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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: An engraving of the head and shoulders of a man of late middle age, with a full head of somewhat wavy hair, and a full beard and moustache, seen from the profile, looking to our left. He wears a suit with wide lapels, a vest and a dress shirt with a bowtie, and his expression has a hint of a smile to it. He is Erasmus D. Keyes, a Union general, whose career is detailed on this webpage.]

General Erasmus D. Keyes

The preceding image, and the text that follows, are reproduced from (the report of the) Twenty-Seventh Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 11th, 1896.

 p58  Erasmus D. Keyes
No. 671. Class of 1832.
Died, October 14, 1895, at Nice, France, aged 84.

General Erasmus D. Keyes was born in the State of Massachusetts about eighty-four years ago; he came of good old Puritan stock, but his gay, cheery temperament was in no way suited to the gloomy and austere faith of his fathers. When well along in life he embraced that of the Roman Catholic Church. He says in his autobiography that, while serving in North-Western America he met Father Jaset, a Jesuit priest, who instructed him in the Catholic religion, how it had preserved the traditions and dogmas of Christianity and sustained the purity of the faith. He says it was primarily due to that good priest's influence, that at a subsequent date, he became a Catholic. General Keyes entered the Military Academy at West Point, as a cadet on July 1, 1828, and remained there four years, when he was graduated with credit and was appointed a Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Third Artillery on July 1st, 1832. He was ordered to duty at Fortress Monroe, which was then an Artillery School of practice as it is now. From there he was ordered to Charleston Harbor, where he remained on duty a portion of the years of 1832 and 1833, and was there during South Carolina's threatened nullification. He became a Second Lieutenant on August 31st, 1833, and was detailed for staff duty as Aid-de‑Camp to General Scott, to whom he reported for duty on the 29th of October. He was, while serving in this capacity, promoted to a First Lieutenancy, Sept. 16, 1836. In relating his experience upon reporting to the General, he says: "He received me with a coldness that chilled the marrow in my bones, looking up from his writing, he asked me how long I had been out of the Military Academy. I replied sixteen months. Then turning to Mercer, he remarked, 'How happened it that General Jones allowed this young officer to leave his regiment so soon?' Nothing more was said. The General wafted his eye  p59 over me in a way that was not encouraging, and resumed his writing, while I withdrew to a desk in the rear office, there to await the bidding of my superiors." General Keyes probably knew General Scott more intimately than any one else. Years ago when we were together in Europe he related to me many anecdotes of the old hero, and I told him what interesting reading all this would be if published in book form. Indeed, he did publish a most interesting autobiography afterwards, which gave a great deal of pleasure to a great many readers, for General Keyes was intimate with some of the most charming characters of his day, many of whom figure in his book. He had a great regard and affection for his old Chief, who, I think appreciated his method and exactness, qualities which he possessed in a very high degree; which are so essential to the making of a first-class staff officer, such as I believe the General was and was so regarded by General Officer. He served with General Scott as an aid until July 7, 1838, during which year he was engaged in the Cherokee Nation while transferring the Indians to the West. He became a Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General, July 7 to November 16, 1838. He served again as Aid-deCamp to General Scott from December 1, 1838, to November 30, 1841. He was promoted to a Captaincy in the Third Artillery, November 30, 1841; was in Florida in 1842 and in garrison at New Orleans barracks during a portion of the same year; was at Fort Moultrie, S. C., 1842‑44, and a member of the board of visitors at the Military Academy, West Point, 1844. He was detailed as Instructor of Artillery and Cavalry at the Military Academy on july 25th, and remained on that duty until December 24, 1848. He was in garrison at San Francisco, Cal., and was on duty escorting Indian Commissioners in California, 1851; was in garrison at San Francisco, Cal., 1851‑52, 1853‑54, 1854‑55; was on frontier duty engaged in Indian hostilities in Washington Territory, 1855; was at Fort Steilacoom,º Washington Territory, 1855‑56. He was engaged in scouting in 1856, on Puget Sound; was in a skirmish with hostile Indians at White River, Washington Territory, March 1, 1856, and at Fort Steilacoom, 1856. He was again in garrison at San Francisco,  p60 1856‑58. He was in the Spokane expedition, Washington Territory, 1858, and was engaged in the combat of Four Lakes, September 5, 1858, and a skirmish on Spokane River, September 8, 1858. About this time, October 12th, he was promoted to a Majority in the First Artillery. At the battle of Four Lakes, Captain Keyes commanded four companies of the Third Artillery, armed with rifle muskets. Col. Wright in his report of the battle says: "Captain Keyes with two companies of his battalion was ordered to deploy along the crest of the hill in rear of the dragoons and facing the plain; the rifle battalion was ordered to move to the right and deploy in front of the pine forest, and the howitzer, supported by a company of Artillery, was advanced to a lower plateau, in order to gain a position when it could be fired with effect. In five minutes," he says, "the troops were deployed, and I ordered the advance. Captain Keyes moved steadily down the long slope and opened a sharp, well-directed fire, which drove the Indians to the plains and pine forest. Captain Keyes continued to advance, the Indians retiring slowly, etc., etc. Major Grier conducted his squadrons with great skill, and at the decisive moment, after Captain Keyes had driven the Indians to the plain, made the most brilliant, gallant and successful charge I have ever beheld." Coll. Wright, towards the conclusion of his report, in commending the officers who were engaged, says: "Captain E. D. Keyes, commanding the Third Artillery, brought his battalion into action with great skill, and after deploying, made a gallant successful charge in advance of the dragoons, driving the Indians from the hill sides far into the plain, and again, after the dragoon charge, Captain Keyes pushed vigorously forward in pursuit as long as an enemy was to be seen." After his return from the Spokane expedition he was for some time in garrison at San Francisco. On the 1st of January, 1860, he became Military Secretary to General Scott, Commander-in‑chief of the Army, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. About this time he rendered valuable service at New York, assisting in organizing an expedition to relieve Fort Pickens. On the 14th of May, he was created Colonel of the Eleventh Infantry, and on the 17th of the same  p61 month became a Brigadier-General of Volunteers. He was on the staff of Governor Morgan of New York, from April 21st to June 25th, 1861, assisting in dispatching the State quota of Volunteers to the field, and was in Boston, recruiting his regiment, from June 25th until July 3d. He was employed in the defenses of Washington in July, 1861, and in the Manassas campaign, being engaged in the battle of Bull Run on the 21st of July of the same year. General McDowell in his report says: "The following officers commanded Divisions and Brigades, and in the several places their duty called them did most effective service and behaved in the most gallant manner. * * * Col. E. D. Keyes, General Tyler who command the First Division at Bull Run, says: "In closing this report it gives me great pleasure my admiration for the manner in which Col. Keyes handled his Brigade, completely covering it by every possible accident of the ground, while changing his positions and leading it bravely and skillfully to the attack at the right moment." After the battle of Bull Run he served in the defense of Washington until March, 1862, and afterwards in the Peninsular campaign in which, during most of the time, he commanded the Fourth Army Corps. He was created a Major-General of Volunteers on May 5, 1862. During the campaign he was engaged in the action at Lee's Mills' was at the siege of Yorktown; the skirmish at Bottom's Bridge; at the action near Savage Station; at the battle of Fair Oaks; of Charles City Cross Roads; of Malvern Hill; at the skirmish at Harrison Landing, and at other military operations which took place during the campaign. General Keyes was promoted to the rank of Brevet-Brigadier General, U. S. Army on May 31, 1862, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle of Fair Oaks.

