U.S. Grant and Alex Hays, Part 2 – “Sam” and “Sandy” in the Civil War
Updated: Jun 8
This is the second in a four-part series which focuses on the relationship between General-in-Chief and President Ulysses S. Grant and Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, a native of Franklin, Pennsylvania. The first installment covered the men at West Point and during the Mexican-American War. This entry follows the pair from the 1850s to April 1864.
The years leading to the Civil War produced somewhat similar experiences for Ulysses S. Grant and Alexander Hays, who had been friends for nearly two decades by that point.
Many contemporaries referred to Grant as “Sam,” since the initials he adopted due to a clerical error at West Point—U.S.—evolved into “Uncle Sam.” Likewise for Grant’s onetime schoolmate, wrote an early biographer, with “his complexion light and his beard inclined to be red, Alexander Hays early earned the sobriquet, ‘Sandy.’”
It does not appear that they remained in contact between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, but subsequent events during the latter suggest that “Sam” and “Sandy” stayed in one another’s thoughts. If nothing else, the old United States Military Academy chums who prepared to enter combat in their nation’s defense reflected positively on their time together in writing and in conversations. Finally, they rekindled their camaraderie at the first available opportunity, though the chance did not come until 1864.
In the aftermath of the war with Mexico, both men left the U.S. Army and returned to civilian life alongside their wives and children, albeit six years apart from one another—Hays having resigned in 1848 as a lieutenant and Grant having followed suit in 1854 after his promotion to captain and additional service in California. Hays resided in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and afterward the suburb of Linton, earning money as a local engineer, railroader, and borough regulator. Grant subsequently returned to his home region in what was then deemed the West, working rather unsuccessfully as a farmer, salesman, and business operator in Missouri and Illinois.
By the climax of sectional hostilities and the outbreak of Southern states’ secession claims, the men soon to be monikered “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and “Fighting Elleck” Hays both exhibited anti-Confederate ideologies, though Sam’s was more private than Sandy’s. “There are but two parties now, traitors and patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter,” Grant famously informed his father at the dawn of rebellion, before telling his sister that seceded states “are therefore traitors at heart.” Hays frequently stated similar hopes, exemplified by lines penned throughout the Civil War, such as those in which he longed to “give a good lick to traitors” and to confront “acts of traitors” (in addition to the fact that Hays dragged captured Confederate flags across the battlefield at Gettysburg).
Each also dealt with his share of character qualms, particularly regarding purported alcoholism. Grant’s occasional reliance on spirits to deal with depression and homesickness (especially in the Antebellum era) has been well documented and debated, but in a similar sense, Hays was accused of drunkenness from time-to-time, particularly after the Civil War battles at Morton’s Ford and the Wilderness. Apparently aware of such criticisms, Hays claimed in mid-war correspondence with his wife, Annie, “I drink nothing but tea, milk and water,” and later, “I never was in better health, and I do not drink any strong drink.”
In 1861, the 42-year-old Hays was captain of the Uniformed Militia of Allegheny County, and later the City Guards, which was mustered into U.S. service at the opening of the Civil War as Company K of the 12th Pennsylvania Infantry. Hays (now a major) ventured to the Pennsylvania state capital at Harrisburg and subsequently endured miserable, rainy tenures in military camps at York, Pennsylvania, and Cockeysville, Maryland, which he deemed “the worst secession hole.” He yearned for a promotion to colonel in a Regular U.S. Army regiment, and even threatened to resign if he did not earn his wish.
Hays eventually settled for a Regular captaincy, as well as a Volunteer colonelcy of the 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry, which he helped raise in Pittsburgh. He commanded the regiment until he suffered a severe leg wound at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, then gained a promotion to brigadier general, recovered, and returned to active duty the following spring. Upon his resumption of service, Hays became a brigade commander in the 22nd Corps around the defenses of Washington, D.C., then soon transferred to lead a division in the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, at the head of which he directed a spirited and celebrated Union defense at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
Simultaneously, the 39-year-old U.S. Grant was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry and embarked upon his rapid rise in the Western Theater to brigadier general, major general, and—by March 1864—lieutenant general. With the final promotion, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln honored Grant as general-in-chief and commander of all U.S. armies. Rest assured, Hays paid attention to the exploits and successes of his pal.
