Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Forgotten Generals of the Civil War: Union General Alexander Hays

Alexander Hays was born just north of present day Pittsburg on July 8, 1919. After receiving a decent education within his native state, Hays got an appointment to West Point and attended the military academy with a young man from Ohio named U.S. Grant. Never a scholar, Hays graduated 20th out of 25 students in the Academy’s class of 1844. The two remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Like so many future Civil War officers, Hays distinguished himself during the Mexican War. He resigned from the army in 1848 and attempted to make a living in the iron trade. After his business failed, Hays journeyed to California and took part in the gold rush but he failed to strike it rich and returned to Pittsburgh to act as one of the cities bridge builders. Hays was commissioned as a colonel of the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteers and he led his men with distinction during the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862. During the Seven Days campaign he was wounded while he leading a bayonet charge at Glendale. The attack was meant to cover a Union withdrawal and Hays was forced out of action with a partially paralyzed left arm.

After taking a month off to recover Hays returned to his men and received another wound during the Second Battle of Bull Run. As his shattered leg was recovering he received word that he had been promoted to brigadier general. His new command was the third division in the Second Corps and Hays took command just two days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although he was inexperienced at the brigade level, Hays knew that he had to do a good job during his first battle as a divisional commander. His timing couldn’t have come at a worse time because the Army of Northern Virginia had beaten back Union troops at Gettysburg on July 1. After a July 2 stalemate the third division lay in waiting along Cemetery Ridge just as Confederate General Robert E. Lee was planning to attack the same region. The Confederates preceded their attack with a gigantic artillery barrage and Hays men prepared four rifles each for the coming assault. General Hays moved up and down the line without flinching at the shells. He encouraged his men and instructed them to wait until the Confederates reached a fence line that lay just 200 yards away. As the rebels struggled with removing the fence Hays shouted “fire!” and the Union muskets erupted. Hays later wrote in his report that “before the smoke of our first volley had cleared away, the enemy, in dismay and consternation, were seeking safety in flight. Every attempt by their officers to rally them was vain. In less time than I can recount it, they were throwing away their arms and appealing most piteously for mercy. The angel of death alone can produce such a field as was presented.”

The attack was later known as “Picketts Charge” and it was easily beaten back by Union troops. After the assault ended, Hays jumped on his horse, grabbed a captured rebel flag and dragged it in the dirt behind him. Union General Winfield Scott Hancock praised Hays conduct as “all that could be desired in a division commander”.

After the battle, Hays continued to lead the division during fall campaigning but during the March 1864 reorganization of the army he was reduced back to a brigade command. On May 5, 1864, the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, Hays was killed by a bullet through his head. Today, Hays is remembered by his statue at Gettysburg, a marker identifying the site of his death at the Wilderness and his gravesite. All three areas are accessible to visitors who may be surprised to find out that Hays belongs with the best of all Union heroes. Perhaps Hancock said it best when he wrote of Hays "Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, that dauntless soldier, whose intrepid and chivalric bearing on so many battle-fields had won for him the highest renown, was killed at the head of his brigade".

The Hays monument at the Wilderness:

Hays Gettysburg report:

General Alexander Hays monument at Gettysburg

His gravesite

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