27 January 2013

“Grandpa” William J. McAfee: Geraldine’s Union Soldier

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

“Grandpa” William J. McAfee: Geraldine’s Union Soldier

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
January 30, 2013

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana. This week features Civil War veteran Private William J. McAfee, known in early Geraldine as “Grandpa” McAfee.

In the words of a Confederate infantryman, “The air which was so silent and serene is now full of exploding and screaming shells and shot, as if the earth had opened up and let out the very furies of Avernus. The hurtling and death-dealing missiles are plowing amidst batteries, artillery and lines of infantry, crushing, mangling and killing until the groans of the men mingle with the tempest’s sound. The story of battle rages.”
Lt. James Crocker 9th Virginia Infantry.

These dramatic words are testimony by an infantryman of the impact made by artillery during the Civil War. Some ten percent of all casualties in the Civil War came from artillery in support of cavalry and infantry engagements. Few artillery units fought in more major engagements than Captain James M. Knap’s Independent Battery E Pennsylvania Light Artillery, known as Knap’s Battery. Private William J. McAfee fought with Knap’s Battery from 1861-64 before settling in Geraldine late in life, and this is his story.

William McAfee was born May 10, 1838 in Belfast, Ireland. At age 14 he immigrated to America with his parents Hugh and Kate Griffin McAfee. When Captain Joseph M. Knap formed an artillery unit in September 1861, young William McAfee signed up. He enlisted in Pittsburgh as a private for a three-year term. Mustered in and beginning training at Point of Rocks, Md., Knap’s Battery was attached to the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.

In early October 1861, Knap’s Battery was ordered to Camp Duncan located on East Capitol Hill in Washington D. C. In this camp for cavalry and artillery units, the battery received uniforms, guns and equipment making them a four-gun battery. During drills at Camp Duncan, Captain Knap obtained permission to fire their guns on targets on the Virginia side of the Potomac. This practice soon paid dividends when Camp Duncan came under fire from an enemy battery. Knap’s Battery promptly returned fire and succeeded in disabling and silencing the rebel guns within half an hour.

In December Knap’s Battery returned to winter quarters at Point of Rocks and Harper’s Ferry, taking part in occasional skirmishes while training and adding two more guns. Knap’s Battery and other light artillery batteries had 150 enlisted soldiers, five officers, and six guns. Each gun crew was composed of eighteen men and each two-gun section was under command of a lieutenant. The number of men actively in service of the six guns was 112 while the remainder served in supporting roles: Guidon bearer, bugler, artificer, blacksmith, drivers for the battery wagon and traveling forge, first sergeant, quartermaster sergeant, and the commander. Knap’s Battery was at times over strength by up to 100 men allowing for immediately replacement of casualties and for augmenting accompanying infantry units.

In March 1862, Battery E with the 28th Infantry was posted at Salem and Front Royal on the Manassas Gap railroad in Virginia. On this march the battery participated in the capture of Leesburg, Middleburg, White Plains, and other towns on the line of march. A two-gun detachment of the battery with elements of the 28th at Front Royal were attacked May 23rd and forced to retire to Winchester, Va. During this engagement an overwhelming force of 22,000 Confederates attacked some 700 Union men. The Union troops were driven back and began to withdraw in the face of the overwhelming Confederate force. Knap’s Battery kept the enemy at bay for a while with its artillery fire, but eventually Confederate cavalry gained the flanks and most Union troops were captured including the two-guns of Knap’s Battery with 28 men. These guns were shortly recaptured.

About August 1st, Knap’s Battery was attached to Crawford’s Brigade in General Banks’ Corps, and moved toward Culpeper, Va. On August 9, 1862 at Cedar Mountain, Va. the battery was closely engaged and finally forced from its exposed position by Confederate guns. During this battle, the battery met its first man lost, Private Connelly. This major battle ended with a Union withdrawal with Knap’s Battery engaged in minor skirmishes during the Union retreat. The most memorable was at White Sulphur Springs when the battery silenced a rebel battery in half an hour, when earlier two Union batteries had failed to silence that battery after several hours of constant firing.

During General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North in mid September 1862, at the decisive Battle at Antietam, Md. Knap’s Battery took up a line of march to Frederick City, Md, and on the 17th took part in the battle, losing one man killed and several wounded.

Winter quarters were established at Fairfax Station and then Acquia Creek, Va. In the major Chancellorsville campaign in the spring of 1863, the battery did effective service. Arriving at Chancellorsville on the evening of April 30, the battery took part in the battle over the first two days of May with the 12th Corps, and on the third day with the 1st Corps on the right of the line. One the evening of May 4th, the battery was ordered to occupy the north side of the Rappahannock River to protect pontoon bridges that were under enemy fire. In an artillery dual with rebel batteries, the enemy guns were silenced. Overall, during the battle, Knap’s Battery disabled three enemy guns, while losing one man killed and several wounded. Captain Knap’s horse was shot from under him, and he narrowly escaped death.

In the series of heavy engagements over the four days at Chancellorsville, Union forces lost over 17,000 while the Confederate casualties totaled about 13,000. While this battle showed inept Union military leadership and a significant victory for the South, the combination of heavy Confederate casualties and the devastating loss of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, tempered the victory. General Lee likened the loss of Stonewall Jackson to “losing my right arm.”