“Now is the day and hour to strike the fatal blow,” Hays wrote to his father-in-law, John McFadden, on August 10, 1863. “We have not, at least I have, but little confidence in our commander,” Maj. Gen. George Meade, a fellow Pennsylvanian who won at Gettysburg, but was deemed too cautious in its aftermath. “The science of war has been played out and we want a man who, under the guidance of common sense, will give us hard knocks, for we can beat them at that if we cannot at strategy,” Hays announced. At the bottom of the page on which these utterances were published in 1919, Hays’s biographer, George Thornton Fleming, observed of his subject’s wish for such a commanding officer, “He came in the spring in the person of U.S. Grant.”
One of Hays’s primary concerns after his performance at Gettysburg was a promotion, which he not only desired, but genuinely felt he deserved—a belief in which he was not alone. The brigadier wrote often to Annie, as well as Pennsylvania’s wartime governor, Andrew Curtin, yearning for a rank advancement to major general. In turn, Mrs. Hays took those requests to her western Pennsylvania childhood friend, Ellen Stanton, whose husband was none other than Edwin Stanton, the U.S. secretary of war.
“I was at Mrs. Stanton’s yesterday and received a most flattering welcome from all,” Annie Hays wrote to her father on December 13, 1863. “After dinner Mr. S. told me to come into his library and...asked of the general’s [Hays’s] health, how he liked his command, if he would be willing to do with it to Grant, as he intended sending part of the Army of the Potomac to General Grant.” (Grant was still in the Western Theater, and not yet promoted to command all armies.)
According to Annie, “Mr. S. regretted he could not make a major general of Hays now, but there are no vacancies, and it was determined to keep the number to seventy, though that ought to be reduced to twenty.” She quoted Secretary Stanton as saying, “‘General Hays stands high in my estimation and with the department, and will yet have his reward.’”
Hays was not so sure, and wrote on March 7, 1864, “Changes will be made in a new organization of the army, and my present position may be required for some major general, who has ‘skulked under hatches’ for the last nine months.” In fact, he not only never earned a promotion to major general—but rather was demoted from division command to that of a brigade when the Army of the Potomac was reorganized in the spring of 1864.
As Congress and President Lincoln promoted Grant to lead all the republic’s armies, Hays expressed pride in his acquaintance, but concern for the fate of the fighting force. Potomac army commander Meade “is in the hands of the flint grinders, and Grant is on the road to Washington,” Hays wrote, three days before Grant was formally named general-in-chief.
“I fear not for the best,” Hays admitted, expressing equal parts enthusiasm and cynicism. Not knowing whether Grant would return to the West or relocate to Virginia and confront Robert E. Lee, Hays said of the lieutenant general, “His old army needs him. Of the next program we are as innocent as babes, but we abide by the moves upon the board most patiently, with full faith in Providence and the administration.”
From his encampment south of Brandy Station, Virginia, Hays learned that Grant would, in fact, ride with the Army of the Potomac for the spring campaign. Anxiously, he informed his wife on March 23, 1864, “Grant is expected daily,” followed a few days later by the realization that “Sam” arrived nearby.
“I go in the morning to assume command” of a new brigade, Hays stated on March 25, noting, “I have a larger command than the Third Division” he led the previous summer. “I will then endeavor to see Grant, whose headquarters are at Culpepper [sic],” he told Annie. The following day, he reported in a disappointing tone, “Lieut. General U.S. Grant gave us a very fleeting call. I called to see him, but he was out. He returns in a few days, maybe he will see enough of the A[rmy of the] P[otomac],” Hays expected. “I will, however, have opportunity of seeing him and will report.”
On April 9, 1864, exactly one year before Grant compelled R.E. Lee to surrender, Hays praised both his Second Corps chief (another Pennsylvanian, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock) and army commander in yet another piece of correspondence about hoping to catch up with Grant. “From Hancock and Meade I have gained every concession asked,” Hays reflected. “I have not yet met Grant, but will go to see him tomorrow. We were to have a review later for his benefit, but it rained, and now at 9 o’clock P.M. it is pouring down in torrents.”
Finally, on April 13, “Sandy” conversed with his West Point colleague. “I called upon Grant day before yesterday and was most cordially received,” Hays informed Annie on April 15. “He promised me his photograph for you. I will go tomorrow and see about the rings.” What exactly Hays meant by “the rings” is unclear, though he was a frequent collector of wartime souvenirs, many of which he sent home to western Pennsylvania—including not only photos and jewelry, but also broken flagstaffs, flowers plucked from battlefields, and even the bones of dead horses.
