If you are familiar with the Gettysburg battlefield, you’ve seen him, striding forward just west of where you used to park for the Visitors Center. He welcomed those people who came in to the parking lot from Steinwehr Avenue just north of the site of the July 3 charge. Sometimes he’s bright bronze, glistening in the sunlight.
More recently I saw him assume a much darker hue.
He’s Alexander Hays, USMA 1844 (20/25), whose division helped check the attacking Confederates that summer afternoon. He was also one of the few friendly faces Ulysses S. Grant encountered when he came east in 1864. The two men had been close enough as young officers to be photographed together besides their horses in 1845 at Camp Salubrity, Louisiana.
Commanding a brigade in the II Corps on May 5, 1864, Hays hurried his men forward to reenforce the Union line along the Brock Road. a man with a reputation for hard drinking, he reportedly was taking a swig from his canteen when the strap became entangled. He was leaning forward to drink what he could when a bullet smashed through his skull. Falling off his horse, he was dead before he hit the ground.
Within a short time Grant learned of his friend’s sad fate from aide Horace Porter. The general ceased his whittling as he absorbed the news in silence. At last he spoke somewhat haltingly. He recalled their years together as cadets and young officers. “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 who would always lead in battle.”
Last month I visited the monument marking where Hays fell. It is located along the Brock Road, north of the Orange Plank Road.
Many men would lose their lives in these two days of battle. Here’s to Alexander Hays, who today rests in a cemetery in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.