McKee's Last Missive: The 15th Wisconsin and Knob Gap
On the first day of the Stones River campaign, the courage of the 15th Wisconsin was put to the test at Knob Gap near Nolensville, Tennessee. General Alexander McCook's corps had marched south from their camps at Nashville that morning and as morning turned to afternoon, the skies let loose and the troops quickly found themselves tramping along muddy roads. Ahead lay a Confederate cavalry outpost supporting a battery covering Knob Gap, and General Jefferson Davis wanted the guns taken.
"We know that if that gap is gallantly defended, the task of taking it is no easy one," recalled Lieutenant Colonel David McKee. "Colonel Carlin turns around with his usual coolness and firmness and gives his orders. “Lt. Col. McKee, you will take command of the line of skirmishers and advance them rapidly.” A single “yes sir” and I know where my post of duty is and go to it."
Lieutenant Colonel McKee of the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry was a rarity in his regiment; a native born American of Irish parents, McKee was one of the minority of non-Scandinavians in the regiment. McKee had served previously as a captain with the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry and seen action at Bull Run before being promoted into the 15th Wisconsin. He would meet his end five days after Knob Gap in one of the opening clashes of the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee.
McKee's account of the action at Knob Gap was published in the January 13, 1863 edition of the Grant County Herald of Lancaster, Wisconsin. McKee's death left his Pamela alone to raise two orphaned girls that the couple had adopted before the war.
To learn more about the engagement at Knob Gap, please click here to read "Capturing the Gun at Knob Gap with the 15th Wisconsin" and for a perspective from the 101st Ohio, check out "Charles Barney Dennis at Stones River Part I: Engagement at Knob Gap."
In the field near Triune, Tennessee
December 28, 1862
The Army of the Cumberland got itself in motion on Friday December 26th. I assure you it was a great relief to almost all of us to again be put to work and taking the right direction toward the center of Dixie. When the order came to move to the front, a shout of “Bully for Rosecrans” rent the air everywhere and everybody was delighted with the prospect after having remained comparatively inactive in camp for several weeks. Davis’ division, which is the extreme right of the right wing of the army, took the lead. This division is composed of three brigades: the First commanded by Colonel P.S. Post, the Second by Colonel W.P. Carlin, and the Third by Colonel William Woodruff. Post’s brigade was in the advance followed by Carlin then Woodruff.
Davis’ division proceeded on a somewhat circuitous route to Nolensville. He was supported on the left by General Sheridan’s division, and I am informed that General Negley had proceeded on the Franklin turnpike which was still to the right of Davis. About 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the division arrived in front of the enemy’s camp at Nolensville and found them drawn up in line of battle ready to receive us. Pinney’s 5th Wisconsin Battery opened the fire with shells at moderate range but the enemy being pretty well under cover of the hills, it is not supposed that much damage was done. In a few moment, they replied with considerable vigor.
|Private Martin Norda, Co. I, 15th Wisconsin|
Post’s brigade was drawn up in line to support Pinney’s battery and skirmishers were thrown out to the front when musketry fire was opened but not yet very heavily. Carlin’s brigade was formed rapidly on the right of Post and advanced through a heavy thicket of cedars to a skirt of open woods and fields, the skirmishers being pretty well occupied with the Rebel cavalry in front until the brigade was halted and deployed up in line. The Rebel batteries opened on us from the left and immediately in front of Post. The order “unsling knapsacks” was given by Colonel Carlin and was quickly obeyed by the brigade and then all was ready. “That battery must be taken” was the order.
Carlin swung his brigade around to the left and started for it as the battery fired but a few rounds before it limbered up and started to the rear in the direction of Murfreesboro. It had been raining all day. The roads were terribly muddy, and the fields were nothing but beds of soft muck- the men sinking to the ankle at every step. Now let me give you a slight idea of the country we were in and in which we now had to contend with the enemy. After our brigade had swung around and advanced and occupied the position previously occupied by the Rebels and their battery, we were then at right angles with our first position, and we halted for rest and for orders. In front and to our left was an open plain for some distance in which is located the little Southern town of Nolensville. Surrounding this plain, or rather basin, is a continuous chain of hills, high and precipitous. Directly in our front and not man than a mile distant is a deep cut or gorge through the mountain through which the Nolensville and Triune turnpike passes. This gap in the mountain is not more than 300 paces in width and is closed in by steep bluffy walls. The Rebels have taken position at this gap and have placed their artillery and troops in it.
|Colonel Philip Sidney Post|
It looks like a hard road to travel, and it is Post’s privilege to take it. While we rest, he approaches Colonel Carlin; now remember that Post has hardly changed his position since he first opened fire on the enemy. He asks Carlin what he proposes to do; Carlin answers that he intends to let his men rest and then go where he is ordered. Post is pale and has but little to say but complains that his men are used up and cannot move. Carlin tells him that if he (Carlin) is ordered forward, he wants Post to support his left and wants Post’s brigade on the left of the turnpike. Post says nothing; he makes no reply.
