John Perry of the 20th Massachusetts had planned on going to Harvard
Medical School, but with a young wife and family plans he could not afford
it. He decided instead to attend the "Scientific School" from which he
graduated with sufficient training to perform the medical duties of an
Assistant Regimental Surgeon. Perry's wartime letters were "compiled" (and
polished) by his wife, Martha Derby Perry, in 1906 as Letters From a
Surgeon of the Civil War. Large excerpts from that book were recently
reprinted in Robert E. Denney's Civil War Medicine: Care and Comfort
of the Wounded (NY: Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., 1994).The following
extract from the original 1906 book has less to do with medicine, though,
than with murder, mystery, and (perhaps) Martha's taste for the macabre.
At the time of the events depicted, Henry Abbott was in
command of the 20th Massachusetts (the "Major" depicted in the piece) and
John Perry was still suffering from a leg badly broken by a falling horse
the previous spring.
THE MURDER OF CAPTAIN MCKAY
On the 5th of October, 1863, a horrible murder occurred in the camp of
the Twentieth Massachusetts, and as the facts concerning it extended
through many weeks, it seems well to collect and give them as a whole.
Our corps were encamped in a thick wood within a few miles of Culpeper
[Virginia], & its presence could be detected only by the clouds of
smoke from camp-fires curling above the trees. Close to our rear was a
regiment notorious for its drunken brawls & lawlessness. It was
composed principally of conscripts, substitutes, and New York rioters,
among them many jail birds, and force and arms were often necessary 
to quell the incessant rows and disturbances among these rough characters.
On the evening of October 5th, taps had sounded in the Twentieth
Massachusetts, lights were out, every man was in his tent, and the silence
of the night was broken only by the wind which swept fitfully through the
pines. Only the officer of the day and I were in camp, the others being on
a visit to another regiment, and the soft little glimmer of light which
shone forth in the prevailing darkness came from the tent outside of which
Captain McKay and I were seated....The Captain had enlisted as a private
when the regiment was first organized, and by his intelligence, bravery,
and good fellowship had reached his present rank. Company F, which he
commanded, was made up of the worst elements in the regiment, which was
otherwise unusual for military deportment and manly bearing.
We sat talking of the incessant delays in hostilities, when a shout
interrupted us, followed by yells and drunken laughter.
"The fellows in our rear," I said, after a moment's pause; but the
Captain's face was anxious.
"No," he answered, "those are my men; they are drunk and quarrelsome;
something tells me there is trouble brewing to-night; ever since I
punished the ringleaders in those rows they have been sullen and out of
temper. In the drill this afternoon I did not like their mood"; and asking
me to stand ready in case of need, he left and sauntered towards the
I heard the Captain order his men to their quarters, but in so calm a
voice that it seemed to me he dealt too gently with the brutes; and on the
instant there was a shot and then a moan. I reached the spot in time to
see the Captain leap into the air and fall, and to hear him cry, "Doctor,
I am murdered!"
By the flickering light of the same little  candle by which we had
just sat, we bore him into the tent; but he was dead when we reached it.
Dead! A little enough word, but with such weight of meaning!
Instantly the sergeant, then aroused, ordered the men of the Captain's
company into line; the officers were sent for, and, on their quick return,
the roll was called, and every gun examined. Every man was present, and
each had his gun, but many of them were so drunk they could barely stand.
Those who were sufficiently sober knew that they stood not only in the
presence of a crime, but of their murdered captain, whose body was now
stretched upon the ground before them. Neither moon nor stars shone upon
them; no other light than the uncertain glimmer of a camp-fire and tent
candle, which only added to the ghastly pallor of the men.
During the inspection I stood by the body, facing the lines, intently
watching every movement, alert to every sound.  Soon there was a
murmur of astonishment, and we saw in the ranks before us an Italian
boy,--a raw recruit, half-witted, or at least so dull that his officers
had been able to do but little with him. There he stood with a smoking
musket. His hands hung limply by his side, his eyes without light of
expression in them were fastened upon his weapon. The spent cap was on the
nipple; the smoke still issued from the muzzle and the lock was blackened
by the discharge.
