Born in Perry County, Pennsylvania on 12 June 1842, William Alfred McKee was, during the heat of America’s Civil War, a 21-year-old wagon maker residing in York County, Pennsylvania.
Civil War Military Service
On 9 February 1864, at the age of 21, William Alfred McKee re-enrolled and mustered in for military service as a Private with Company D of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Dauphin County. His entry in the Civil War Veterans’ Card File at the Pennsylvania State Archives adds the following details:
Joined by re-enlistment from Recruiting Depot, 6-18-64 per G.O. # 191 & 216 A.G.O.
His U.S. Civil War Pension Index card documents that his prior service occurred with Company H of the 133rd Pennsylvania Infantry. In fact, William A. McKee enrolled for his first term of military service at Loysville, Pennsylvania on 8 August 1862, and then mustered in at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg as a 20-year-old Private with Company H of the 133rd Pennsylvania on 13 August 1862. Military records described him as being 5’7″ tall with brown hair, hazel eyes and a florid complexion at the time of his enlistment.
On 13 December 1862, he was declared as missing in action during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
After re-enrolling and mustering in for service with Company D of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on 9 February 1866, Private William A. McKee became part of an army regiment that was about to make history. Leaving their duty station at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania steamed for New Orleans via the Charles Thomas, and arrived at Algiers, Louisiana on 28 February. Shipped by train to Brashear City, the 47th Pennsylvanians then hopped another steamer, and traveled to Franklin via the Bayou Teche – where the regiment joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps.
In short order, the 47th would become the only Pennsylvania regiment to serve in the Red River Campaign of Union General Nathaniel Banks.
From 14-26 March, the 47th passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches. Often short on food and water, the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.
Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the volley of fire unleashed by both sides during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads. The fighting waned only when darkness fell. Exhausted, those who were uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. After midnight, the surviving Union troops withdrew to Pleasant Hill.
The next day, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered into a critically important defensive position at the far right of the Union lines, their right flank spreading up onto a high bluff. By 3 p.m., after enduring a midday charge by the troops of Confederate General Richard Taylor (a plantation owner and son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting still showed no signs of ending. Suddenly, just as the 47th was shifting to the left side of the massed Union forces, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania were forced to bolster the 165th New York’s buckling lines by blocking another Confederate assault.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander was nearly killed, and the regiment’s two color-bearers, both from Company C, were also wounded while preventing the regimental flag from falling into enemy hands. Many others died or were wounded. Private Ephraim Clouser of Company D was shot in his right knee, and Corporal Isaac Baldwin was also wounded.
Still others from the 47th were captured, marched roughly 125 miles to Camp Ford, a Confederate Army prison near Tyler, Texas and held there as prisoners of war (POWs) until they were released during prisoner exchange in July and November of 1864.
Following what some historians have called a rout by Confederates at Pleasant Hill and others have labeled a technical victory for the Union or a draw for both sides, the 47th fell back to Grand Ecore, where they resupplied and regrouped until 22 April. Retreating further to Alexandria, they and their fellow Union soldiers scored a clear victory against the Confederates at Cane Hill.
On 23 April, the 47th and their fellow brigade members crossed the Cane River via Monett’s Ferry and, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, helped to build a dam from 30 April through 10 May, to enable federal gunboats to easily traverse the Red River’s rapids.
Beginning 16 May, D Company moved with most of the 47th from Simmsport across the Atchafalaya to Morganza. On the 4th of July, they learned their fight was far from over.
Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Still able and willing to fight after their time in Bayou country, the soldiers of Company D and their fellow members of the 47th Pennsylvania’s Companies A, C, E, F, H, and I boarded the McClellan and steamed away for the East Coast on 7 July.
Following their arrival in Virginia and a memorable encounter with President Abraham Lincoln, they then joined Major-General David Hunter’s forces in the fighting at Snicker’s Gap and, once again, assisted in defending Washington, D.C. while also helping to drive Confederate troops from Maryland.
Attached to the Middle Military Division, Army of the Shenandoah beginning in August, early and mid-September saw the departure of several 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had served honorably, including Company D’s Captain Henry Woodruff, 1st Lieutenant Samuel Auchmuty, Sergeants Henry Heikel and Alex Wilson, and Corporals Cornelius Stewart and Samuel A. M. Reed. All mustered out 18 September 1864 upon expiration of their service terms. Those members of the 47th who remained on duty were about to engage in their regiment’s greatest moments of valor.
Battles of Opequan and Fisher’s Hill, September 1864
Together with other regiments under the command of Union General Philip H. (“Little Phil”) Sheridan and Brigadier-General William H. Emory, commander of the 19th Corps, the members of Company D and their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers helped to inflict heavy casualties on Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate forces at Opequan (also spelled as “Opequon” and referred to as “Third Winchester”). The battle is still considered by many historians to be one of the most important during Sheridan’s 1864 campaign; the Union’s victory here helped to ensure the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.
