The Death of General Alexander Hays at the Battle of the Wilderness

Pennsylvanian Alexander Hays was born in 1819 and graduated in the West Point Class of 1844. As a young officer, Hays served in the Mexican-American War with many future Civil War notables on both sides; one of these was Ulysses S. Grant, who became a lifelong friend. Like Grant, Hays found less success in civilian life after leaving the army, but returned when the Civil War began and had an excellent record as a field commander.

Hays served briefly as a captain with the 16th U.S. Infantry before being appointed Colonel of the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in August 1861. Assigned to the 3rd Corps, he led the 63rd Pennsylvania during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and early summer of 1862. Hays was a lead from the front commander, and was wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August of 1862. “A large ball struck the main bone between the ankle and knee, not breaking, but perhaps splintering it, glancing off and breaking the smaller bones” he wrote in a letter to his wife. “The entrance hole is as large as a half dollar, I assure you I have a sore shin, but a quarter of an inch variation would have cost me my leg”. Hays leadership and personal bravery had not gone unnoticed, and he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on September 29th, 1862 while he was recovering from his battle wounds.

In the summer of 1863, Hays was assigned command of the 3rd Division of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps. On July 3rd, Hays’ division defended the right side of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge in the famous attack known as Pickett’s Charge. After the repulse, Hay’s dragged a captured Confederate flag behind his horse to the approving cheers of his command.

Hays was a hard fighting commander, but was also popular with his men. The regimental historian of the 63rd Pennsylvania recalled:

Colonel Hays was a most kindhearted and patient man with a private soldier, but an officer who was inclined to shirk his duty received no mercy at his hands; that was the great reason why the privates all loved him so dearly. Another instance of his kindness is recalled. It was the Second Battle of Bull Run. One of the boys was shot in the leg and was in danger of bleeding to death, as the hospital steward with the field knapsack was in another part of the field. Colonel Hays rode by and asked what was needed. One of the men in charge told the colonel that they had no linen or cotton bandages and could not stop the bleeding. Instantly the colonel’s coat and vest were off; next he pulled his muslin shirt over his head and tossing it to the men, said: “There, make bandages out of that as far as it will go,” and then galloped away to another part of the field.

Gen. Alexander Hays and Staff in Winter Quarters, 1863-64

Gen. Alexander Hays

In the spring of 1864, the Army of the Potomac was reorganized, with the number of divisions reduced. Hays became one of the odd men out of division command, and was reassigned to command of a brigade in the 2nd Corps. One of the regiments in his brigade was his old unit, the 63rd Pennsylvania. Old friend Ulysses S. Grant, now in charge of all Union armies, would accompany the Army of the Potomac as it launched a new campaign in Virginia, known as the Overland Campaign.

On May 5th, the Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed in the tangled woods south of the Rapidan River in the Battle of the Wilderness. That afternoon, Hay’s brigade was located at the intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads. Brigadier General George W. Getty’s 6th Corps division was heavily engaged with Major General Henry Heth’s Confederates to the west of the Brock Road, in a line bisected by the Orange Plank Road. Major General David Birney, Hays’ division commander, ordered Hays to move to the right and get into position to reinforce Getty’s right flank.

That was difficult due to poor visibility in the heavily wooded terrain and decreasing daylight. “After repeated attempts to locate the line with which connection was to be made, had proved futile, the brigade was advanced to meet the enemy through the deep woods and undergrowth of the appropriately named ‘Wilderness'” wrote the 63rd Pennsylvania’s regimental historian. “Our line was very close to that of the enemy, although the underbrush between made it almost impossible to see them, so that taking deliberate aim was out of the question”.

Skirmish in the Wilderness by Homer Winslow

Hays was in the forefront of his brigade’s advance as it closed in on the Confederate position. The 63rd Pennsylvanian’s historian described what happened next:

He, accompanied by his staff, rode down along the line of battle and when he came to the Sixty-third, stopped, as he always did, to speak a few words of cheer and encouragement to his old boys, when a bullet struck him in the head and he fell from his horse, dying in about three hours. General Hays was killed just where he had said he wanted to die should he be killed in the war, “at the head of the Sixty-third Regiment”.

Hays was carried by members of the 63rd to the rear, where he died. General Hays’ body was returned home to Pittsburgh, where he was buried in Allegheny Cemetery.

Sources:

The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea

Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Walker

Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears

Life and Letters of General Alexander Hays, edited by George Thornton Fleming

The Maps of the Wilderness: An Atlas of the Wilderness Campaign, Including all Cavalry Operations, May 2-6, 1864 by Bradley M. Gottfried

Under the Red Patch: Story of the Sixty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861- 1864 by Gilbert Adams Hays


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