[Originally appeared in Lexington Morning Herald November 18, 1900]
DEATH OF HUGH M'KEE
Graphic Description of Capture of
Corea Related by Captain McIlvaine.
The Herald has the privilege this morning of publishing a letter from Lieutenant Bloomfield
McIlvaine, written his mother on the 21st of July, 1871. It is a vivid and graphic account of the
battle in Corea in which Hugh McKee, Lieutenant in the navy and son of Col. McKee, who lost
his life on the battlefield of Buena Vista, gave his life to his country.
During the past summer, while Captain Thomas J. Bush was visiting at Bar Harbor, he had the
opportunity of reading this letter, and was so struck with it that he asked the widow of Lieut.
McIlvaine to permit him to have it published, which she kindly consented to do.
Capt. Bush had several copies of the letter made and showed one of them to Captain Snow, of the
battleship New York, and to Captain Chester, of the battleship Kentucky, each of whom was in the
fight at Corea in '71. They each expressed their appreciation of the power of description which
Lieut. McIlvaine showed in this letter, saying tht it brought back to them with wonderful vividness
the scenes through which they passed thirty-nine years ago. Lieut. McIlvaine was one of the most
popular, attractive and efficient officers in the navy. After his return from Corea he visited
Lexington, spending several days with Captain Bush.
The picture of Lieutenant McKee published with this article is a copy of a photograph made of
him just after he left the Naval Academy. The cut of the fort in the article is from a drawing in the
letter of Lieut. McIlvaine.
U.S. Flagship Colorado,
Boisee Island, Coast of Corea
June 22, 1871
My Dear Mother:
As the Admiral, I think, intends to send a telegraphic dispatch, you will undoubtedly see in the
papers some time before you get this that our expedition against the Coreans, of which I spoke in
my last letter, has been successful. We defeated the enemy and accomplished everything which
we attempted, but it was done at fearful cost. It cost the navy one of its finest officers, the
country one of the noblest and bravest men it has ever produced, and me, the dearest and most
intimate friend I had on earth-- Lieutenant Hugh McKee; glorious, splendid fellow! If a high and
noble life will take a man there, he must now undoubtedly be in Heaven. I can not tell you, dear
mother, what a loss and what a grief this has been to me. I could hardly have loved him more had
he been my brother. Since we met in New York to join this ship we have been the closest and
most inseparable companions. I not only loved him but had the most intense admiration of him
and his character. I feel and know myself to be the better man for having known him intimately,
and htis I know, my mother, will make you cherish his memory. I have always been rather a gay,
volatile, happy-go-lucky fellow, and as such committed many follies, to say the least of them.
McKee in his kind, friendly way always pointed them out to me; I would pretend to laugh and
scoff, but his reasoning had its effect on me, and he knew it. He was himself one of the gayest,
jolliest fellows in the service, but not half as thoughtless as myself.
He was several years older and had a great deal of experience in the world. As for his bravery,
from the day he entered the Naval Academy everybody has known that nothing on earth could
daunt him. It has always appeared to me that he coveted danger and invariably sought posts
where it was greatest. He had a most delicate and high wrought sense of honor; was open,
generous and true. Anything mean or small practiced upon him or near him would cause his
naturally fierce temper to rise in an instant, and it was well for the offender to keep clear of him.
I have written his mother. It was by far the most painful duty I have had to perform. His mother
was completely wrapped up in him. His body I have had prepared to send home. He and I when
we first left the United States entered into an agreement to do that in case of the death of the
other. Poor fellow, I think he felt some presentiment that he was going to be killed in this fight. I
found in his desk a letter addressed to me, giving most explicit direction in regard to everything,
written that evening before he left the ship on the expedition. After he received the wound he
said: "There never was a McKee that went into battle that was not killed." His conduct in the
fight was absolutely heroic. I have never heard in the history of our country of a more beautiful
instance of noble intrepidity. His father was killed in exactly the same way, while gallantly leading
on his men at the battle of Buena Vista.
I will now give you a short account of our operations on shore. We left the ship and started up
the river in boats, towed by Palos, on the tenth inst. The Monocacy went ahead to clear by
shelling the river banks and cover our landing. We succeeded in doing so, although the navigation
was very difficult, without much trouble. Our force on shore then consisted of a battalion, or
regiment of ten companies and seven pieces of field artillery, between six and seven hundred men
in all. I had command of a company, as had also McKee. We charged on the first fort near where
we landed, but the enemy ran without making much resistance. We then found a high, level piece
of ground and came to a halt for the night. The enemy came down upon us several times,
evidently with the intention of making a night attack, but we met them with such a vigorous fire
that they retired, rather rapidly I imagine. The next morning early we broke our camp and started
on the march, and such a march it was. I would not have believed it possible we could perform it.
Plodding over rough ground, pushing our way through deep ravines, climbing over hills, and all
this under a most scorching hot sun. The enemy retreated from their fortifications as we
approached. We destroyed their guns, etc., and kept on.