“Grant is working quietly and, I believe, successfully,” Hays observed in an April 17 memorandum to his father-in-law. “He appears to keep aloof from all the combinations of petty jealousies which so long have been a curse to our army. I see him but rarely, but think I can clinch my own nail there, if it is not so already.”
Hays assumed the arrival of a friendly face as the overarching superior might ensure his promotion. By serving under a longtime associate like Grant, “I could not possibly desire a more enviable position, excepting nominal rank and pay, than at present,” Hays determined.
A few days later, Hays traveled to Culpeper to serve as a juror in court-martial proceedings for “an important prisoner or one of rank...,” he wrote. “I met ‘Sam’ Grant in Culpepper [sic] today as he was walking on (or, rather, loafing on) the sidewalk smoking his segar in his own peculiar style,” Hays explained to Annie on April 23. “I inquired where the court-martial was, and he informed me he did not know, as he was not a member of our court.”
According to Hays on that same occasion, “I heard a soldier remark as we passed along the street: ‘That’s him. Who the devil would think he was a general?’”
In more correspondence with John McFadden, Hays bragged to his father-in-law (who also seems to have known Grant personally), “In answer to your Grant question I have seen him frequently, and have been received most cordially, as I expected to be. I have now an opportunity of seeing him daily. He mentioned having received two pictures from you and seemed pleased.”
“He wears his clothes very modest, and smokes a cigar very awkwardly, and has the approbation of the entire army,” Hays continued, “because it is believed he knows and attends to his own business.”
In another mid-April communique, Hays assured Pennsylvania’s governor that as the U.S. forces prepared to pursue Lee, “I will add that our army never was so well prepared, or rather will be when we move to meet the Rebels.” Then, “Fighting Elleck” insisted, “We have faith in ‘Sam’ Grant, and unwavering devotion to the government, through Abraham Lincoln, its prophet.”
Hays’s full-throated endorsement of his companion and the president was not the most striking aspect of the message, however. Rather, that distinction went to the brigadier’s dark-humored utterance to Governor Curtin that “it would give me some satisfaction to have your endorsement for major general (before I get killed).”
Indeed, three weeks later, amid Grant’s first battle overall command of an army in which Hays led a brigade, “Sam” would be forced to mourn the loss of “Sandy” when the premonition came true.
Part 3 of this series focuses on the Battle of the Wilderness and the death of Alexander Hays.
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 George Thornton Fleming, Life and Letters of Alexander Hays (Pittsburgh: Gilbert Adams Hays, 1919), 95. Life and Letters is hereafter referred to as L&L.  Ulysses S. Grant to Jesse Grant, April 21, 1864, in Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to his Father and his Youngest Sister, 1857-78, edited by Jesse Grant Cramer (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 25; U.S. Grant to Mary Grant, April 29, 1861, in Letters of Ulysses S. Grant, 29; Alexander Hays to C.H. Morgan, July 8, 1863, “Reports of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, U.S. Army, commanding Third Division,” in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), series 1, vol. 27, part 1, 453; Hays to John McFadden, March 11, 1863, in L&L, 334.  Hays to Annie Hays, March 22, 1864, in L&L, 554; Hays to Annie Hays, March 30, 1864, in L&L, 569.  Hays to Annie Hays, May 26, 1861, in L&L, 128.  Hays to John B. McFadden, Aug. 10, 1863, in Fleming, L&L, 477, 477 n. 4.  Annie Hays to McFadden, Dec. 18, 1863, in Fleming, L&L, 529.  Hays to McFadden, March 7, 1864, in Fleming, L&L, 547.  Hays to Annie Hays, March 23, 1864, in Fleming, L&L, 559.  Hays to Annie Hays, March 25, 1864, in Fleming, L&L, 563; Hays to Annie Hays, March 26, 1864, in L&L, 564.  Hays to Annie Hays, April 9, 1864, in Fleming, L&L, 578.  Hays to Annie Hays, April 15, 1864, in L&L, 580.  Hays to McFadden, April 17, 1864, in L&L, 583.  Hays to McFadden, April 21, 1864, in L&L, 586; Hays to Annie Hays, April 23, 1864, in L&L, 587.  Hays to Annie Hays, April 23, 1864, in L&L, 587.  Hays to McFadden, April 24, 1864, in L&L, 591.  Hays to Andrew Curtin, April 15, 1864, in L&L, 590.