U.S. Grant and Alex Hays, Part 3 – Woe in the Wilderness
This is the third 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. The second portion described the pair from the 1850s to April 1864. This entry follows Grant and Hays through the Battle of the Wilderness.
More than two decades after their first meeting as cadets at the United States Military Academy, in May 1864 Ulysses S. Grant and Alexander Hays embarked upon their inaugural Civil War campaign as part of a force fighting on the same battlefield with one another. Hays’s pending fate also made it their last together.
Following graduation from West Point a year apart from one another, the then-lieutenants were assigned to the Fourth U.S. Infantry and served in the Mexican-American War. They subsequently resigned their commissions in the peacetime Army to return to civilian life until the pinnacle of sectional hostilities between secessionists and loyal U.S. citizens. A few months after the Civil War started in 1861, both Grant and Hays rose from captaincies to colonelcies, commanding regiments of Illinoisans and Pennsylvanians, respectively.
While Hays earned the command of a brigade in the East, he endlessly suffered from what he and others around him considered a general lack of appreciation by his superiors—as well as poor health, the ill-effects of a shattered leg after Second Bull Run, and later accusations of drunkenness. Meanwhile in the West, Grant surpassed his former colleague and swiftly climbed even further through the ranks, taking charge of departments and armies before the end of the war’s first year.
By mid-1863, Hays returned from his wound—now a brigadier general—and was promoted to divisional leadership before Gettysburg, then backslid once again to man a brigade when a fellow Pennsylvanian, Maj. Gen. George Meade, reorganized his Army of the Potomac by the spring of 1864.
Meade’s immediate superior by that point was Grant, presently a lieutenant general, and commander of all the republic’s armies. Throughout March and April, Hays wrote home to his family in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with prideful remarks on having reconvened with his old pal Grant in Culpeper, Virginia. Grant impressed Hays, and to him it appeared as though President Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. military leadership could not have chosen a better candidate for the job of quelling the rebellion.
Grant cast his lot with the Army of the Potomac, riding alongside the Union’s most imperative armed body in its pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. His first task after breaking from the winter encampment around Brandy Station was to cross the Rapidan River, west of Fredericksburg, and press southward. Grant hoped to utilize his full manpower advantage by racing nearly 120,000 U.S. soldiers through dense second-growth forest in the region known as the Wilderness, and meet the enemy on a field of his own choosing in open ground nearer to Spotsylvania Court House.
On May 5, 1864, Meade’s army encountered the vanguard of Lee’s entrenched troops at Saunders Field, astride Orange Turnpike, at a rare clearing. Following Grant’s aggressive directive, Federal cavalry engaged and the Fifth Corps of infantry pursued. As the day wore on, the battle escalated, with the Union line facing west and spanning in a north-south orientation, through the Wilderness, toward its left flank near the intersection of the Brock and Orange Plank roads.
At that highway juncture, Meade deployed the Second and Sixth corps of infantry, the former of which was led by another Pennsylvania native, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, in which Hays commanded a brigade of the Third Division, under Maj. Gen. David Birney. A few days afterward, one of Meade’s aides, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, wrote about what happened next. At army headquarters on the northern edge of the battlefield, “General Grant had his station with us (or we with him); there he took his seat on the grass, and smoked his briarwood pipe, looking sleepy and stern and indifferent,” Lyman recalled.
“His face, however, may wear a most pleasing smile, and I believe he is a thoroughly amiable man,” Lyman explained of Grant. “That he believes in his star and takes a bright view of things is evident. At 4:15 P.M. General Meade ordered me to take some orderlies, go to General Hancock (whose musketry we could now hear on the left) and send him back reports, staying there till dark.”
Lyman rode to the “the dotted cross-road,” where “sat Hancock, on his fine horse...a glorious soldier, indeed! The musketry was crashing in the woods in our front, and stray balls—too many to be pleasant—were coming about. It’s all very well for novels,” Lyman noted, “but I don’t like such places and go there only when ordered.”
With the “voice of a trumpet,” Hancock “roared” his demands for reinforcements, Lyman detailed. “As he spoke, a crowd of troops came from the woods and fell back into the Brock road,” the lieutenant colonel continued. “Hancock dashed among them.”
“‘Halt here! halt there. Form behind this rifle-pit,” Lyman remembered Hancock shouting, in recognition of the reality that some men were “‘hard pressed and nearly out of ammunition!’” A grateful Lyman described the “welcome sight” of fresh soldiers “coming along the Brock road.” Relief soon turned to dread, though, when “the line disappeared in the woods to waken the musketry with double violence,” he remarked.
It was at this moment that Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays carried out the final order of his life.
“Up came Hays’s brigade, disappeared into the woods, and, in a few minutes, General Hays was carried past me, covered with blood, shot through the head,” Lyman lamented. He subsequently added, “He was a strong-built, rough sort of man, with red hair, and a tawny, full beard; a braver man never went into action, and the wonder only is that he was not killed before, as he always rode at the very head of his men, shouting to them and waving his sword.”
