“I’d Rather Be Killed Than Called a Coward!” – Medal of Honor winner Matthew Quay
Col. Matthew S. Quay was one of the Civil War heroes from northern York County. Born and raised in Dillsburg, he took command of the 134th Pennsylvania when it was first organized in August 1862 at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. The regiment was taken by train through York and Hanover Junction down to Baltimore, where it changed trains for the ride to the nation’s capitol. In Washington’s defenses, Quay and the 134th were attached to the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac.
They marched into Maryland from September 1-18, but did not see action at the Battle of Antietam. Along with the rest of George McClellan’s army, they remained inactive at Sharpsburg until October 30. After a quick reconnaissance mission to Smithfield in what is now West Virginia, they marched to Falmouth, Virginia, where Quay’s career reached a sudden unexpected crossroads…
The following is taken from Deeds of Valor: From Records in the Archives of the United States Government; How American Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, by Walter F. Beyer, Oscar Frederick Keydel, Henry Martin Duffield. (Detroit, Michigan: The Perrien-Kaydel Company, 1907).
“Colonel Matthew S. Quay was in command of the One hundred and thirty-fourth Pennsylvania Infantry he contracted typhoid fever at Falmouth, Va., opposite Fredericksburg, in the latter part of 1862. He was so broken down by the disease that his friends urged him to resign his commission and go home to recuperate. Colonel Quay finally applied for his discharge. General [Erastus B.] Tyler, handing him his papers, told him that he regretted his departure, particularly at this time, as they expected to go into action very soon.
On hearing this Colonel Quay refused to accept the papers, and declared his intention of waiting for the battle. General Tyler told him, that he would be foolish to remain, in his broken state of health, and furthermore, that his discharge had been signed and he was a private citizen. The general said that if he went into the battle, he could surely not survive it, and all concurred in the advisability of his going home. Colonel Quay put these kindly suggestions aside with an impatient gesture, and said: “I’ll be in this battle, if I have to take a musket and fight as a private, for I would rather be killed in battle and be called a fool, than go home and be called a coward.”
General Tyler, seeing that further argument would be useless, gave in, and made him an aide on his staff, in which capacity he fought all day and well into the night in the famous battle of Fredericksburg.”
Quay served valiantly at Fredericksburg, later receiving the Medal of Honor on July 9, 1888. His citation reads: “Although out of service, he voluntarily resumed duty on the eve of battle and took a conspicuous part in the charge on the heights.”
The Dillsburg native later became a very powerful (and controversial) political figure, serving in the state legislature from the Pittsburgh area and then as a U.S. Senator. He was an immensely powerful political boss, served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, and was instrumental in getting fellow former Civil War officer Benjamin Harrison elected as president. In 1898 he was brought to trial on a charge of misappropriating state funds, although he was acquitted the following year.
Matthew Quay died in Beaver, PA in 1904, one of a handful of men with York County ties to win the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.