Reader David McKay recently alerted me to a little-known historical incident from the Civil War.
During the rebellion, there was an Ohio National Guard troop in Knox County, the 22nd Battalion. It had been organized strictly for the purposes of defending the local area if the Confederates ever invaded Ohio.
By the late spring of 1864, however, it was obvious that the South would not be making its way into central Ohio, for they were fully occupied defending themselves from the multiple invasions of the Union armies. The Northern generals, however, still needed support for the intensive war effort in Virginia, so a controversial decision was made to nationalize some of the Ohio National Guard battalions to fill the state's draft quota.
Young men who had signed up to defend nothing more than their homes suddenly found themselves going off to war.
The 142nd Ohio Volunteer National Guard was formed with battalions from Knox County, Williams County, and Coshocton County. David McKay's ancestor, William McKay, was one of the soldiers, age 19 at the time of enrollment.
The McKays had come to Knox County in the person of Robert Stephenson McKay, who had been born in Scotland, married in Manchester, England, then immigrated to the United States. Despite leaving, McKay must have been a patriotic Scot, for he named his first son William Wallace McKay when he was born in November of 1845.
Coming first to Springfield, Ohio, the McKays settled near Greersville in eastern Knox County, moving closer to Mount Vernon a few years later. R.S. McKay is listed on period census reports as a farmer.
The 142nd was organized at Camp Chase in Columbus on May 13 and 14, 1864, under Col. William Cooper.
They were marched to the state arsenal, where they were supplied with weapons. Sent toward Washington in open cattle cars, the soldiers' trip became a horrible misadventure when a late spring snowstorm hit while they were routing around the destroyed railroad bridge at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
By May 22, they made it to Washington, and were assigned to Fort Lyon for training under General DeRussy.
Just weeks into their service, on May 30, 1864, the National Guard unit was officially named the 142nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry while still drilling at Fort Lyon. It was attached to the Third Brigade.
The regimental quartermaster was Henry L. Curtis, and he was alarmed at this assignment, which would send the regiment to the battle front. He wrote to his parents on June 8, 1864.
“Dear Parents: — I wrote you just as we were starting on this new expedition, from Fort Lyon. No doubt your minds are full of anxiety about me, but I hope I will be able to write you often and soon that we are again quartered....
“It is too late or not the proper time to question whether we have been wronged or not. It is for Gov. Blough (of Ohio) to watch that the faith he reposed in President Lincoln is not abused. Of course it would be outrageous to send such troops as ours — unacquainted with battalion drill — directly into the front with old veterans. Disaster and disgrace would be likely to follow, however brave the men....”
Curtis' father, prominent Mount Vernon mover and shaker Henry B. Curtis, had the letter published in local newspapers, arousing controversy far beyond Mount Vernon.
It remained to be seen what would happen as they were sent toward the front, ostensibly assigned to the rear to protect supply trains. When the unit arrived at Cold Harbor, they were met with the sight of wounded soldiers in the aftermath of a brutal battle.
Col. Cooper was ordered to report to General Butler, where they were assigned to the 3rd Division of the 10th Army Corps.
The 142nd was marched to the far right of the Union line near Petersburg, Virginia. On June 15, the 142nd was moved into the trenches on the front line. It was clear, now, that they would not be held back and used for protecting supplies. They were going onto the front lines against seasoned Confederate veterans.
The Battle of Petersburg erupted on June 17, 1864. The fighting was relentless and ferocious for the next few days. Late in the day on June 20, the 142nd was ordered to move out. Without a chance to rest, the soldiers were marched three miles through a dense, dark pine forest without a path, to dig rifle pits.
As the battle turned into a long-running siege, the 142nd was constantly under fire and heroically repelled several Confederate attacks. Remarkably, none of their soldiers was killed in battle.
The ravages of malaria and dysentery through the ranks was another story. William McKay himself was plagued with stomach issues the rest of his life, and dysentery is very likely the reason he only lived to be 46, a delayed casualty of the war. The regiment lost 43 men to disease as they fought in the swamps of Virginia.
In August, their pledged 100 days of service almost up, the 142nd was pulled from the siege and shipped home to Ohio while other reserve units were pulled forward to continue the siege that would eventually break the back of the Confederate Army, forcing General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865.
Arriving at Camp Chase in Columbus, the soldiers of the 142nd Ohio were disappointed to discover that mustering out was neither quick nor simple. Officials in charge of processing the soldiers showed up drunk or didn't even bother to show up until late in the day. Mustering out took a week and a half.
Payroll sometimes didn't show up and scheduled departure trains didn't always run. Some of the men gave up waiting for trains and walked home.
In December, a certificate of service and a letter of thanks was sent out to the veterans. The document was signed by President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
After the war, it appears that William McKay moved to Holmes County for a period of time, where he married a wife who unfortunately passed away young. McKay moved back toward Mount Vernon, and wedded his second wife in 1876, Sarah Pipes.
The McKays appear to have lived in Pleasant Township, just on the border of town, in a cluster of houses known as Fleaville. Fleaville was where East Gambier Street and Edgewood Road cross. For many years, Bechtol's Brewery sat on the corner where today the First Baptist Church sits. No source I've ever seen has identified why Fleaville was given that colorful name.
The 1890 U. S. veterans census identifies McKay as having suffered from chronic diarrhea for years, an aftereffect of dysentery. Though an earlier census identified McKay as a stone mason, one wonders if he was able to maintain that line of labor near the end. He passed away on April 4, 1892, only 46 years old, and was buried in Mount View Cemetery.
The local branch of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization sent out a plea to other posts to raise money to help the McKays after William's death, noting: “This post has already been heavily taxed to support this family and other wards of the Grand Army.”
It says that the widow is unable to support herself and their six children and a mortgage of $600 was due on their house, just outside Mount Vernon.
Presumably donations were raised, for the children survived, and the property was still in the McKay name on the 1896 map. Sarah also applied for and received a widow's pension, which would have further helped support the family. She lived until 1922, but several of the children lived into the 1960s and 70s, a reminder that history is never all that far away.