It seems appropriate to feature this officer on the 150th anniversary of his death. Due to the heavy fighting in June 1864, there will be several of these features this month.
Samuel McKee was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1835. He was appointed to the United States Military Academy from Utah in 1854 at the age of 19, and graduated 13th in the class of 1858. Upon graduation, he was initially appointed as a brevet second lieutenant of mounted rifles, and served his initial assignment at the Cavalry School for Practice at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. He was transferred to the 1st Dragoons on June 22, 1859, and conducted a party of recruits to join his new regiment at Fort Tejon, California.
He was promoted to second lieutenant in the 1st Dragoons on January9, 1860, and continued to serve with the parts of the regiment at Fort Tejon. Later that year he married Matilda Harris Finley, the daughter of Army Surgeon General Dr. Clarence A. Finley.
With the outbreak of the war, promotions accelerated rapidly. Samuel was promoted to first lieutenant in the regiment on May 7th, and appointed regimental adjutant on August 7th. In October tragedy struck the young family, as Matilda died in childbirth on October 31st at the age of 25. Their daughter was named Matilda Finley McKee. Samuel had little time to mourn, as he was relieved as adjutant when he was promoted to captain on November 14th. . The regimental headquarters departed by ship from Los Angeles for Washington, D.C. They arrived and established Camp Sprague in late January 1862, with Captain McKee in command of Company B.
The regiment spent the next two months drilling and preparing for the spring campaign as part of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Reserve. A career fellow officer in the regiment later noted in his memoirs that McKee was “perhaps the best drill officer I have ever known.” He participated with his regiment in the spring’s fighting on the Peninsula, distinguishing himself in the skirmish at Williamsburg on May 4th.
The following month he departed on a leave of absence to serve as lieutenant colonel for the 77th New York Volunteer Infantry, but rejoined the 1st Cavalry in September in time for the Antietam campaign. He served with the regiment through the winter of 1863, Stoneman’s Raid and the Gettysburg campaign.
He was again detached from his regiment on special service with General Ayres at New York City following the draft riots from August 23, 1863 to January 14, 1864. After a brief sick leave in Washington, D.C., he joined the regiment at Mitchell’s Station in February. He was engaged in picket duty and reconnaissance for the remainder of the winter, serving as the regimental commander until April.
Captain Nelson Sweitzer resumed command of the regiment for the spring campaign, but Captain McKee served prominently at Todd’s Tavern and during the fighting during Sheridan’s first raid. He was mortally wounded during the cavalry fighting at Cold Harbor, Virginia on May 31st, and died on June 3rd. He is buried with his wife in Los Angeles, California.
He was well remembered by peers and superiors alike. Catain George Sanford wrote of him that his death “cut short a most promising career and deprived the regiment of one of the finest and best loved officers who ever followed its colors.” His brigade commander, Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, called him “a pure, unaffected, moderate man, a chivalrous, educated, accomplished soldier.” General Alfred T.A. Torbert, his division commander, wrote “a more gallant and accomplished soldier has not given his life for his bleeding country.”
Cullum, pgs 704-705.
Hageman, E.R., ed. Fighting Rebels and Redskins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Heitman, pg 438.
Jordan, F. “A Forgotten Captain.” Los Angeles Herald, Volume 37, Number 184, April 3, 1910, page 10.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 36, part I, pages 806, 814 and 849.