We looked from the gun to the boy; to the murdered,--he, with neither
years nor wit?
"Tell your story," said the Major, looking steadfastly into the boys
eyes, to hold, if possible, the fellow's scattered wits.
This roused him, and throwing himself upon his knees, with tears
streaming over his cheeks and a voice thin and styled, he gave, by a few
words here and there, by expression and gesture, a clear enough
account of all he knew, making us understand that he had neither tent
nor blanket; had been cold and sleepy; and so, leaning his musket against
a tree near the fire, his cartridge and cap-box beside it, dropped to
sleep at its foot. The shot roused him; he saw some one carried off, and
when he heard the sergeant call the roll he made a grab for his musket,
but not finding it, supposed it had fallen, and while groping for it in
the darkness he tripped over it as it lay concealed in the bushes; then he
caught it up, suspecting nothing, and rushed to his place in the ranks.
There was silence now; all the officers had judged the lad, and in our
own minds felt him guiltless of the crime, but in the absence of any other
clue he must be dealt with.
He was taken to the body, and before all those assembled was made to
kneel, kiss the Bible, and with his left hand over the dead man's heart,
the other raised, to swear  before God that he was innocent of the
deed. This he did with the weariness of a bewildered child, and, inspite
of circumstantial evidence, the conviction of his innocence was so
universal that the lad was allowed to wander to the warmth of the still
smouldering fire, where exhaustion and sleep soon wrapped him in oblivion.
Attention was again riveted upon the ranks. Was the murderer facing us
from among those men in line, or was he creeping stealthely away through
The officers gathered about the body of the murdered captain, and after
a brief consultation it was decided to dismiss the men and wait until the
morning for further action. The body was removed to a large tent, where
the sergeant and I watched over it for the remainder of the night. The
wind moaned and whistled, things creaked and flapped in the blasts, and in
this weary vigil ever the monotonous tramp, tramp of a sentinel outside
the tent took its place in  the tragedy. The night wore on, and in the
bleak and cheerless dawn all the officers of the regiment gathered about
the dead Captain to hold a council. After long deliberation it was decided
that the men of Company F should march into this tent, one by one, kneel,
kiss the Bible, and, with one hand on the heart of the murdered man, each
should swear before God that he was innocent af all implication in the
In the solemn silence of this Court of Officers, under the concentrated
attention of all present, when not the flicker of an eyelid could escape
observation, each man faced the ordeal without flinching, with no sign of
guilt; and many bore themselves with the dignity of honest freedom, though
in the presence of conditions before which even an innocent heart might
quail. The experiment was a failure, and hours passed in which all
available means to discover the assassin were fruitlessly tried. Even the
lawless men of the Captain's company were shocked into good behavior, and
in their bearing expressed respect and love for their dead commander.
Indeed, the Captain's death has cast a deep gloom over the entire
regiment. The old Twentieth, which has so long borne the name of
"Gallant," now bears the burden of stigma. We constantly questioned
ourselves and others as to all possibilities in respect to the murderer:
we wondered if he was lurking in the riotous regiment which was quartered
in our rear; but what cause had we for such suspicions? Possibly one of
the Captain's men owed him a grudge for punishment received, and had
bartered the revengeful act with one of those neighboring ruffians. A
reward might settle the question, and for this purpose a sum of money was
immediately collected and offered to anyone who should give information in
regard to the murder, with the added promise of a furlough home. As for
me,--I wish I could give the rest of  my pay while in the service to
have the murderer caught and shot. I cannot recover from the shock.
Just at this moment orders to march arrived, which instantaneously
changed the scene. Tension and strain yielded to bustle and activity.
The sergeant and I carefully watched the placing of the Captain's body
in an ambulance bound for Alexandria, where the remains would be embalmed
before the journey home.