Now an aide of General Davis rides up with orders: “That battery must be taken at any risk.” Carlin must do it. This is serious business; it is no child’s play. A thought of the danger, then a thought and probably a silent tear for the loved ones at home steals its way to the cheek of the stalwart man; not what will become of him troubles the soldier, but what will become of them. Here are the lives of the regiment depending upon the conduct of its officers. A slight mistake on their part and they become, as it were, their executioners. There is a fearful responsibility, but a moment, but a second for this reflection and then all are nerved for the contest.
|General William P. Carlin|
We know that if that gap is gallantly defended, the task of taking it is no easy one. Colonel Carlin turns around with his usual coolness and firmness and gives his orders. “Lt. Col. McKee, you will take command of the line of skirmishers and advance them rapidly.” A single “yes sir” and I know where my post of duty is and go to it. The skirmishers are deployed and pushed rapidly as possible to the front. They are one company each from the 21st Illinois, 38th Illinois, 15th Wisconsin, and 101st Ohio. These regiments together with the 2nd Minnesota Battery constitute the brigade. All are pushed rapidly forward. Three of the regiments are at times pretty well covered by the formation of the ground; the 38th Illinois was most terribly exposed.
The enemy’s battery opened upon us, and shell succeeds shell with most fearful rapidity. On, on, onward plod the almost exhausted Second Brigade. Nothing halts them. The iron hail plunges through thin lines, over them, and in front of them. Through cornfields and woods, up and down hills, they pursue the march to the very cannon’s mouth. The skirmishers are near enough to open fire which they do in good style as they advance.
The Rebels now use canister on us. A moment more and the whole brigade opens fire on the heads of the skirmishers who have advanced into the ravine in front of the Rebel guns. Double quick is ordered and while the men can’t get up a trot, they do get up a most frightful yell. The Rebels limber up to the rear as fast as possible, but there is one place they cannot and dare not attempt to take off. Firing ceases almost and your humble servant had the honor of being the first man at the gun, a good six-pounder of the 14th Georgia Battery and which had been captured from our forces at Shiloh. We got three prisoners with it. Our loss in this charge was but eleven men in the whole brigade. Our good luck can be attributed to nothing else but the bad management of the gunners. Had they fought with half the gallantry with which our men advanced upon them and stood their ground as soldiers should have done, the slaughter must have been frightful. Their musketry fire from dismounted cavalry lasted but a moment or two.
|General Jefferson C. Davis|
Our point was carried and after following about a half mile further we were permitted to rest. Post did not support Carlin as was expected and did not come up until after the fight was over. Pinney’s battery took position and did good work. We have no idea of their strength, but it was reported at 13,000. I do not think it was more than half that number.
They carried off a number of killed and wounded and left some few in the houses in the neighborhood. That sight of the advancing brigade and the Rebels defending was most grand, and worth the services of any man for one year to have witnessed. The 15th Wisconsin claims the honor of capturing the field piece. Colonel Heg and I were the first to take possession of it and placed a guard over it.
Yesterday, the Rebels were followed up and driven through Triune and one more piece of artillery captured. If the Cumberland River would now rise, I have no doubt we can keep Bragg busy and get further into Dixie than we have yet been. Yesterday we heard heavy firing in the direction of Savory on the Nashville & Murfreesboro turnpike but don’t know what the result was. On to Chattanooga is the word. If we can get provisions to the army, we will soon be there.
|Colonel Hans C. Heg|
Despite the confidence shown in his letter of the 28th, Colonel McKee suspected he would not live to see the army in Chattanooga. His friend Lieutenant Joseph H. Rackerby of Co. E remembered that in his final days, McKee seemed to have a presentiment of his forthcoming demise. “Just before the fight began on the 30th, Colonel McKee told me that if he and Colonel Heg were killed, to see that his remains were sent home and he then offered me his money and watch to keep for him,” he wrote. “I advised him to give them to the surgeon which he did, keeping his watch to himself. On the night of the 30th, I saw and conversed with him again and he said that if they went into the fight the next day, he would go on foot as there was more danger on horseback. I saw him early the next morning [December 31, 1862] trying to rally his scattered men and as he passed me, he said, “Joe, God bless you! Are you yet safe? This beats Bull Run!” I saw him no more until about 8 o’clock when the lines fell back to where I was having had to retreat across a large corn and cotton field. I turned and saw Colonel McKee throw his hand to his head and fall. This was the last I saw of him until after the Rebels had evacuated when I got permission to go over the field. McKee was the first man I came to. I found that the ball had passed direct through the brain which must have caused instant death. When I found him, he was stripped of all his clothes except his underclothes.”
Colonel Hans C. Heg also noted McKee’s presentiment. “Poor McKee, I believe he expected to be killed,” Heg noted in a letter to his wife. “He was very gloomy the day before and in the morning before the fight began, he asked his hostler to take his horse and wanted him to take his watch and also gave Dr. Himmoe most of his money. I did not see him fall, but he was not more than 200-300 feet from me. The smoke and noise were so heavy that little could be seen or heard. We miss McKee considerable, at least I do for he was good company.”
Nine months later, Heg himself would be killed in action at the Battle of Chickamauga.
Letter from Lieutenant Colonel David McKee, 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Grant County Herald (Wisconsin), January 13, 1863, pg. 1
Letter from First Lieutenant Joseph H. Rackerby, Co. E, 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Grant County Herald (Wisconsin), February 17, 1863, pg. 2
Blegen, Theodore, editor. The Civil War Letters of Hans Christian Heg, 15th Wisconsin Infantry. Northfield: Norwegian American Historical Association, 1936
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