The battle of fair Oaks was that in which he took more pride than in any other military operation in which eh was engaged, and I feel, that I cannot do better in referring to it in these lines than to quote, though not to a great extent, from his own report, the whole of which in its entirety may be found in the history of those times, and would fill a much larger space than is contemplated  p62 in this memorial. The battle was fought on the 31st of May, 1862. The General says:

"Through all the night of the 30th of May there was raging a storm, the like of which I cannot remember. Torrents of rain drenched the earth, the thunder bolts rattled and fell without intermission and the heavens flashed with a perpetual blaze of lightning. From their beds of mud and the peltings of this storm the Fourth Corps rose to fight the battle of the 31st of May, 1862."

In closing his report, the General says:

"The casualties on our side were heavy, amounting to something like twenty-five per cent in killed and wounded of the number actually engaged, which did not amount to more than 12,000, the Fourth Corps at this date having been much weakened by detachment and other causes. Nearly all who were struck were hit while facing the enemy. The Confederates outnumbered us during a great part of the conflict at least four to one, and they were fresh drilled troops, led on and cheered by their best Generals and the President of the Republic. They are right, when they assert that the Yankees stubbornly contested every foot of ground. Of the nine Generals of the Fourth Corps who were present on the field, all, with one exception, were wounded or his horse was hit in the battle. A large proportion of all the field officers in the action were killed, wounded or their horses were struck. these facts denote the fierceness of the contest and the gallantry of a large majority of the officers. Many officers have been named and commended in this report and in reports of Division, Brigade and other Commanders, and I will not here recapitulate further than that I received great assistance from the member so my staff whose conduct was excellent though they were necessarily often separated from me. I should be glad if the name of every individual who kept his place in the long struggle could be known."

What follows I think must have been written long after the scenes which are recited above. The General says:

"There is no incident of the War which I keep in remembrance with so much delight as the closing scene of the battle of the 31st of May, 1862. In the advancing twilight that long bloody day while I walked in the last line that had been so terribly thinned by deaths,  p63 disability and desertions, I strode with the elite of the brave. The mad surges and tempest of the battle had winnowed out the unworthy; the coward shattered fled; the recreants had slunk to the rear; those fable creatures who could be exhausted by an eight or ten hours struggle had limped to their repose. All the braggarts and such as quit the fray early to proclaim their own exploits, and to smear with calumny their associates, had departed. In their stead were gathered, from all the Brigades, a band of heroes who coalesced by a natural attraction to achieve a victory and save the Union. I know not how it is that clustered jewels enhance the lustre of one another, but so it was with the men around me. They were all begrimed with mud and sweat, and their visages were 'As black as Vulcan with the smoke of war,' and still they were beautiful. Carnal fear had never debased them, and in their presence I felt a charm which I shall remember till death."