The 47th Pennsylvania’s march toward destiny at Opequan began at 2 a.m. on 19 September 1864 as the regiment left camp and joined up with others in the Union’s 19th Corps. After advancing slowly from Berryville toward Winchester, the 19th Corps became bogged down for several hours by the massive movement of Union troops and supply wagons, enabling Early’s men to dig in. After finally reaching and fording the Opequan Creek, Sheridan’s men came face to face with the Confederate Army commanded by Early. The fighting, which began in earnest at noon, was long and brutal. The Union’s left flank (6th Corps) took a beating from Confederate artillery stationed on high ground.
Meanwhile, the 47th Pennsylvania and the 19th Corps were directed by General William Emory to attack and pursue Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederate forces. Some success was achieved, but casualties mounted as another Confederate artillery group opened fire on Union troops trying to cross a clearing. When a nearly fatal gap began to open between the 6th and 19th Corps, Sheridan sent in units led by Brigadier-Generals Emory Upton and David A. Russell. Russell, hit twice – once in the chest, was mortally wounded. The 47th Pennsylvania opened its lines long enough to enable the Union cavalry under William Woods Averell and the foot soldiers of General George Crook to charge the Confederates’ left flank.
The 19th Corps, with the 47th in the thick of the fighting, then began pushing the Confederates back. Early’s “grays” retreated in the face of the valor displayed by Sheridan’s “blue jackets.” Leaving 2,500 wounded behind, the Rebels retreated to Fisher’s Hill (21-22 September), eight miles south of Winchester, and then to Waynesboro, following a successful early morning flanking attack by Sheridan’s Union men which outnumbered Early’s three to one.
Afterward, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent out on skirmishing parties before making camp at Cedar Creek. Moving forward, they and other members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers would continue to distinguish themselves in battle, but they would do so without two more of their respected commanders: Colonel Tilghman Good and Good’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel George Alexander. Both mustered out from 23-24 September upon the expiration of their respective terms of service. Fortunately, they were replaced by others equally admired for temperament and front line experience: 2nd Lieutenant George Stroop, who was promoted to lead Company D, and at the regimental level, John Peter Shindel Gobin, Charles W. Abbott and Levi Stuber.
Battle of Cedar Creek, October 1864
It was during the Fall of 1864 that General Philip Sheridan began the first of the Union’s true “scorched earth” campaigns, starving the enemy into submission by destroying Virginia’s crops and farming infrastructure. Viewed through today’s lens of history as inhumane, the strategy claimed many innocents – civilians whose lives were cut short by their inability to find food. This same strategy, however, almost certainly contributed to the further turning of the war’s tide in the Union’s favor during the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19 October 1864. Successful throughout most of their engagement with Union forces at Cedar Creek, Early’s Confederate troops began peeling off in ever growing numbers to forage for food, thus enabling the 47th Pennsylvania and others under Sheridan’s command to rally.
From a military standpoint, it was another impressive, but difficult day. During the morning of 19 October, Early launched a surprise attack directly on Sheridan’s Cedar Creek-encamped forces. Early’s men were able to capture Union weapons while freeing a number of Confederates who had been taken prisoner during previous battles – all while pushing seven Union divisions back. According to Bates:
When the Army of West Virginia, under Crook, was surprised and driven from its works, the Second Brigade, with the Forty-seventh on the right, was thrown into the breach to arrest the retreat…. Scarcely was it in position before the enemy came suddenly upon it, under the cover of fog. The right of the regiment was thrown back until it was almost a semi-circle. The brigade, only fifteen hundred strong, was contending against Gordon’s entire division, and was forced to retire, but, in comparative good order, exposed, as it was, to raking fire. Repeatedly forming, as it was pushed back, and making a stand at every available point, it finally succeeded in checking the enemy’s onset, when General Sheridan suddenly appeared upon the field, who ‘met his crest-fallen, shattered battalions, without a word of reproach, but joyously swinging his cap, shouted to the stragglers, as he road rapidly past them – “Face the other way, boys! We are going back to our camp! We are going to lick them out of their boots!’”
The Union’s counterattack punched Early’s forces into submission, and the men of the 47th were commended for their heroism by General Stephen Thomas who, in 1892, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his own “distinguished conduct in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter, in which the advance of the enemy was checked” that day. Bates described the 47th’s actions:
When the final grand charge was made, the regiment moved at nearly right angles with the rebel front. The brigade charged gallantly, and the entire line, making a left wheel, came down on his flank, while engaging the Sixth Corps, when he went “whirling up the valley” in confusion. In the pursuit to Fisher’s Hill, the regiment led, and upon its arrival was placed on the skirmish line, where it remained until twelve o’clock noon of the following day. The army was attacked at early dawn…no respite was given to take food until the pursuit was ended.
Once again, the casualties for the 47th were high. Sergeant William Pyers, the C Company man who had so gallantly rescued the flag at Pleasant Hill was cut down and later buried on the battlefield. Corporal Edward Harper of Company D was wounded, but survived, as did Corporal Isaac Baldwin, who had been wounded earlier at Pleasant Hill. Perry County resident and Regimental Chaplain William Rodrock suffered a near miss as a bullet pierced his cap.
