“Before I get killed” – The final days of General Alexander Hays
Updated: May 27
Author’s Note: Portions of this text have been adapted from a longer forthcoming essay I have written on Alexander Hays, which is slated to be published soon by Gettysburg National Military Park. Stay tuned to the PennCivilWar and Codie Eash – Writer and Historian Facebook pages for publication information when it becomes available.
Exactly one year before Abraham Lincoln died, one of the president’s newfound acolytes invoked his name in attempting to earn a military promotion. The admirer soon suffered a similar fate as Lincoln’s on a battlefield of the Civil War.
On April 15, 1864, Alexander Hays, a nearly 45-year-old native of Franklin, Pennsylvania, was a brigadier general in the Army of the Potomac, and felt his performance to that point in the conflict warranted a promotion. “I have no private claims to prefer,” Hays wrote to the Commonwealth’s governor, Andrew Curtin, “but it would give me some satisfaction to have your endorsement for major general (before I get killed), but there is no use asking that.”
Hays included a postscript, sent from Camp Birney in northern Virginia. “I will add that our army never was so well prepared, or rather will be when we move to meet the Rebels,” Hays declared. “We have faith in ‘Sam Grant,’ and unwavering devotion to the government, through Abraham Lincoln, its prophet.”
The Curtin correspondence was the latest in a string of attempts to secure a rank advancement for Hays, but to no avail. “I have to say that the firm of ‘Lincoln & Stanton’ has omitted to forward a second star I ordered at Gettysburg. Perhaps they have merely overlooked it,” he wrote. Time and again, he “jocularly” called out the president and Sec. of War Edwin Stanton—“the firm of ‘Lincoln & Stanton,’ forwarders of stars,” as Hays nicknamed them—as a means by which to privately question whether he would ever earn his promotion.
Hays, a Mexican-American War veteran who worked in railroad and mining operations before the rebellion, was generally lauded at nearly all levels of the army. In 1861, he began the conflict as a captain in the 12th Pennsylvania Infantry before raising the 63rd Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. He sustained a severe leg wound at Second Bull Run in August 1862, and returned the following spring as commander of a brigade in the 22nd Corps around the defenses of Washington, D.C., and finally a division in the Second Corps—at the head of which he delivered an inspired performance at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
Hays forever felt underappreciated, though, going so far as to suggest that he and his soldiers “will not be credited” for their role in the Gettysburg Campaign. He was correct, exemplified not only by his inability to secure a major generalship, but by his demotion from division to brigade command. Principally, the positional downgrade had naught to do with his performance (nor does it appear to have been related to largely unsubstantiated accusations of drunkenness), but was mostly thanks to a reorganization of the Army of the Potomac, which resulted in there being only three infantry corps rather than seven.
Simply put, there were too many officers (including scores of capable ones), and not enough leadership posts.
Hays’s April 15, 1864, memorandum was notable for his attempt at dark humor—“before I get killed”—but served as a tragic premonition. Simultaneously, in his final weeks alive, the general exemplified increased militancy. A onetime supporter of Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s conservative war aims, Hays had since become more radicalized through his experience as a wounded combat veteran.
“It is positively false (as I have seen represented) that any McClellanism or any other manism exists in this army,” Hays told Curtin privately. “If our Representatives in Congress can’t purge our National Halls from the foul taint of treason and sedition, we can fumigate with gunpowder and let out corrupt blood with the bayonett [sic].”
Additionally, in April and May 1864, Hays became more introspective in communications with his family, frequently hinting quietly at expectations of his ultimate demise. The tone of these notes is far more peaceful than those like his message to Curtin. The differences suggest an internal duality featuring, on the one hand, a hardened warrior concerned for the future of his army and his country—and, on the other, a realization of comfort in dying for the sake of a renewed republic.
