Mounted on horseback, Col. Matthew S. Quay led the 134th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers into the path of deadly Confederate cannon and sharpshooters atop Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.
The future Pennsylvania political boss and U.S. Senator received a Medal of Honor for his valor that day. The honor came 25 years late, but even though Quay was a powerful politician by that time there was little doubt among his former comrades that he deserved it.
Quay’s heroism at Fredericksburg is even more noteworthy because he didn’t have to participate in that futile charge up Marye’s Heights, the Confederate stronghold above the Rappahannock River.
Sick with typhoid fever, Quay had asked permission to resign his command and go home to recuperate. Quay’s resignation was accepted just as the Union and Confederate armies were about to engage at Fredericksburg.
Quay said he couldn’t leave with a fight brewing and stayed with his regiment as a volunteer aide-de-camp.
In this capacity, he participated in the final Union assault on Marye’s Heights. Earlier assaults had failed leaving a tangle of wounded and dead bluecoats on the field.
Quay is described as urging the soldiers to advance to the Confederate position behind a formidable stonewall despite the heavy fire pouring at them.
He was untouched by bullets while many others fell around him. The Pennsylvanians got within 25 yards of the wall, but as with other direct frontal assaults on entrenched positions like Pickett’s Charge during the Civil War, that wasn’t good enough.
Fredericksburg was a massive defeat for the Army of the Potomac with 13,000 dead and wounded. The slaughter of Union soldiers in those futile hillside charges prompted Gen. Robert E. Lee’s famous remark: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”
Quay had come to war from the staff of Republican Gov. Andrew Curtin and he returned to Harrisburg to help Curtin win reelection with the soldiers’ vote the next year.
Quay built his political career as the soldiers’ friend. Receiving the Medal of Honor a quarter century later for his bravery on the battlefield was not that unusual, according to Quay biographer James A. Kehl.
The Medal of Honor was created during the war and about one-third of the medals for Civil War deeds were awarded after 1890.
So it is that in Soldiers’ Grove on the Capitol Grounds there’s a recessed stone with the engraving “Matthew S. Quay 12/13/1862 Fredericksburg, Va.”
Quay’s time in politics was stormy and he had as many enemies as friends even in his own Republican party. Late in life, Quay was embroiled in a political donnybrook where he waged a two-year fight to keep his U.S. Senate seat while facing criminal prosecution and eventually acquittal for misusing state money.
After Quay’s death in 1904, a state law was enacted appropriating $20,000 for a marble statue of the senator.
The statue was intended for the grounds of the newly rebuilt Capitol Building, but that plan drew protests from anti-Quay Republicans, according to the files of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee.
The controversy led to the statue being placed in a Rotunda alcove near the Senate entrance. The statue was installed in 1909 without a dedication ceremony.
It went to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans association, to do honors at the statue to the soldiers’ friend on Memorial Day 1910. — Robert Swift
Harrisburg Bureau Chief for Times-Shamrock Newspapers