Letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes Tells Story of Union Soldier’s Murder

October 18, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 42 (158 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Civil War Fragging? Union Officer Murdered by Conscript. Letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Tells the Story

October 18, 1863. Although the war began with mostly volunteer armies on both sides, conscription was soon in effect in both the North and South. Widely hated and opposed, conscription often brought the least qualified and willing into the armies — and sometimes worse.

On October 18, 1863, while encamped at Blackburn’s Ford near Manassas, Virginia, Major Henry Livermore Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts wrote to his close friend (and future Supreme Court Justice) Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes was at home in Massachusetts recovering from the third of three wounds he received during the war. The letter told about a fellow officer in the 20th Massachusetts, a Captain Thomas McKay, who was murdered in his camp:

My Dear Oliver,

I suppose you have already heard the full particulars of poor McKay’s murder. It was a horrible affair. The murderer, who was in all probability a conscript named McClusky, an ill looking fellow & a deserter from [Gen. J.E.B.] Stuart’s rebel cavalry, knelt down behind a tree & took deliberate aim at Tom as he stood in the light of the fire. It was about 10 o’clock at night & Tom was standing behind his company tents. I was asleep at the time, but Patten and Dr., who were sitting by the fire, rushed down when the shot was fired & Tom cried out. Too late however. Tom never spoke another word. As soon as it was light I examined every man on oath with one hand on the corpse, but could find out nothing. The next day this McClusky deserted, & I have since received information whose author I can’t just now disclose, that he was the man who fired the shot. The only cause any one can imagine is that McClusky did [it] in revenge, because he had been once or twice driven up on the march by McKay.

The officers and men of the regiment collected a large sum to offer as a reward for his capture, but there’s no indication he was ever found.

Not all conscripts were bad, however. In the same letter, in describing a recent battle, Abbott wrote, “The conscripts behaved unexpectedly well, as most of the cowards & villains have by this time deserted.”

Henry Livermore Abbott, courtesy Harvard Law School Library, and Oliver Wendell Homes, courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society

Henry Livermore Abbott, courtesy Harvard Law School Library, and Oliver Wendell Homes, courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society

– Submitted by Bill Halainen     


Excerpted from Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, published by Kent State University Press, pp. 224-25.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1863

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s