- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

As part of the 1st Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Erastus B. Tyler, the 134th Pennsylvania had just witnessed the charge of the 2nd Brigade against the entrenched Army of Northern Virginia, waiting behind a 4-foot-high stone wall atop Marye’s Heights, about 150 yards away, commanding the plain below. The 2nd Brigade advanced about 50 yards, then retreated in the face of murderous rifle and musket fire from Confederate infantry behind the stone wall.

‘March over them’

It was now the 1st Brigade’s turn. Taking advantage of the shelter offered by a ravine at Telegraph Road, the 1st Brigade began to form for the attack, an action complicated by a six-gun battery in its midst. After some difficulty, Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, commander of the 3rd Division, managed to get the battery to cease firing. He then ordered the 1st Brigade to advance and march over the troops who had participated in the five previous assaults on Marye’s Heights and were using the ravine for shelter.

Those survivors cried out to the advancing troops, imploring them not to go forward, and some even tried to physically restrain them.

At that moment, Matthew Stanley Quay, formerly the colonel of the 134th Pennsylvania, now a staff aide, cried out, “March over them, tramp them down!” As the 1st Brigade rose from the ravine and advanced into the devastating Confederate fire, Quay, on horseback, exhorted the inexperienced troops, shouting “Damn it, boys, what are you dodging for! If I can sit on my horse, and the bullets go over my head, they certainly can’t hit you!” Miraculously, Quay was not hit. However, the 1st Brigade, which came closer to the stone wall than any previous unit, lost nearly half its muster (52 killed, 321 wounded, and 81 missing).

In his battle report, Tyler was generous in praise of Quay, and in later years, Quay’s self-discipline and composure under fire remained strong in the memory of many who had seen him that day. Through the efforts of Tyler and former comrades, Quay was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1888 for his actions at Fredericksburg.

Matthew Stanley Quay was born Sept. 30, 1833, in Dillsburg, Pa., the son of Anderson Beaton Quay, pastor of the Carlisle Presbytery, and Catherine McCain Quay. He was one of eight children, of whom five lived to adulthood. In 1840, the Quay family moved to Pittsburgh. Shortly after, Anderson Quay became the pastor of the Presbyterian Congregation in Beaver, Pa., about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Overcomes adversities

Young Quay survived a childhood marked by pecuniary hardship but managed to get a good education, graduating from Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., where he was an outstanding student. In college, Quay acquired a love of books and reading and was a devotee of the poetry of Whittier and Longfellow.

After several failed attempts to start a career, Quay was admitted to the bar in Beaver County and married Agnes Barclay in 1854. In 1855, Andrew Gregg Curtin, secretary of the commonwealth and an acquaintance of Anderson Quay’s, recommended him to fill the office of the prothonotary — a legal administrative position — in Beaver County. Quay was elected prothonotary in 1856 and again in 1859.

Off to war

By the beginning of the Civil War, Curtin had been elected governor. Quay had managed Curtin’s election campaign in Beaver County, and Curtin had taken note of his administrative abilities. On May 15, 1861, Curtin appointed Quay to the rank of lieutenant colonel and stationed him in Harrisburg as the assistant commissary general of Pennsylvania. The Commissary Department was transferred to Washington, but Curtin retained Quay as his private secretary.

After more than a year as an administrator, Quay became bored and twice requested a field command. Curtin consented reluctantly, and Quay was commissioned as colonel of the 134th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, part of Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

Humphrey’s division was ordered to reinforce the Army of the Potomac, which had just fought at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. Quay reported their arrival: “We reached the battlefield the morning after the battle after a night march of twenty miles; found the armies facing each other with the enemy in sight and were immediately marched to the front and placed in support of a battery.”

Everyone expected the battle to resume the next day, but the Confederates retreated under cover of darkness across the Potomac into Virginia, and McClellan did not pursue them.

Some time thereafter, Quay contracted typhoid fever and was hospitalized. The brigade surgeon advised him to go home and recuperate or face certain death. Following this advice, Quay sent in a letter of resignation.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 7, President Lincoln dismissed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The new commander, Ambrose E. Burnside, planned an attack on Fredericksburg because it lay athwart the most direct route to Richmond. Fredericksburg also straddled the Richmond, Fredericksburg, & PotomacRailroad, which provided quick access to Richmond. Had Burnside’s plan worked, the Union Army would have gotten between the Confederate capital and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, Quay had refused to go home because he believed that the upcoming battle would be a crucial engagement. Despite the surgeon’s warning, Quay said, “I cannot afford to go home in the face of battle. I have promised to stand by the 134th in this fight, and I intend doing it.”

He requested reinstatement to his former command, but this was denied. Quay then urged Tyler, commander of the 1st Brigade, to add him to his staff. Tyler granted him permission to rejoin the 134th Pennsylvania, as a staff aide, and in the twilight of early evening, Dec. 13, he joined the last futile charge against the Confederates atop Marye’s Heights, somehow avoiding becoming one of the 8,000 Union casualties that afternoon.

Political pursuits

After the battle at Fredericksburg, Quay returned to Pennsylvania. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1864, 1865 and 1866. He became the acknowledged leader of those legislators who supported Gov. Curtin, comprising the largest faction in the legislature. Therefore, according to custom, Quay became a candidate for House speaker.

However, his pursuit of the speaker’s seat became intertwined with Curtin’s pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat. Curtin’s rival for that seat was Simon Cameron, formerly President Lincoln’s first secretary of war, and a U.S. senator before the war, who wanted to regain his old job. Cameron’s forces outmaneuvered Curtin, who bowed out of the race. Quay lost the contest for speaker. Politicians who had supported Curtin now supported Cameron. Cameron’s organization unified the state Republican Party and came to dominate Pennsylvania politics.

Quay, however, was accused of disloyalty to Curtin, and he temporarily retired from politics. He started a successful newspaper, the Beaver Radical, which he ran and edited for four years. Returning to the political arena in 1873, he became a trusted member of the Cameron organization. Quay became state treasurer in 1885 and U.S. senator in 1887. In July 1888, he was appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee, to guide the fall presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison.

Harrison was elected president after Quay shrewdly overcame charges of election fraud in New York City. In April 1900, at the Republican National Convention, Quay used his political experience to place Theodore Roosevelt on the Republican ticket as the vice presidential candidate.

Always a friend of Indians, Quay focused on their needs in the twilight of his career. He arranged meetings for tribal leaders with President Roosevelt and made certain that federal officials treated them with respect.

Matthew Stanley Quay died in Beaver, Pa., on May 28, 1904. On his tombstone, at his request, is the phrase “Implora Pacem” — plead for peace.

Stephen Bernstein is a writer in Maryland.

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