I know out of no one better qualified than Colonel Suydam, General Keyes' Chief-of‑Staff, to bear testimony to his excellence in every way. He was always at his side during the trying days of the Peninsular campaign, and had a better opportunity of judging of his high qualities, both as a General and a man than any one else. Col. Suydam says: "Having had the pleasure and honor of serving on the staff of General Keyes, during a portion of the time he commanded the Division which covered the rear of Washington, from the autumn of 1861 to the spring of 1862, and during the whole sixteen months he was in command of the Fourth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, it has seemed to me it might be of interest to the future historian of the War of the Rebellion to indulge in a few reflections and reminiscences of some of the events in the career of my former companions in arms. It was in November, 1861, that I reported to General Keyes as Aid-de‑Camp; and very early in my career on his staff I learned to appreciate his worth as a man and soldier. To a constitution of iron and an untiring industry, a thorough acquaintance, gained through long training with all the duties appertaining to his profession, and a finished ability in the performance of these duties, he added, in a marked degree, an intense earnestness and  p64 honesty of purpose. To him the war meant something more than the mere gaining of battles, something far higher and nobler than the personal reward of success. His whole heart was in the cause of suppressing the rebellion, and maintaining the dignity of the Government, and he was outspoken in expressing his convictions. These traits of character and this strong Northern feeling, as it was then called, were well known in the Executive mansion, where he was esteemed and honored. In organizing and drilling the untrained troops that came to Washington to do service to the country, I believe General Keyes did not have a superior. he felt the necessity of thorough preparation in all the departments to meet the life and death struggle which he knew was certain to come; he did not believe in any 30 or 60 days campaigns as sufficient to crush the life out of the Rebellion; fully aware of the fighting qualities of the men of the South, and appreciating their fierce and earnest, if mistaken, determination to seize the reins of government and administer it to their own liking; he knew that only the utmost completeness in all details would enable us to wage an equal fight. And so, when the army lay about Washington, he suffered no moment to pass, without improving the condition of his Division and causing both officers and men to be well instructed in the duties which they would be called upon to perform after taking the field. Drills and inspections were frequent, and all the minutiae of camp and march and battle-life were so constantly repeated, that when in the spring of 1862 the Division took the field under General Couch, who succeeded General Keyes on his promotion to the command of the Fourth Corps, it gave so good an account of itself that it speedily took rank as one of the most reliable Divisions of the Army, a proud eminence which it retained to the end of the war. With his staff the General was equally exacting. Soon after that, active campaigning began, the field life of the soldier set in, the time for organizing and drilling had passed, but the General set to work, with his inborn zeal and earnestness, to do full service in the position to which he had been appointed by the President. And he was ably assisted by his subordinate officers and the privates of  p65 his command. Example, whether for good or evil, is infectious, and in this instance the whole corps willingly followed the lead of their chief in doing their utmost in the service to which they had voluntarily devoted their lives and their honor. In the operations opposite the enemy's strong works on the left of the Yorktown line, the General was ever vigilant and thorough. No great amount of fighting was done; but so close a hold upon the enemy's lines was established, and so incessant a watchfulness of his movements was had, that when on that warm Sunday in May, 1862, the evacuation of Yorktown by Magruder was reported, the Corps, ever ready for such or any emergency, were speedily set in motion in pursuit, with their Commander at their head. In speaking of the battle of Fair Oaks, Colonel Suydam says: "The official reports on both sides are so full of the preparations for the battle of Fair Oaks, and of the events of the battle itself, that I shall not attempt to improve upon them. So far as the Fourth Corps is concerned, no one could write so full and clear an account as General Keyes himself has done. His record is a manual of completeness of detail and is a monument to his fair treatment of all concerned. In following up the Colonel's statement, he says: "Among the many General Officers who had command during the war, I know of no one who was more fit to command troops, no one who so whole-heartedly threw himself into the cause, no one who could give a better account of himself in the performance of every duty to which he was called. General keys while in civil life was Vice-President of the California Vine-Culture Society for Napa County, of the Humboldt Savings and Loan Society, and President of Maxwell Gold Mining Company, and was the author of "Fifty Years' Observations of Men and Events, Civil and Military." General Keyes was born in Brimfield, Massachusetts, on the 29th of May, 1810, and died at Nice, October 14th, 1895. His remains were conveyed to this country, and he was buried at West Point. He left a large family to mourn his loss. He was a good husband and a kind father and always had the interests of his children largely at heart.

It was a beautiful November day when his relatives and  p66 friends, and a delegation from the Loyal Legion, assembled together in St. Agnes Church, at New York, to be present at a Solemn High Mass, which was said for the repose of his soul. From the Church the scene changed to West Point, where he was escorted to his last resting place by the Corps of Cadets of which he was once a member, and later in life an Instructor. As he lies there near his old Chief and surrounded by the dead heroes who fill that burial place, I am reminded of these lines:

"On fame's eternal camping ground

Their silent tents are spread;

And Glory guards with solemn round

The bivouac of the dead."

S. R. F.

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Page updated: 19 Jan 14