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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1805

Vol. I

(Born N. C.)

William McRee

(Ap'd N. C.)

Military History. — Cadet of the Military Academy, Apr. 14, 1803, to July 1, 1805, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1805.

Served: as Assistant Engineer in surveying sites of fortifications on

(First Lieut. Corps of Engineers, Oct. 30, 1806)

the Southern Coast, 1806‑8, and in the construction of the defenses of

(Captain, Corps of Engineers, Feb. 23, 1808)

Charleston harbor, S. C., 1808‑12; Chief Engineer to Gen. Pinckney,

(Major, Corps of Engineers, July 31, 1812)

commanding Department of Georgia and the Carolinas, 1812‑13; in the War of 1812‑15 with Great Britain, as Chief of Artillery (commanded four companies and siege train) of Northern Army, under Major-General Hampton, in the Campaign of 1813, and as Chief Engineer of the Army on the Niagara Frontier, commanded by Major-General Brown, in the Campaign of 1814, participating in the Combat of Chateaugay River, L. C., Oct. 26, 1813, — Capture of Ft. Erie, U. C., July 3, 1814, — Battle of Chippewa, U. C., July 5, 1814, — Battle of Niagara, U. C., July 25,

(Bvt. Lieut.‑Colonel, July 25, 1814, for Gallant Conduct in the Battle of Niagara, U. C.)

(Bvt. Colonel, Aug. 15, 1814, for Distinguished and Meritorious Services in the Defense of Fort Erie, U. C.)

 p60  1814, — Defense of Ft. Erie, Aug. 3 to Sep. 19, 1814, including its bombardment, Aug. 13‑15, repulse of the enemy's assault, Aug. 15, and sortie from it, by which the siege was raised, Sep. 19, 1814; on professional duty in Europe, examining fortifications, military schools and establishments, and the operations of the Allied armies, then occupying France on the fall of Napoleon, 1815‑17; and Member of the Board of

(Lieut.‑Colonel, Corps of Engineers, Nov. 12, 1818)

Engineers for projecting the system of Atlantic Coast Defenses, from Nov. 16, 1816, to Mar. 31, 1819.

Resigned, Mar. 31, 1819.

Civil History.Surveyor-General of the United States, for Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas Territories, from Feb. 22, 1825, to July 25, 1832.

Died, May 15, 1833, at St. Louis, Mo.: Aged 45.

Biographical Sketch.

Bvt. Colonel William McRee was born, Dec. 13, 1787, in Wilmington, N. C. His father — Major and Bvt. Colonel Griffith John McRee — was an active cavalry officer of the North Carolina line, in the Revolutionary War; and his mother was a daughter of Doctor John Fergus, a distinguished physician of Wilmington, who was of Scottish descent, had been educated at Edinburgh, and subsequently was a Surgeon in Braddock's army.

He was appointed a Cadet, April 14, 1803, to the Military Academy. Here the youth of fifteen displayed an ardent and inquisitive mind, a fondness for science, and a devotion to the study of the military art. He was graduated from the institution, July 1, 1805, and became a Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, subsequently being promoted a First Lieutenant, Oct. 30, 1806, Captain, Feb. 23, 1808, and Major, July 31, 1812. Until the beginning of the campaign of 1814, he was employed upon the defenses of the Carolina coast, particularly at Charleston; from Sept. 30, 1812, to May 25, 1813, was Chief Engineer to General Thomas Pinckney, commanding the Department of Georgia and the Carolinas; in 1813, was Chief of Artillery (commanding four companies and the siege-train) under Major-General Hampton, whose failure at Chateaugay was rendered much less disastrous by the prompt and energetic action of the young engineer; in the first part of 1814, superintended the defenses of Sackett's Harbor; and, at the early age of twenty-six, became the Chief Engineer of Major-General Brown's army on the Niagara.

In this campaign of 1814 he began his distinguished career by a skillful reconnoissance to insure a safe crossing of the army to the Canadian shore, and was an active participant in the Battle of Chippewa. At the Battle of Niagara, it was his quick coup d'oeil which discovered that the hill, upon which was posted the British battery, was the key of the position and must be immediately carried, as it promptly was by the intrepid Miller. Again, in the Defense of Fort Erie, he was present everywhere, day and night, supervising the construction of trench and battery, carefully reconnoitring all the surroundings, and with an eagle's eye watching the slightest indications of the enemy's movements.

In his official report of Sep. 29, 1814, General Brown says: "Lieut.‑Colonel McRee and Lieut.‑Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wood, of the Corps of Engineers, having rendered to this army services the most important, I must seize the opportunity of again mentioning them particularly. On every trying occasion, I have reaped much benefit from their counsel and excellent advice. No two officers of their grade could have contributed more to the safety and honor of this army. Wood, brave, generous, and enterprising,  p61 died as he had lived, without a feeling but for the honor of his country and glory of her arms. His name and example will live to guide the soldier in the path of duty as long as true heroism is held in estimation. McRee lives to enjoy the approbation of every virtuous and generous mind, and to receive the reward due to his services and high military talents." His rewards were the brevet of Lieut.‑Colonel, July 25, 1814, "for Gallant Conduct in the Battle of Niagara," and of Colonel, Aug. 15, 1814, "for Distinguished and Meritorious Services in the Defense of Fort Erie." Throughout the campaign McRee enjoyed, in the highest degree, the confidence of the whole army; was foremost in the counsels of every movement and plan; and, be it said, to the lasting honor of the General-in‑Chief, he was, at all times and on all occasions, then and after, prompt and explicit in acknowledging his official obligations to his able, energetic, and brilliant Chief Engineer. McRee and Wood, says Brown in his report of the Battle of Niagara, "were greatly distinguished on that day, and their high military talents exerted with great effect; they were much under my eye and near my person, and to their assistance a great deal is fairly to be ascribed. I most earnestly recommend them as worthy of the highest trust and confidence." He freely stated that "McRee's industry and talents were the admiration of the whole army," in which he would doubtless have been made a Brigadier-General had the war continued. On the death of General Brown, Feb. 24, 1828, a distinguished member of Congress, who enjoyed the confidence of the President, says in a private letter to a deceased officer of the army, now before us: "McRee is spoken of as a prominent candidate for General-in‑Chief." Another hero, of another field of glory in the Campaign of 1814, won the prize; but few will deny that it would have been most worthily bestowed, with honor and profit to the nation, upon the Chief Engineer of the Niagara campaign, who to the highest science, military talents, cultivated mind, and eminent fitness, added a spirit, energy, knowledge of details, power of combination, and a genius for command equal to direct the largest army ever upon an American field.

