Navy Lieutenant Hugh McKee wiped the sweat from his eyes as he looked intently across the ravine at the fortress the Americans were preparing to attack., it would be Lieutenant McKee's honor to lead the advance as the commander of D Company. This was fitting for the young graduate of the US Naval Academy and son of an American soldier. His father Colonel McKee had commanded soldiers at Buena Vista during the war with Mexico. Leading his soldiers into battle, he first to enter the enemy's works. There Colonel McKee had given his life for his country decades before this moment. Hugh later wrote, "There never was a McKee that went into battle that was not killed."
Noting the small yellow flags that flanked his position, Lieutenant McKee turned to Lieutenant Bloomfield McIlvaine who was charged with leading Company E. "Mac," he said bluntly, "we must capture one of those flags."
And they did! While the force rested on the ridge from their trek to reach the Citadel, four men were dispatched from the companies. They returned with two flags for each of their commanders. Along the line, some 15 more of these smaller flags were taken before the battle began. But the flag that really mattered was still flying. It was the large yellow flag bearing the mark of General Uh Je-yeon, still flying over the earthen works of the Citadel.
The Americans began to fire on the fortress from the ridge as the large shells from the Monocacy slammed explosively against the earthen walls. Two of the howitzers were brought forward to support the bombardment. The shapes of Corean defenders could be seen darting along the ramparts as the enemy fired back at the ridgeline. When all was in place the Americans slipped down the slope from their ridge to take up positions in the valley below. From there they would make their charge. Enemy bullets whined overhead but most were most poorly aimed. None-the-less, one enemy round reached out to take the life of Marine Private Dennis Hanrahan. He was the first casualty.
There would be more.
As the American commanders aligned their companies in the valley for the final assault, from inside the fortress came the sounds of trumpets and drums, followed by an eerie chanting. The Coreans knew that the Americans were positioning below them for the attack, and their death chant seemed to signal that they were prepared to die in defense of the island. Rising in crescendo over the valley, the chilling sound had a morose effect upon the Americans, causing man to later write: "It was like nothing human and rang in our ears longer than the terrible clashing of bayonet, cutlass and spear."
Then, along the line in the valley below came another sound, the command to ATTACK!
Rising up the bluejackets and Marines forged their way up the steep hillside. The firing was fierce on both sides, "The air seemed literally alive with whistling projectiles," wrote one veteran. Despite their fatigue, the Americans climbed the steep hill with grim determination. The advance was so intense; inside the Citadel the Coreans did not have time to reload their ancient rifles. With a determination equal to that of their attackers they began to throw stones down the mountainside.
"McKee got the start of all of us in the commencement of the charge and kept it," Wrote Lieutenant McIlvane eleven days later. "I think his heart was set on being the first man in the fort. I was with my company, close behind and a little to his left. My men did their best, but we could not overtake him."
Lieutenant McKee was indeed the first to scale the walls, along with Marine Private Hugh Purvis. Closely following was Boatswains Mate Alexander McKenzie, Quartermaster Samuel Rogers, and Ordinary Seaman William Troy. Standing on the wall, sword in one hand and pistol in the other, Lieutenant McKee fired two shots and then dropped into the midst of the Coreans. Almost immediately the enemy was on him, one of them shooting McKee in the groin as McKenzie, Rogers and Troy leaped from the wall to assist their commander.
A short distance away Landsman William Lukes saw his Lieutenant being swarmed by the enemy and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The enemy had thrown down their empty guns and taken up swords and spears. One of the spears pierced the side of the already wounded Lieutenant McKee. At his side Alexander McKenzie fought fiercely to protect his commander. He fell with a blow to the head from a Corean sword. Simultaneously, Samuel Rogers and William Troy also fell severely wounded by the swarm of Corean defenders. Before Lukes could rush to their aid he found himself heavily engaged in a battle for his own life.
Meanwhile the stream of Marines and bluejackets coming over the wall continued. Lieutenant Commander Schley who reached the ramparts just as Lieutenant McKee fell. Quickly Schley shot and killed the man who had thrust his spear through the side of the brave young lieutenant.
Private Hugh Purvis who had been first to scale the wall with McKee. He advanced toward the Korean standard flying from a short pole nearby. As he worked at the halyards to loosen Corporal Charles Brown raced to his side and reached up to assist in tearing the yellow flag down. Moments later Ships Carpenter (and the bluejacket's color bearer) Cyrus Hayden was planting the Stars and Stripes on the Citadel wall. Even so, the battle was far from over and Hayden stood at his post next to the American flag to defend it against the enemy rush to remove it.
On the ground inside the fort Quartermaster Frederick Franklin assumed command of Company D, leading "with courage and skill". More and more of the Marines and bluejackets streamed over the wall. Landsman James Merton was wounded in the arm forcing his way into the enemy stronghold. Marine Private Michael McNamara reached the parapet only to be confronted by the muzzle of an enemy matchlock. With great determination the young Marine grasped the barrel and wrested the gun from the enemy, then swung it like a club to kill him before continuing his advance. Private John Coleman fought his way towards the wounded Lieutenant McKee as the Coreans were dragging his body further into their ranks. Struggling against them he was unable to reach his commander but succeeded in rescuing Alexander McKenzie who had fallen beside Lieutenant McKee.*
Such was the nature of the half-hour battle inside the Corean fort. Smoke filled the enclosure and the Corean ammunition dump burned. Bodies littered the ground as the battle became a hand-to-hand melee. Marine Private James Dougherty was wounded repeatedly yet ignored his injuries to continue to fight. Nearby Private Michael Owens likewise fought on despite serious wounds. Corean Fire cut down Seaman Seth Allen of the USS Colorado as he stormed the fort.
Slowly the tide began turned in the favor of the Americans. Realizing defeat was imminent; some of the Coreans leaped to their deaths or pierced themselves upon their own swords to honor their vow to fight to the death. Marine Private James Dougherty sought out and killed General Uh Je-yeon, an act that would earn him the Medal of Honor. With the Corean commander dead and his flag in the hands of the Americans, the battle for the Citadel was quickly over.
Years later an artist's rendering of that battle depicted the ferocity of the struggle as three bluejackets went hand-to-hand with a large enemy force. In the center of the drawing was a sketch of Landsman William Lukes who had earlier witnessed the fall of his Lieutenant. When the battle finally ended, Lukes was found unconscious on the ground and bleeding from eighteen spear and sword wounds.