Following these major engagements, the 47th was ordered to Camp Russell near Winchester from November through most of December. On 14 November, 2nd Lieutenant George Stroop was promoted to the rank of Captain. Rested and somewhat healed, the 47th was then ordered to outpost and railroad guarding duties at Camp Fairview in Charlestown, West Virginia five days before Christmas.
Assigned first to the Provisional Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah in February, the men of the 47th moved, via Winchester and Kernstown, back to Washington, D.C. where, on 19 April, they were again responsible for helping to defend the nation’s capital – this time following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Encamped near Fort Stevens, they received new uniforms and were resupplied.
Letters home and newspaper interviews conducted in later years with survivors of the 47th Pennsylvania indicate that at least one 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer was given the high honor of guarding President Lincoln’s funeral train while others may have guarded the Lincoln assassination conspirators during the early days of their imprisonment or trial. As part of Dwight’s Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Department of Washington’s 22nd Corps, the 47th Pennsylvania also participated in the Union’s Grand Review on 23-24 May.
On their final southern tour, Company D and their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers served in Savannah, Georgia from 31 May to 4 June. Again in Dwight’s Division, this time they were with the 3rd Brigade, Department of the South. Relieving the 165th New York Volunteers in July, they quartered in the former mansion of the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury. Duties for the 47th during this phase were Provost (military police) and Reconstruction-related, including rebuilding railroads and other key segments of the region’s battered infrastructure.
Beginning on Christmas day of that year, the majority of the men of Company D, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers finally began to honorably muster out at Charleston, South Carolina, a process which continued through early January.
The End – and the Beginning
Private William A. McKee was one of those who mustered out on 25 December 1865. He also was married that same day – in Charleston to Mary Frances Schneider. Born in New York City, New York on 16 November 1849, Mary (Schneider) McKee was the daughter of George Schneider. She had moved to South Carolina with her parents shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, and settled with them in Charleston.
As anyone can imagine, life in Charleston was not easy for the Schneider family, particularly as the Civil War entered its final days.
After mustering out in Charleston, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent back to their families and communities across Pennsylvania the same way they had arrived – by water and rail. Following a stormy voyage home, the men of the 47th disembarked in New York City. Weary, but still eager, they were then shipped to Philadelphia by train where, at Camp Cadwalader on 9 January 1866, the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers were officially given their discharge papers.
Return to Civilian Life
It is not known at this time whether William and Mary (Schneider) McKee traveled with or separately from the 47th Pennsylvania, but it is certain that they did return to Pennsylvania after the war. Federal census records confirm that, sometime around 1867, they welcomed daughter, Carrie, to their Pennsylvania home. Daughter, Mary, was also born in Pennsylvania – on 27 April 1869. She would later marry William Stolldorf, a native of Germany born sometime around 1864, who died in Goodwin South Dakota in 1920. (Mary passed away in Goodwin on 11 February 1923.)
Daughters, Mattie and Lizzie were also both born in Pennsylvania – sometime around 1870 and 1871, respectively. Shortly afterward, George McKee moved his wife and children to Illinois. According to Mary’s obituary, available on the Illinois Ancestors’ website: “They came to Illinois in 1871 and located at Buda.”
A son, George Alfred McKee, was born in Buda, Illinois sometime around 1873. Daughter, Daisy, followed in 1877. The 1877 Buda, Illinois voters’ list and 1880 federal census both confirm the family’s move to the Village of Buda in Bureau County, Illinois, where William A. McKee was supporting his family as a wagon maker.
Both William and Mary became active in their adopted hometown. Mary was a charter member of the Emery Corps, W.R.C., a chapter of the National Woman’s Relief Corps, Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.
William Alfred McKee passed away in the Village of Buda, Bureau County, Illinois on 30 April 1890, and was interred at the Hopeland Cemetery in Buda.
On 18 0r 19 July 1890, Mary McKee filed for her Civil War Widow’s Pension from Illinois. She lived to see the turn of the century and more, finally passing away nearly three decades later on 8 April 1917 at the home of her daughter, Lizzie (McKee) Miller, in Tiskilwa, Illinois. The Rev. C. A. Hartzler, “pastor of the Mennonite church near Tiskilwa,” officiated at the funeral held from her daughter’s home. “Six grandchildren were pallbearers. The burial was in the family lot in Hopeland cemetery.”
In addition to daughter Lizzie, according to Mary’s obituary, Mary (Schneider McKee) was survived by two other daughters, Daisy (McKee) Driver of Loomis, South Dakota, and Mary (McKee) Stolldorf of Watertown, South Dakota; and sons George A. and Harry E. McKee of Chicago Heights, Illinois, as well as two nieces, one nephew, 22 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.
2. Civil War Veterans’ Card File. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives.
3. Biographical Sketch of William Alfred McKee and Obituary of Mary Schneider McKee (undated, unsourced newspaper clipping). Brimfield: Illinois Ancestors.
4. Schmidt, Lewis A. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published, 1986.
5. U.S. Census (1880). Washington, D.C.
6. U.S. Civil War Pension Index (application no.: 434713, certificate no.: 309834, filed from Illinois by the veteran’s widow, “McKee, Mary”, 18 or 19 July 1890). Washington, D.C.