Shortly after Chancellorsville, Captain Charles A. Atwell assumed command of Battery E, upon the resignation of Capt. Knap to accept a position at his family’s Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh, maker of large caliber artillery pieces for the Union Army. Private McAfee’s unit continued to be called Knap’s Battery in honor of their popular first commander.

After the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the South believed that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was more than a match for the Federal Army of the Potomac. At Gettysburg during the first three days of July 1863, General Lee’s second invasion of the North was decisively defeated in a series of major engagements. Knap’s Battery was attached to the 12th Corps, and it was actively engaged throughout the Battle of Gettysburg. The 12th corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Henry W. Slocum was composed of the two divisions of Brig.-Gens. Alpheus S. Williams and John W. Geary, and the artillery brigade under command of Lieut. E. D.
Muhlenberg. Altogether the Army of the Potomac had 65 batteries numbering 370 guns.

The first active service by Knap’s Battery at Gettysburg was by a two-gun section on Culp’s Hill, when with another artillery section eight Confederate guns were silenced in thirty minutes during a hot artillery dual. Knap’s Battery lost one man. One of two monuments to Knap’s Battery for their service at Gettysburg is on Culp’s Hill showing the position of the battery’s guns on July 2. A second monument is on Powers Hill showing the position of the battery on July 3. Battery E was commanded by Captain Charles A. Atwell and brought six 10-pounder Parrott rifles to the field manned by 4 officers and 135 men with a loss of three men.

On the 24th of September, the 11th and 12th Corps with Knap’s Battery were ordered by rail to join the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, Tenn. Part of a Union division with Knap’s Battery arrived in camp at Wauhatchie Junction, near Chattanooga, on the evening of October 28th and were almost immediately attacked by a superior rebel force under Lt. Gen. Longstreet. Heavy fighting raged all night with neither side gaining an advantage as the Confederate force was being rapidly decimated by grape and canister being poured forth by the only Union artillery present, Knap’s Battery. Gen. Longstreet gave up the contest and retreated leaving his casualties on the field. Knap’s Battery suffered six killed and eighteen wounded, and Captain Atwell was mortally wounded and died soon after the battle. After the battle, the 12th Corps Artillery Commander gave Knap’s Battery “the credit of having repulsed the enemy. Too much praise cannot be awarded them for their coolness and courage with which they served their guns in the presence of almost overpowering odds.”

After the death of Captain Atwell, Lieut. J. D. McGill succeeded to command of the battery. In November 1863 the battery participated in the battles of Lookout Mountain and Mission Ridge without loss. After winter quarters at Wauhatchie, Tenn., the 12th Corps with the battery became the 20th Corps in support of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army as it began its March to Georgia. On the way to Atlanta, Knap’s Battery, attached to Gen. Geary's White Star Division, participated in many battles—Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca, Pine Knob Mountain, Pumpkin Vine Creek, New Hope Church, Kolb’s House, Dallas, Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and the siege and capture of Atlanta on July 22, 1864.

Private William J. McAfee had survived many battles and the dramatic capture of Atlanta, Ga., but his three-year term of service with Knap’s Battery was up, and he had had enough of war. On October 13, 1864 at Atlanta Private McAfee was mustered out of the Army. He returned to Pennsylvania and began farming in Clarion County, western Pa. The following year 1865 he married Mary E. Hummel, and they raised a family of seven boys before Mary’s death about 1884.

With the death of his wife, William and his family moved west and he remarried Eliza Lydia Prince Law in 1886. They began a second family of three girls and four boys. By 1890 the McAfee family lived in west central Missouri. In the early 1900s William and Lydia McAfee with several children moved on to Ward County, North Dakota.

Three of William’s sons from his first marriage, George, Willis, and Henry moved west to the Geraldine area during the Chouteau County homestead boom of the 1910s. While Lydia remained in North Dakota operating a boarding house, the aging civil war veteran William joined his sons near Geraldine.

In June 1916 William, known fondly as “Grandpa” by local settlers, suffered a serious injury at the ranch of his son Henry in the Big Sag. The frail 78 year old was attacked by a buck when his back was turned while he was driving a flock of sheep to water. William suffered broken ribs, a broken thumb, and a crushed chest. He recovered, and as the town of Geraldine began to grow after arrival of the Milwaukee Railroad, he moved into town to operate a harness and shoe store. Although increasingly feeble, William became Geraldine’s oldest resident and a familiar figure on the streets, noted at all time in the best of spirits. He died during the early morning hours of March 30, 1922.

Private William McAfee was a member of Sheridan Post #28 of the Grand Army of the Republic in Great Falls. Although he left no known account of his Civil War service, he was a proud veteran. Today he rests in Geraldine Cemetery.

[Sources: McAfee Line by Katherine Grace McAfee; Fold3McAfee Service Record Online; Ancestry.com Knap’s Independent Battery Online; Civil War Schedule 1890 Census; James P. Brady, Hurrah For the Artillery Knap’s independent Battery “E,” Pennsylvania Light Artillery; Geraldine Review 24 Jun 1916, 5 April 1922]


1.     Knap’s Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery at Antietam Battlefield.
2.     Corporal William J. McAfee’s Gravestone in Geraldine Cemetery.