Salee river. This river entered with great care, for there were no charts of the stream, the fleet anchored, and a reconnoissance for sounding was sent forward. It soon became evident that the Colorado and Alaska had gone their limit, and that the Monocacy and Palos must be relied upon to do all the water fighting. Accordingly it was determined to send these vessels up the river to spy out the land, of which they knew absolutely nothing and the two started tandem-shape, the Monocacy leading.

On the Monocacy was on Isaac Jones, a powder-monkey, a boy of 16 years, and an Englishman. He was a special chum of the writer, and the latter never wearied hearing of his account of the expedition. Isaac did his duty for the chaplain of the fleet attested to the little fellow, blackened with powder, acting as a man, and saying to him after the fight: "I'll have a good story to tell-- when I get back to Shanghai."

The vessels had only gone a few miles when a sharp bend in the river presented itself. This was approached carefully, and the Monocacy had not gotten well around when there loomed up above them, on one side, a very formidable-looking fort, and in a moment every gun in it turned loosed, but not entirely loose, as it will afterwards appear. All the shot from the first discharge went high, as did every other. This astounded the two ships, both being now full abreast of it. Short work was made of the fort, and upon a landing and examination being made it was discovered that all the guns in the fort were not only of antiquated form, but were tied firmly by ropes to some stationary object, thus preventing elevation, depression or turning of the gun. Had the guns been sufficiently depressed to cover the decks of the Monocacy and Palos there might have been another story.

It was then discovered that further progress towards the Capital could not be accomplished by water, and that a near-by citadel commanding the land approach must next be taken, and that by assault, in order to produce an effective punitive result.

Accordingly, Admiral [Rodgers] determined to have the assault made the next day with a force composed of bluejackets and marines, details being made from each of the war vessels.

The detachment from the Colorado was under command of Lieutenant McKee, and to him and his command fell the great honor of being the van in the ultimate attack. Just before leaving the Colorado, Lieutenant McKee went to the Rev. John Rutherford Matthews, fleet chaplain, and placed in his hands a letter for his mother and betrothed, saying that he did not believe he would return. But the hearty hand-shake he gave showed that whatever premonition he might have of his glorious end, he would meet it with that readiness so characteristic of Kentuckians, who have welcomed death when in defense of State or national flag with hearty cheer, as if this human conqueror were the most welcome of guests.

The attacking force was carried up the river as far as possible by the Monocacy and Palos, and then disembarked for their immediate errand. There was no covering of their landing, as the enemy made no resistance to this, and in fact made no show of themselves outside of the citadel. The line of march was taken, and when an elevated position was reached opposite the citadel, with an intervening valley, the plan of attack was fully developed, being simply an attack in column-- a rush for the desired goal, with, in this case, God's help to the foremost. The column goes steadily down the hill, McKee and his company leading. When in the depression below the citadel the order was passed to get ready for the rush.

By this time a few figures clad in long yellow gowns, brandishing weapons and flags were seen standing on the parapets. The beating of tom-toms and the blowing of trumpets was heard, followed by a mournful chanting, [unreadable] in by the entire garrison over a thousand in number. It was their death song. To the few hundred who were advancing to the contest, this dirgeful chant was full of meaning as it evidenced a purpose of their opponents of resisting to the death.

Before the death chant ceased the order for the charge was given, and with bayonets fixed on the the men dashed, Hugh McKee in the lead. The intervening ground was quickly passed, only a few men dropping, owing to the poor marksmanship of the fort's defenders. The head of the rushing column reached the foot of the parapet, McKee still outfooting his comrades. In a moment he scaled the embankment and below him was a surging mass of fiends-- enough to daunt the bravest, but as a private of marines told the writer:

"I scrambled upright behind the Lieutenant and saw him jump straight down among the yellow devils, sword and revolver in hand. He hadn't lit before they were on him and I saw him stagger a little and before we could fight them back a long-haired fellow let him have it in the side with a spear."

This private of marines, by the way, had secreted in his blanket, strapped around him, a diminuitive Stars and Stripes. As he reached the top of the parapet be pulled the flag from its hiding place and waving it leaped down after his officer, but not before a bullet imbedded itself in his blanket roll. For his gallantry he was made a corporal.

McKee thus was the first man on the parapet and the first to grapple with the enemy. He had not fallen before his men were about him bayonetting, clubbing and shooting as fast as muscle could work. Lieutenant Commander Schley, who has since attained fame as the commander of the ship that rescued Greeley and his party, shot the man who speared McKee.

The hand to hand contest was a tale quickly told. The Coreans decamped and the Stars and Stripes floated above the citadel. A reckoning of the loss showed McKee mortally wounded, two sailors dead and about thirty wounded, several of whom afterwards died. The loss of the Coreans was very severe.

Kentucky's son was tenderly cared for, but he died on the scene of his glory within the fortification that baptized with his blood, was christened Fort McKee.

This attack ended the punitive expedition-- punitive in a way, but bootless of immediate results, as it was several years after this and in no way connected with the expedition that Corea was opened partially to the civilized world. Japan really deserves this credit.

McKee, with five or six unnamed sailors, were dead. They had died handsomely brought added fame to the nation's reputation for valor, and this was sufficient, although Seoul was never reached.

The sailors sacrificed in this fight were buried with all due honors, but their resting place is now to all intents and purposes as unmarked and unknown as that of Moses. But he who fights must die, and he little recks where lies.

Lieut. McKee's body was carried to Shanghai for shipment to the United States.

It was a strange sight to stand on the bund (water front street) at Shanghai and watch the coffined remains of this gallant man lowered to a launch and then towed to the wharf, followed by other boats carrying the guard of honor. The cortege was formed amidst a crowd consisting of wondering Chinese and a few proud Americans-- for McKee's death to the fullest extent did all credit to the nation-- while with them were representatives of practically every European country, for Shanghai for the size of its foreign population is the most cosmopolitan of cities, deeply interested in this last honor to be paid by American sailors to their dead comrade.

The coffin, covered by the Stars and Stripes, was placed on a gun carriage borrowed from the European volunteer battalion, and following it were men-of-war's men, not only from the American vessels, but from all the foreign warships in the harbor. The march ended at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's line and the coffined remains were quickly deposited in the ship's hold, soon to start on their last journey. And a lonely, solitary journey it was. Over thousands of miles of ocean, over hundreds of miles of land all alone, simply expressed to the care of her who gave birth to the gallant soul that once inhabited that fleshly tenement, and without a man, officer, or sailor to accompany them as an escort. This was not handsome, was not thoughtful. But McKee slept just as restfully.

This journey ended in the State of his birth and here in Lexington's cemetery, Hugh McKee's body at last found rest.

In connection with McKee's death, it has often occurred to the writer that no incident since the war is more worthy of being strongly impressed on the minds of the State's school children. He did his duty, his whole duty, obeyed it call and kept his country's faith. And, yet, how many of them, were they asked, have ever heard his name?

[originally appeared in Lexington Morning Herald November 28, 1897]