General Winfield Scott, no ordinary judge of soldiers, said of McRee in a letter of May 31, 1843: "In my opinion, and, perhaps, in that of all the army, he combined more genius and military science with high courage than any other officer who participated in the War of 1812. I know that this was at least a very general opinion. If the Treaty of Peace had not prevented, he could, as I also know, have been made a general officer in 1815, and I am confident that he would in the field have illustrated the highest grade."

After an absence of nearly two years in Europe, to examine the fortifications and military establishments of France and the Netherlands, McRee became a member of the Board of Engineers, to project the system of defenses for our Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Upon this important duty, which called into action all his untiring industry, extensive acquirements, and deep study of the practice and theory of war at home and abroad, he was diligently engaged for two years; when, having similar views to those of the late Chief Engineer (which we have detailed at length in our sketch of Brigadier-General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John G. Swift) respecting the impolicy and injustice of introducing General Simon Bernard, a foreign engineer, into the U. S. military service, McRee, with crushed pride and wounded heart, resigned, March 31, 1819, from the army, in which he had so faithfully and honorably served from boyhood till he had attained the full rank of Lieut.‑Colonel of Engineers and Bvt. Colonel, U. S. Army. Subsequently, strange to say, one of the works, projected by this same General Bernard for the defense of Pensacola Harbor, was named Fort McRee, after his junior in rank, but his equal in knowledge and talent.

After McRee's resignation from the military service, seeking the quiet  p62 pleasures of private life, he resided in the Western States, holding, for a short period, the position of U. S. Commissioner for locating the "National Road" west of the Ohio; and, after, under the Act of March 3, 1825, temporarily, that of the Chief Commissioner to survey the Western waters, and locate and plan the "Western Armory." His letters from the West, many of which we have carefully read, give graphic accounts of his explorations in the Mississippi Valley; his sharp struggles with poverty, for he had no money-saving talent; his sale of almost everything, even his much-loved books, to defray the moderate expenses of his frugal living; his declining tenders of lucrative positions to which he modestly thought himself unequal; his noble disinterestedness to promote others' fortunes by the selection of lands; his devotion to his few warm and steadfast friends; his stern integrity amid the most alluring temptations; and his continuous cheerfulness under the severest trials.

At last, necessity knowing no law and his remaining resources becoming insufficient for his stinted existence, he was compelled to listen to the persuasions of his friends and to accept, Feb. 22, 1825, the office of Surveyor-General of the United States for the District of Illinois and Missouri. In the discharge of the duties of that troublesome and thankless office he continued till July 25, 1832, having been re-appointed in January, 1829. At the time of leaving this office his name had been sent to the Senate as a proper person to survey the boundary line between the United States and Mexico, but he never entered upon the duty. Broken in health, he retired to his congenial seclusion till May 15, 1833, when the Asiatic cholera at St. Louis, Mo., terminated his mortal career in his forty-sixth year.

Colonel McRee was a bachelor; small in stature; chaste and temperate in habit; and grave, reserved, and almost austere in manner. When, however, he was interested in conversation, his steel-blue eyeº lighted up his pale, melancholy face, he became eloquent, instructive, and earnest, even to being sarcastic; yet he was ever kind, considerate, and deferential to those whose opinions were worthy of respect. Winning the marked regard and exciting the warm admiration of all within the sphere of his acquaintance, he seemed to withdraw with morbid sensibility from general notoriety. He despised sycophants and scorned demagogues. He possessed a highly cultivated mind, strong reasoning faculties, quick perceptions, firm convictions, and resolute will, making him a leader more than a follower of men. He was an omnivorous reader, and studied the classical as well as modern models of men, Brutus and Cassius being his heroes among the ancients, while Frederick and Napoleon were his modern paragons. Though military in his tastes, he did not confine himself to professional thoughts, for he reveled in history and literature, preferring the times and types of revolution, such as the daring Luther, the sturdy Cromwell, the fiery Mirabeau, and the passionate Byron. He wrote but little, for notoriety was distasteful to him; yet the public archives contain many forcible memoirs from his pen, showing strong intellect, wealth of knowledge, marked originality, and close observation. His report on the establishment of the Pittsburg armory evinces not only a soldier's but a statesman's views; and his remarks in the "New York Scientific and Literary Magazine" upon the present resources and magnificent future of the "Great West" are pregnant with original and far-seeing predictions.

McRee was a modest, worthy, and eminently distinguished son of his cherished Alma Mater, which had educated him for the service of the nation, for whose glory he gave his highest endeavors and the best years of an active life. The General-in‑Chief of the Niagara Army, with just magnanimity, ascribed to McRee much of the eminent success of his command, and well he might, for his Chief Engineer in that memorable campaign  p63 of 1814, though only twenty-six years of age, was old in wisdom, and of marked eminence in his profession.

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Page updated: 23 Jun 13