U.S. Grant and Alex Hays, Part 4 – “He was weeping like a child”
This is the final 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 covered the men at West Point and during the Mexican-American War. The second described the pair from the 1850s to April 1864. The third followed Grant and Hays through the Battle of the Wilderness. This one concludes with Grant’s visit to Hays’s grave in 1868.
In the first United States presidential campaign to occur after the Civil War, the Republican National Convention turned to Ulysses S. Grant as its nominee—then likely the most popular man in America.
The 1843 graduate of West Point and Mexican-American War veteran commanded at every level of the U.S. military during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. He started as the captain of a company and rose to become the general-in-chief of all the republic’s armies, ultimately compelling the surrender of his chief adversary, Robert E. Lee.
During his postwar campaign for the presidency in 1868, Grant attended a German fair in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the former home of his now-deceased friend and colleague, Alexander Hays. Though three years older than “Sam” Grant, “Sandy” Hays graduated from West Point one year after the former, en route to a lieutenancy during the war with Mexico, and subsequent Civil War promotions from a captaincy up to a brigadier generalship.
Hays—nicknamed “Fighting Elleck” by his men—commanded a division, was demoted to lead a brigade, and died in front of his troops at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Grant immediately grieved his old Army pal’s loss at his headquarters, nearly breaking down in front of his aides. From dispatches penned on the Virginia battlefield to his memoirs two decades later as he reached the twilight of his own life, Grant honored Hays, never more so than at Pittsburgh just before he was elected president.
On September 18, 1869—five years after the death of Hays, four years after the end of the rebellion, and one year after Grant was in Pittsburgh—the Evening Chronicle reported, “A touching incident which occurred on the occasion of General Grant’s recent visit to Pittsburgh has not yet been noticed.”
“On General Grant’s return from the volksfest he expressed the earnest desire to see the grave of that gallant officer, General Alexander Hays, who lies interred in the Allegheny Cemetery, and was driven to that burial place for the purpose of musing over the remains of his fallen comrade in arms,” the Chronicle explained. “Grant and Hays served together in the Mexican War, and received their first merits for soldierly conduct at the battle of Palo Alto.”
“They entertained for each other the warmest personal esteem, and on the decease of Hays, General Grant took the earliest opportunity of expressing in a letter his personal feelings and his sense of the great public loss which had been sustained,” the Chronicle concluded. “It is pleasant to think that in the midst of the festivities by which he was surrounded in Pittsburgh his heart still went forth to the tomb of one of the bravest men who ever drew a sword in defense of the flag of the nation.”
A decade later, in December 1879, Grant returned to the city following the culmination of his two terms as the nation’s 18th president in 1877. His arrival prompted former Pittsburgh Mayor Jared M. Brush to recall “‘my first best impression of General Grant’” during his initial 1868 visit.
“‘The Germans had a sangerfest at Friendship Grove, and I went out to the grove with General Grant,’” Brush told the Pittsburgh Daily Post in an article printed on Christmas Eve, 1879. “‘There were nearly 20,000 people in the grove that day, and they had a fine time....On our way home General Grant asked where General Hays was buried, and expressed a desire to see his grave.’”
“‘We were near the cemetery, and I directed the driver to take us to the monument,’” Brush continued. In the mayor’s words, he informed the interviewer, “‘There’s the place, General,’ I said to him when we arrived at General Hays’ monument, and Grant got out, when the carriage was driven about forty feet away. He passed around the monument, read all the battles of the Mexican war in which Gen. Grant had participated, then rested himself on a cannon, and when I looked he was weeping like a child.’”
“‘He seemed to be overpowered by the memories recalled by the tombstone, and after he got in the carriage again he did not speak a word till he got to the Lawrenceville road,’” about a mile away, Mayor Brush stated. “‘I thought then that his heart was in the right place. Gen. Hays was a son-in-law of John McFadden,’” with whom Grant had also corresponded during the Civil War, “‘and the next day when we were in Allegheny Gen. Grant asked if his family were living.’”
“‘We drove around to Mr. McFadden’s house and Grant paid his respects to Mrs. Hays and the old folks,’” Brush concluded. Five days after the Post published the story, the Express in Buffalo, New York, reprinted the same text under the headline, “A SOLDIER’S SORROW. Grant In Tears at the Monument of the Late Gen. Alexander Hays.”
In a Christmas Day piece, Brush recited much of the same story via another interview, this time with the Chicago Tribune. “‘Gen. Grant, who was then a candidate, went out with a party of us, and we had a jovial time with the Germans...,’” the former Iron City mayor said. “‘The General and myself were in a carriage together, returning, and, when we were near the cemetery, he turned to me and said: ‘Can you tell me where Gen. Alexander Hays’ grave is?’’”
“‘I told him it was not a hundred yards off,’” Brush claimed. “‘‘Drive me to it,’ said Grant. The driver was given the necessary order, and soon we were beside the grave of Col. Hays, as we generally called him. Gen. Grant stepped out of the carriage and walked around the grave, reading on the monument the brilliant war record of the deceased soldier.’”
“‘After spending a few minutes there, he sat down on one of the cannons near the monument, and appeared to be wrapped in deep thought,’” Jared Brush observed. “‘I turned aside, and when I again looked at Grant he was weeping like a child. I said nothing.’” The party then left the gravesite to continue its trek through Pittsburgh.
“‘While being driven to the city Gen. Grant asked, ‘Has Gen. Hays any relatives here?’ I told him his wife and her parents, the McFaddens were still living,’” Brush recalled. “‘‘Drive me to their residence, if it is not too much trouble,’ said he; and together we went over to the house, where the General was introduced to the family, and talked with them a short time.’”
The extent to which Hays remained on Grant’s mind for the remainder of his life is rather unknown, with one primary exception. In the final days of his time on the earth, the lieutenant general and president hurriedly penned the most respected of all Civil War memoirs. While suffering through a painful bout with throat cancer, Grant relived the glorious and distressing years of the rebellion.
In explaining his personal relationships, Grant made his affectionate acquaintance to Hays known via a short-but-meaningful reference during the general-in-chief’s recitation of the events at the Wilderness in May 1864.
“One of” the “most gallant brigade commanders—Alexander Hays—was killed,” Grant said. “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 gallant officer, ready to lead his command wherever ordered. With him it was ‘Come, boys,’ not ‘Go.’”
Soon after authoring these and the other tens of thousands of words contained within his legendary autobiography, Grant perished on July 23, 1885, at age 63. And so it was that “Sam” joined his old chum “Sandy” in death. They were collectively warriors of the rebellion—the former being the most famous soldier in his nation, who attempted to preserve and promote the legacy of the latter to almost literally his dying day.
Like this story? Follow PennCivilWar on social media for more content about Pennsylvania in the Civil War!
 “Grant and Hays,” Evening Chronicle (Pittsburgh, PA), Sept. 18, 1869, reprinted in Life and Letters of Alexander Hays, edited by George Thornton Fleming (Pittsburgh: Gilbert Adams Hays, 1919), 658-659.  “GRANT AND HAYS,” Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, PA), Dec. 24, 1879, 4; “A SOLDIER’S SORROW,” Buffalo Express (Buffalo, NY), Dec. 29, 1879, 2.  “GEN. GRANT,” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), Dec. 25, 1879, 1.  Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1886), 194.