My horse had been disabled by a shoulder wound, which I now examined
with some anxiety, lest the animal might become useless during the move of
the army; but he seemed in a satisfactory condition, and with his good
services I felt sure of holding my place in the ranks in spite of my lame
As we were about to start we saw a stranger in officer's uniform
approaching us, who asked where he could find the  officer in command
of the regiment. The Major, who happened to be near, heard the question,
and said, "What is your business with me?"
"I hail from the same place as the Captain who was killed last night,"
answered the man. "I've served my time and am on my way home, and, if you
like, will take charge of the body and see that it arrives safely."
The Major became interested. It seemed a most fortunate arrangement,
especially in a time of so much hurry and confusion, and after a brief
conference with the other officers of the regiment, it was decided that
the opportunity was too good a one to lose, and that they had better
accept an offer of such disinterested services. A sufficient sum of money
was raised to cover all expenses, as well as to recompense the man for his
trouble, and the ambulance, with its solitary burden, was delivered into
his hands to begin the long  and tedious journey towards the New
The army was quickly on the move, and for a time all went well with me,
but before many hours had passed my horse became lame, soon proving
utterly unable to carry me. In this plight I dismounted, not a little
dismayed, yet so determined to persevere that I held to the saddle, and by
aid of the horse walked painfully on. In spite of every effort to keep my
place, I slowly but surely receded to the rear and there met the ambulance
which bore the body of the dear captain; changing my hold from the horse
to the tailboard of this ambulance, I pulled myself along.
The onward push of men and artillery, the deafening medley of noises,
the dense clouds of blinding, suffocating dust, and my own suffering for a
time completely absorbed me, but my thoughts finally centred upon the
ambulance with its burden. Walking by the side of the vehicle was the 
Captain's friend, who, seeing that he was recognized, joined me. He told
me that he had served his time, was sick and tired of the life, and glad
enough to go home. The man's voice was sullen, and his head hung forward
A noise in the ambulance turned my attention to a water-cask, which I
saw had broken loose, and was rolling over the body.
"Fasten that cask, will you," I said to the man at my side, "or it will
injure the Captain's body."
"D- the Captain!" came like a flash from the lips of the man; but with
an instantaneous glance at me he mumbled: "Oh, what did you say, Doc? Oh,
the water-cask! Yes, I'll fix it"; and he jumped inside the wagon and
fastened the keg in its place.
This oath, flying out in hate and scorn from the lifelong friend and
neighbor of the Captain, was startling to say the  least. I turned and
looked the man well over. The more I looked, the more I shrank from
something despicable in his gait and aspect; a sneak, and a cowardly
bully, I'll be bound, I thought. I would not trust him out of sight, and,
although the man continued his desultory talk, my heedless answers finally
As soon as possible the circumstance was reported to the officer in
charge, but although it was certainly considered suspicious, there did not
seem sufficient evidence to act upon, and before long I watched from a
growing distance the ambulance, with its single guard shambling by the
side, wending its separate way. I wish to God, I thought, that the man was
back and well secured.
Weeks passed without trace of the murderer, although the search was
constant and persistent. Warm letters of sympathy were sent from the camp
to the girl at the North who was waiting now for the dead body  of her
lover,--letters which assured her of the safe transportation of the
remains, guarded as they were by a lifelong friend of the
Captain's,_____by name, who was on his way home and had offered his
More weeks passed, when one day, while the officers were together at
mess, an orderly handed a letter to the Major in command of the regiment.
"By Jove!" said the latter, glacing at the postmark, "this letter is
from the Captain's poor girl," and tearing it open, he read the contents
aloud. They stated that neither the body of Captain McKay nor the man who
left the camp with it in charge had arrived; nor would they ever do so,
for she was absolutely certain that that man was the assassin. Sometime
ago she had refused his offer of marriage and, when he heard of her
engagement to the Captain, he swore he would kill him, if it were
necessary to enlist for the purpose.  Subsequently he had enlisted in
a New York regiment, from which she also knew he was dishonorably
discharged at the date of the murder.
