Civil War veteran; he enlisted for the Union as a Private in Company B, First Minnesota Infantry, on February 24, 1864. He was born in Ayr Scotland, the son of James McClay and Mary Jane Moody, who were both born in Letterkenny, Ireland. He emigrated with his family to the U. S. in about 1850 and came to Minnesota Territory in 1854. He married Mary Jane Gamble on December 31, 1860 in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Their two sons, James and John, were born in Eden Prairie, where John was a farmer. By the time he enlisted, his brother, Samuel McClay, also in the service, had been promoted to Second Lieutenant in Company C, 6th Minnesota Infantry.
The regiment McClay enlisted in, the First Minnesota, had fought bravely at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. But the battle for which it was most famous was the Battle of Gettysburg, where they carried out a legendary charge from the crest of a hill and prevented a disaster of immense proportions which could have resulted in a Union defeat. The regiment's official history reports that, of the 262 men who made the charge, only 47 were left standing.
After the battle, the survivors in the regiment received a special unit thank you at the U.S. Capitol. The regiment was then sent back to Minnesota to muster out on February 15, 1864. The First Minnesota then re-established at Fort Snelling, with volunteers from the original regiment and new recruits. John McClay enlisted at this time and became part of this regiment, which returned to the eastern theater to fight with the Army of the Potomac. They fought with General Grant's troops and fought in a number of skirmishes near Petersburg, Virginia.
In Virginia, on August 14, 1864, Private McClay fell mortally wounded in the abdomen during the first charge at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. Men who saw him fall were told that he had been placed on a boat to be transported to a hospital in Washington, D. C. It is believed that he died on the transport boat and was buried on the shores of the Potomac or buried at sea.
Two generations later, his grandson, Everett R. McClay, would also give his last full measure during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France, World War I.
-Biographies for John McClay and Everett R. McClay by Cindy Coffin