Likewise, Grant’s most outspoken aide, Lt. Col. Horace Porter, was nearby. “I was sent to communicate with Hancock during this part of the engagement,” he recalled in his 1897 memoir. “The fighting had become exceedingly severe on that part of the field. General Alexander Hays, one of the most gallant officers in the service, commanding one of Hancock’s brigades, finding that his line had broken, rushed forward to encourage his lines, and was instantly killed.”
As the battle continued throughout the remainder of May 5 and 6, 1864, word filtered to U.S. headquarters of Hays’s death, and subsequently to the War Department in Washington, D.C.
“General Hays is killed,” a memorandum to Secretary of War (and former Pittsburgh resident) Edwin Stanton stated, while Winfield Hancock grieved, “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 on the 5th.” Similarly, George Meade mourned, “Hays, in going to repair the break in his line, was shot dead while gallantly leading his command in the thickest of the fight.”
Perhaps the earliest written statements of sorrow came from none other than Grant. At 11:30 a.m. on May 6, he informed army administrator Henry W. Halleck, “Brigadier-General Hays was killed yesterday.” At 10:00 a.m. on May 7, he added, “Among the killed we have to deplore the loss of...Hays.”
As a decades-long colleague to Hays, the general-in-chief suffered not only the untimely demise of a brigade commander, but the earthly departure of a friend. “There were few true friends in Grant’s life,” the late historian William S. McFeely once surmised. “Yet he needed people around him. He seems to have been a loner and yet to have been terrified of being alone.”
“But the commanding general was not indifferent to the news that Alexander Hays...had been killed...,” another biographer, Brooks D. Simpson, has added. “Shaken, Grant struggled to gather his thoughts and feelings for several minutes before he responded in halting sentences that praised Hays’s courage and character. Another friendly face was gone, and there were none too many for Grant in this army.”
Horace Porter was the man who initially delivered the news to Grant on May 5 at his Wilderness command center. “After remaining for some time with Hancock’s men, I returned to headquarters to report the situation to the general-in-chief, and carried to him the sad intelligence of Hays’s death,” he recollected. “General Grant was by no means a demonstrative man, but upon learning the intelligence I brought, he was visibly affected.”
“He was seated upon the ground with his back against a tree, whittling pine sticks,” Porter continued. “He sat for a time without uttering a word, and then, speaking in a low voice, and pausing between the sentences, said: ‘Hays and I were cadets together for three years. We served for a time in the same regiment in the Mexican war. He was a noble man and a gallant officer. I am not surprised that he met his death at the head of his troops; it was just like him. He was a man who would never follow, but would always lead in battle.’”
As “Sam” Grant approached the end of his own life, he reflected on “Sandy” Hays in his memoirs. “One of Birney’s most gallant brigade commanders—Alexander Hays—was killed,” Grant reminisced in his chapter on the Wilderness. “I had been at West Point with Hays for three years, and had served with him through the Mexican war, a portion of the time in the same regiment.”
“He was a most gallant officer, ready to lead his command wherever ordered,” Grant lauded. “With him it was ‘Come, boys,’ not ‘Go.’”
Hays’s body was transported to Pittsburgh for burial at Allegheny Cemetery, earning him martyrdom in western Pennsylvania, best exemplified by the streets soon named for him and the graveside monuments dedicated by soldiers he once led in battle.
Simultaneously, Grant continued commanding through the remainder of the Overland Campaign, to the Siege of Petersburg, and beyond, ultimately compelling the military surrender of R.E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865—and with it, the effective culmination of the rebellion.
The aftermath of the Civil War brought an uncertain peace and a conflicted Reconstruction. For eight years, the nation turned to Grant to lead it as president. In the process, Grant turned to the grave of his friend, Alex Hays, to cope with the weight of the conflict and its consequences.
Part 4 will conclude this series by focusing on Grant’s visit to Hays’s grave in 1868.
Like this story? Follow PennCivilWar on social media for more content about Pennsylvania in the Civil War!
 Theodore Lyman, letters to Elizabeth Lyman, May 15 and 16, 1864, in Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from The Wilderness to Appomattox, edited by George R. Agassiz (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922), 91-93.  Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (New York: The Century Co., 1897), 51-52.  Correspondence in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889), series 1, vol. 36, part 1: C.A. Dana to E.M. Stanton, “Dispatches of Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War,” May 8, 1864, 64; Winf’d S. Hancock to Seth Williams, “Reports of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, U.S. Army, commanding Second Army Corps, with statement of guns captured and lost from May 3 to November 1, and list of colors captured and lost from May 4 to November 1,” February __, 1865, 326; Geo. G. Meade to T.S. Bowers, “Report of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, U.S. Army, commanding Army of the Potomac,” Nov. 1, 1864, 190.  Correspondence in OR, series 1, vol. 36, part 1: U.S. Grant to H.W. Halleck, May 6, 1864, “Reports of Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, U.S. Army, commanding Armies of the United States, including operations March, 1864-May, 1865,” 2; Grant to Halleck, May 7, 1864, 2.  William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981; reprint, 1982), 87.  Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2000; reprint, Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014), 296.  Porter, Campaigning with Grant, 52.  Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1886), 194.