Consternation settled upon every face at the conclusion of the reading.
So! It seemed that the murderer had calmly and freely walked off with the
body of his victim! What fools he had made of us all! And the
grotesqueness of the trick the creature had played upon us grew, and with
it grew the determination to track that man on whatever road he might be,
and to serve him his due.
Wider interest in the matter was raised; more funds subscribed and
detectives sent in all directions. The contents of the letter soon spread
among the men of the regiment, and those concerned in the drunken brawl on
the night of the murder finally confessed that the man who travelled from
camp with the dead captain was the same who gave them whiskey the night he
was  shot; that this man did his best to incite them to the murder,
and, when he failed in this, grabbed the boy's gun, crouched in the
bushes, and fired the fatal shot himself.
In course of time news arrived of the capture of the murderer in a
Western regiment, and that he was then on his way back to our quarters
under strict guard. The satisfaction of officers and men was immense, and
not one would have tossed a penny to save the wretch's life. We had all
the necessary proof, and every witness of the deed was present.
When the man arrived, a court-martial was immediately convened. He was
tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged; but before the execution
could take place the necessary papers must be supervised in Washington,
and during this delay the prisoner was strictly guarded night and day.
Time crept slowly on, until eventually an official document postmarked
"Washington"  arrived, was handed to the officer in command, who, in
the presence of his staff, opened it with the composure of assured
success; for had they not possession of the man, and sufficient proof to
hang twenty like him?
"Read! read!" we cried, but the Major, staring at the page, seemed
barely able to see the words, then with a round oath, he flung the paper
upon the table.
"That man," he said, "the murderer of our captain, is free--scot
free--as free as a North American Indian! A legal flaw has been discovered
in the paper sent to Washington which renders it absolutely invalid. There
is no redress, and nothing can be done."
Amazement and consternation overpowered us. Was there no loophole of
escape by which we could hold the prisoner and in time enforce the
No! the order to liberate the prisoner must be immediate. This was
given, and  erelong we saw the murderer leave the camp, heard him jeer
his would-be executioners, and, with his thumb upon his nose, we saw him
wave his fingers in derision, and vanish into mystery.
SO....WHO KILLED CAPTAIN MCKAY?
The roster in Bruce's history of the 20 MA lists McKay as
"assassinated" on Oct. 6, 1863, but the episode is overlooked in the text.
In Henry Abbott's published letters we read:
"You have of course heard how Capt. McKay was assassinated by a
conscript named McClusky, who shot him in cold blood in the night as
McKay was standing near the fire.The fellow knealt behind a tree and
took deliberate aim. He has managed to escape, but $2,000 reward has
been offered, $1,000 by the officers of the regiment, $500 by the
officers of the brig., and $500 by the officers of the regiment, who
felt the thing deeply, for McKay, though a very strict disciplinarian,
was just the man to win the love of soldiers. He was a devlish fine
officer and I felt his loss terribly, particularly from the manner of
his death." (letter of 10/17/63; Fallen Leaves, p. 223)
However, Robert Garth Scott, editor of Abbott's letters, added the
"Thomas McKay was murdered the night of Oct. 5. The soldier named
McClusky, whom Abbott originally thought guilty of the crime, was later
found to be innocent. Although Abbott mentions nothing of it in his
letters, the actual murderer was a snubbed suitor of McKay's fiancee who
had enlisted in a New York Regiment brigaded with the 20th for the sole
purpose of killing McKay".
Scott then summarizes the Perry version of the tale, and directs the
reader "for the full story of the case" to the chapter presented in full
That still leaves us asking...who killed Captain McKay?
There is an answer out there somewhere, in court martial records,
compiled service records, newspaper articles, family correspondence,
scuttlebutt. SOLVE THE MYSTERY OF CAPTAIN MCKAY'S MURDER and we will
feature your findings prominently in this web page. After 130 years, it is
time to lay this ghost to rest.