At last they took refuge in a fort or citadel on the very peak of a high hill. Their position seemed
impregnable and they had no doubt but that they would defeat us badly if we attempted to
dislodge them. All this time large bodies of the enemy were hovering on our rear and on our
flanks and keeping up an incessant fire. It did us no harm, however; they were too far off and
their bullets, although they fell among us, being spent did no harm. We continued on toward the
stronghold or citadel, came to a halt and shelled it for a time with our artillery but finding it
impossible to dislodge them in that way our General, Captain Kimberly, determined to try to take
it by assault. Six companies of the battalion were detailed to do it; mine was one and McKee's
was another. The other four companies with the artillery were left on the hill to guard our rear.
We advanced and came in plain view of the citadel; the ramparts were decked with quantities of
flags and streamers. The enemy, seeing it was our intention to attack it, commenced cheering;
that is, I suppose it was intended for that, but the noise they made sounded more like the howling
of dogs at midnight than anything else-- a most painful, dismal thing to listen to. McKee turned
around to me and said: "Mac, we must capture one of those flags." We did it, too. His company
and mine each captured two of the largest. We arrived on the brow of the hill and got our
companies stationed for the charge. At last the order was given and away we went. Our gallant
sailor soldiers, although ready to drop with fatigue, followed us and made for the citadel with a
As we went over the brow of the hill, marked B in the illustration, the citadel appeared to blaze
with the fire they opened on us. Our fellows, though, never wavered an instant as fast as the
enemy showed themselves on the parapet to fire at us with their [gingalls] our men shot them
down. The secret of our losing so few men is, I think, owing to the fact that Coreans did not get
high enough upon the ramparts to fire down at us. Nearly all their bullets passed over our heads.
McKee got the start of all of us in the commencement of the charge and kept it. I think his heart
was set on being the first man in the fort. I was with my company, close behind and a little to his
left. My men did their best, but we could not overtake him. When we got about half way up to
the citadel, about where the tallest tree is, the enemy jumped up on the parapets and commenced
throwing rocks and stones down at us, which we dodged as best we could, and shot them (the
enemy) for their reward. At last McKee arrived at the head of his company at the foot of the
parapet. He was very conspicuously dressed as an officer, but without an instant's hesitation, and
when he knew it was almost certain death, he clambored to the top, revolver in one hand and
sword in the other; he stood for an instant facing the enemy inside, fired twice, and then leaped in
the first and foremost, followed by his men. My men then made a rush and I got on the parapet a
few seconds after McKee. I jumped down inside, and such a fight as was going on there I
suppose I shall never see again. The Coreans fought desperately, but our men rushed upon them
with the most irresistible force. The former fired everything they had loaded at us, then threw
them down and took their long spears. Our men went at them with their carbines, pistols,
bayonets and cutlasses, and in less time than it takes me to write it, we had killed or driven every
one from the citadel and victory was ours.
Just before the fight was over, and as I was advancing in the fort, I looked down at my feet
among the dead and saw McKee lying there. I stopped and stooped down to him. He looked up
at me and said in his cool, clam way: "Mac, I am mortally wounded." With the assistance of two
or three of his men, I carried him a little aside and looked at his wounds. It was in the stomach
from a bullet. I could not and would not believe it was serious and told him so. He smiled, and
said he thought I was mistaken. He then asked me to please not to forget to do all the things we
had mutually promised each other. It wrung my heart with anguish to hear him talk so, because I
could not help fearing that he only felt his wound was mortal and that I was going to lose him.
The doctor soon came up from the rear and said he ought to be taken aboard the Monocacy. I
obtained permission to go with him, the fighting being all over, but was told to come back
immediately. All the way he talked very little, but laid perfectly quiet with his eyes closed. I am
afraid the dear fellow was suffering the most agonizing pain, but no pain that human being ever
endured would have made him even wince. When we arrived aboard the Monocacy I gave him
over to the care of the surgeons and then I said, "Now Mac, you know I must go back to my
company." He held out his hand, smiled and said: "Well, good-bye Mac, if I don't see you again."
Dear noble friend, those were the last words he ever spoke to me, but I little thought so at the
time. I simply pressed his hand and rushed away. I could not realize that he was going to die.
Such a dispensation of providence seemed too hard. At about 6 o'clock in theafternoon the boat
came in from the Monocacy and an officer came up to inform me that McKee was dead. His last
words were: "Tell the dear beloved ones at home that my last prayer is for them."
I hope if I am ever killed in battle I may die as nobly as he did, and I will not be disappointed with
my end. This time I escaped without a scratch, although there was not a great deal of margin to
spare. One man at my side was badly wounded, having the top of his head scored out pretty well
with a bullet. One other man who was killed was directly in front of me and fell with three bullet
holes in his breast at the same instant. The charge upon the citadel is considered by the older
officers of the squadron as being one of the most gallant things ever performed by the navy on
shore. Consequently, I shall always congratulate myself for having been in it.
For the present our fighting is over. We were victorious, but I can not see that the object for
which we came here is one bit advanced, and in about a week we leave without having
accomplished this object. It is true we have done everything that could have been done. The
Coreans still resist and are evidently determined to resist, and, as we have not force enough to
march through their country, which is the only way to bring them to terms, there is nothing for us
to do but leave. We have them such a whipping as I do not believe they ever had before during
the four thousand years which they claim to have existed as a nation. In the citadel, considereing
the smallness of our forces, I have never heard of such mortality. In some places they were lying
on top of one another two or three deep; very few wounded, nearly all dead. I think it is the
intention to leave here in about a week for Chefoo. From there we will go immediately to
Your affectionate son,