American Civil War: Major General Alexander Hayes

Alexander Hayes
Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Born July 8, 1819, at Franklin, PA, Alexander Hays was the son state Representative Samuel Hays. Raised in northwestern Pennsylvania, Hays attended school locally and became a skilled marksman and horseman. Entering Allegheny College in 1836, he left the school in his senior year to accept an appointment to West Point. Arriving at the academy, Hays' classmates included Winfield S. Hancock, Simon B. Buckner, and Alfred Pleasonton. One of the best horsemen at West Point, Hays became close personal friends with Hancock and Ulysses S. Grant who was a year ahead. Graduating in 1844 ranked 20th in a class of 25, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 8th US Infantry.

Mexican-American War

As tensions with Mexico increased following the annexation of Texas, Hays joined Brigadier General Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation along the border. In early May 1846, following the Thornton Affair and beginning of the Siege of Fort Texas, Taylor moved to engage Mexican forces led by General Mariano Arista. Engaging at the Battle of Palo Alto on May 8, the Americans won a clear victory. This was followed the next day by a second triumph at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Active in both fights, Hays received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for his performance. As the Mexican-American War ensued, he remained in northern Mexico and took part in the campaign against Monterrey later that year.

Transferred south in 1847 to Major General Winfield Scott's army, Hays took part in the campaign against Mexico City and later aided Brigadier General Joseph Lane's efforts during the Siege of Puebla. With the end of the war in 1848, Hays elected to resign his commission and returned to Pennsylvania. After working in the iron industry for two years, he traveled west to California in the hopes of making his fortune in the gold rush. This proved unsuccessful and he soon returned to western Pennsylvania where he found work as an engineer for local railroads. In 1854, Hays moved to Pittsburgh to commence employment as a civil engineer. 

The Civil War Begins

With the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Hays applied to return to the US Army. Commissioned as a captain in the 16th US Infantry, he left this unit in October to become colonel of the 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry. Joining Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, Hays' regiment traveled to the Peninsula the following spring for operations against Richmond. During the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days Battles, Hays' men were predominantly assigned to Brigadier General John C. Robinson's brigade of Brigadier General Philip Kearny's division in III Corps. Moving up the Peninsula, Hays took part in the Siege of Yorktown and the fighting at Williamsburg and Seven Pines.    

After participating in the Battle of Oak Grove on June 25, Hays' men repeatedly saw action during the Seven Days Battles as General Robert E. Lee launched a series of attacks against McClellan. At the Battle of Glendale on June 30, he earned high praise when he led a bayonet charge to cover the retreat of a Union artillery battery. In action again the next day, Hays helped repel Confederate attacks at the Battle of Malvern Hill. With the end of the campaign a short time later, he departed for a month of sick leave due to partial blindness and paralysis of his left arm caused by combat service.

Ascent to Division Command

With the failure of the campaign on the Peninsula, III Corps moved north to join Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. As part of this force, Hays returned to action in late August at the Second Battle of Manassas. On August 29, his regiment spearheaded an assault by Kearny's division on Major General Thomas "Stonewell" Jackson's lines. In the fighting, Hays received a severe wound in his leg. Taken from the field, he received a promotion to brigadier general on September 29. Recovering from his wound, Hays resumed active duty in early 1863. Leading a brigade in the Washington, DC defenses, he remained there until late spring when his brigade was assigned to Major General William French's 3rd Division of the Army of the Potomac's II Corps. On June 28, French was transferred to another assignment, and Hays, as the senior brigade commander, took command of the division.

Serving under his old friend Hancock, Hays' division arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg late on July 1 and assumed a position towards the northern end of Cemetery Ridge. Largely inactive on July 2, it played a key role in repelling Pickett's Charge the next day. Shattering the left side of the enemy assault, Hays also pushed part of his command out to flank the Confederates. In the course of the fighting, he lost two horses but remained uninjured. As the enemy retreated, Hays flamboyantly seized a captured Confederate battle flag and rode before his lines dragging it in the dirt. Following the Union victory, he retained command of the division and led it during the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns that fall. 

Final Campaigns

In early February, Hays' division took part in the abortive Battle of Morton's Ford which saw it sustain over 250 casualties. Following the engagement, members of the 14th Connecticut Infantry, which had sustained the bulk of the losses, accused Hays of being drunk during the fighting. Though no evidence to this was produced or immediate action taken, when the Army of the Potomac was reorganized by Grant in March, Hays was reduced to brigade command. Though unhappy with this change in circumstances, he accepted it as it permitted him to serve under his friend Major General David Birney. 

When Grant commenced his Overland Campaign in early May, Hays immediately saw action at the Battle of the Wilderness. In the fighting on May 5, Hays led his brigade forward and was killed by the Confederate bullet to the head. When informed of his friend's death, Grant commented, "He was a noble man and a gallant officer. I am not surprised that he met his death at the head of his troops. He was a man that would never follow, but would always lead in battle.” Hays' remains were returned to Pittsburgh where they were interred in the city's Allegheny Cemetery.    

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Alexander Hayes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Alexander Hayes. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Alexander Hayes." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).