John Paytas Alexander Hays
Brigadier General Alexander Hays
Thursday, May 5, 1864, Brigadier General Alexander Hays, just two months shy of his forty-fifth birthday was shot thru the head and killed while leading his command in battle at the Wilderness. When notified of Hays’ death, General Grant responded quietly, “He was a noble man and a gallant officer. I am not surprised that he met his death at the head of his troops. He was a man that would never follow, but would always lead in battle.”
Alexander Hays was born July 8, 1819 in Franklin, Pennsylvania. In his youth, he became an outstanding marksman with both rifle and pistol; an expert horseman; and developed a fondness for nature. After attending Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania (1836 – 1840), Alex accepted an appointment to the Unites States Military Academy, West Point. While at West Point, Alex befriended Ulysses S. Grant (class of 1843) and they would remain close friends for life. Years later, while campaigning for the presidency in 1868, Grant visited Hays’ grave in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and openly wept at the loss of his friend. Another of Alex’s close friends at the Academy, Winfield Scott Hancock, recalled being bullied by an upperclassman. Hays interceded and in the ensuing fight beat the bully into several days bed rest. Alex graduated West Point ranked twentieth of twenty-five in 1844. Considered by many to be the best horseman at the academy, he was now Second Lieutenant Alexander Hays.
Lieutenant Hays fought with distinction, honor, bravery and valor in several Mexican War engagements. While on leave in February 1846, Hays married his sweetheart, Annie McFadden, in Pittsburgh. Together they would have nine children, two of which died at infancy. After fulfilling his military obligation, Hays resigned his commission in 1848. He invested in an iron furnace near his hometown of Franklin and failed. Then a trip to California to make his fortune in gold also failed. Back home in Western Pennsylvania, he worked as an engineer, building railroads, bridges and roads in and around Pittsburgh.
When President Lincoln requested troops in 1861, Hays was re-commissioned as a Captain in the regular army. He was given permission to raise a regiment of volunteers from Western Pennsylvania. That regiment would be the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteers and Hays became it’s Colonel and leader. After engaging successfully in the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 and being severely wounded in the leg at Second Bull Run, the fearless Colonel Hays was promoted to Brigadier General in September of that year. At Gettysburg, the 3rd Division of the Second Corps, under General Hays’ command, fought brilliantly. His division was a major factor in the repulse of Pickett’s charge, inflicting many casualties and capturing confederate prisoners and weapons. During that historic rebel charge, General Hays, as was his practice, led his troops from the front, miraculously escaping death or injury. He would go on to lead and fight in several other campaigns until his death at the Battle of the Wilderness.
General Alexander Hays was a simple, modest man who didn’t seek praise. Fiercely loyal, obedient to authority, and demonstrating outstanding courage, he was a fair but stern leader whose men admired and respected him. They would follow him anywhere out of love, confidence, and devotion. He earned their trust and loyalty through his actions. He was a commander who was actively engaged in battle, leading his men from the front, not the rear, and his men followed him without hesitation. Seeking a promotion to Major General, Hays wrote in a letter to the Pennsylvania Senate shortly before his death, “I have never been whipped. I have never lost one foot of ground before the enemy, but have invariably driven him when ordered to do so.” It was unlikely that General Alexander Hays would have been satisfied or successful as a civilian. His strong body and mind, his temperament, sense of duty, loyalty to his home State, the Union, his family, and his calling as a military man, all made him a natural leader and a true warrior. Often overshadowed by other great men of the Civil War, Brigadier General Hays was perhaps one the war’s most fearless, courageous, brilliant, and underrated generals.
John J. Paytas
Like many others, my fascination with the Civil War began at an early age. I was about six when my family visited Gettysburg. I can still envision my three older brothers and I climbing on the rocks that form Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. A trip to Gettysburg in my early twenties is when I was able to grasp the horrific loss of life that transpired on those hot July days in 1863. After watching all the movies and documentaries about the Civil War, reading many books and perusing the Internet, I was excited about the opportunity to be involved in a premier Living History group, “The Confederation of Union Generals.” I only wish I had pursued living history much earlier.
Portraying Brigadier General Alexander Hays was an easy decision for me. I too am from Western Pennsylvania, living one hour south of the town he was born in and thirty minutes north of his final resting place in Pittsburgh. Hays’ love for his family, his bravery, commitment to his job and his contribution to preserving the United States of America are all qualities of an outstanding man. I admire and respect Alex Hays, the man and the warrior, and do not want him to be neglected, forgotten, or under appreciated.
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