On April 24, he curiously told his father-in-law John McFadden, living in Pittsburgh, of a plan “to exhume my old horses at Gettysburg” to create “ornaments made from their bones,” evidence of Hays’s growing sentimentalism. He also observed that as of late, he was able to see his old West Point friend and army colleague Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant “frequently,” now that Grant was commander of all U.S. armies. “I now have an opportunity of seeing him daily...,” Hays bragged, adding, “He wears his clothes very modestly, and smokes a cigar very awkwardly, and has the approbation of the entire army, because it is believed he knows and attends to his own business.”
“All is now peaceable and quiet, but subject to unannounced eruptions of a volcanic character, evolving brimstone and smoke...,” Hays informed McFadden. “It may well be a source of deep anxiety as our people look from home upon the coming struggle, for it will be fearful.” He passed along news of “Yankees...determined to kill all prisoners and exterminate the South, therefore accounting for the massacre of Fort Pillow and numerous other outrages.”
“I fear the contest is approaching ‘a l’outrance,’” a phrase translating to “without sparing” or “savage warfare,” Hays lamented, “and we must bide the issue. Such scenes will be presented as never before blotted the fair face of creation, and the living will have tales of horror to tell that will curdle the blood of future generations.”
“Our soldiers have coolly considered it, and are willing to accept ‘the hazard of the die,’” Hays closed. “But if we should be beaten, God help poor Pennsylvania!”
Five days later, Hays authored a similarly worded letter to his wife, Annie, vowing that Union soldiers “have recorded, upon our heart, the capture of Fort Pillow and of Plymouth,” references to the slaughter of U.S. Colored Troops in Tennessee and the recent seizure of a Federal installation in North Carolina, respectively. “Those events send no mere thrill through our hearts, but they have made a deep, abiding impression,” Hays claimed. “Our next battle will bring peace or eternal disgrace upon us.”
“With all my labors of late I have never had better reason to be satisfied,” Hays announced. “I find myself far ahead of many of my old instructors, and it is conceded that I am entitled to the ‘freedom of the army.’ Each day appears to add friends to my list.”
Hays was, “In anticipation of a movement” toward battle, stating, “Tonight I shall return to find my house a ruin and a new abode in the tented field.” Hauntingly, he informed Annie, “Each letter may be the last for some time, as I have no doubt all communication will be cut off when we move.”
On May 3, Alexander Hays penned the last letter of his life.
“Dear Wife: The sun and I arose at the same time this morning,” Hays notified Annie. He explained the “most splendid spectacle of a tornado” that tore through camp the previous day, when “the dust of all the army got on a rampage, and for a time overwhelmed us. We watched it approach for an hour,” after which, Hays added, “My stable was blown to strips, and in the midst of the storm I was forced to go to calm” nearby livestock, including his two horses, Secessia and Solomon.
“This morning was beautiful,” Hays stated, before quoting the poetry of Lord Byron: “‘For lightly and brightly shown the sun,/As if the morn was a jocund one.’” In Hays’s mind, “it might have been an appropriate harbinger of the day of regeneration of mankind, but it is only brought to remembrance through the throats of many bugles the duty enjoined upon each one, perhaps before the setting sun, to lay down a life for his country.”
In hindsight, the clause “to lay down a life for his country” was a haunting presentiment, considering forthcoming circumstances. “Today I am general officer of the day...,” Hays boasted with pride. “Thanks to God I am in perfect health, and will make duty a pleasure.”
“Now, good-bye, and God bless you, with my love to all,” General Hays signed off, with an eerie sense of finality. “Write letters, for letters will come in time, and they are a great satisfaction, even when I cannot answer. All our boys are well, well mounted and sanguine.”
Two days later, on May 5, 1864, combat swirled through Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in the opening hours of the Battle of the Wilderness. Hays led his brigade into a brutal fight near the intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads—the geographic key to the battlefield. In this wooded chaos, Hays was killed by a bullet to his head, and subsequently buried at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
His death made a deep impression at all levels of the U.S. military, a topic which is explored more in-depth here.
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