American Civil War: Major General Alpheus S. Williams

Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alpheus S. Williams - Early Life & Career:

Born September 29, 1810, Alpheus S. Williams was a native of Deep River, CT.  Educated locally, he lost his father at age eight and his mother nine years later.  Receiving a large inheritance, Williams attended Yale University and pursued a degree in law.  Graduating in 1831, he elected to spend much of the next five years abroad in Europe and traveling around the country.

  Returning to the United States in 1836, Williams settled in the growing city of Detroit.  Interested in military affairs, he joined a local militia company and later married Jane Hereford Larned whose family held influence in the city.  Quickly rising to prominence, Williams was elected Probate Judge of Wayne County in 1840 and also held interests in local newspapers and banks.  

In 1847, with the United States involved in the Mexican-American War, Williams received a commission as lieutenant colonel of a regiment of Michigan volunteers.  Traveling to Mexico, the regiment arrived at Veracruz too late to play an active role in combat operations.  Instead, Williams and his men were posted to Cordova with orders to aid in keeping the road to Mexico City open.  While there, Williams first established a reputation for compassion and took special care to ensure his troops' needs were met.  Returning to Michigan in the summer of 1848, he resumed his place in the community and later served as president of the state's military board.

  Remaining active in the militia, Williams was promoted to major of the Detroit Light Guard in 1859.

Alpheus S. Williams - The Civil War Begins:

With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Williams was tasked with training Michigan's first volunteer regiments.

  While directing these activities at Fort Wayne, near Detroit, he received word that President Abraham Lincoln had appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers on May 14.  Ordered east later that summer, he assumed command of a brigade in Major General Nathaniel Banks' division in October.  On March 13, 1862, when Banks ascended to command of the Army of the Potomac's Provisional V Corps, Williams assumed leadership of the division.  Transferred to the Department of the Shenandoah in April, Banks' corps opposed Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's men the following month as the two sides contested control of the Shenandoah Valley. 

While in the Valley, Banks and Williams were beaten at the First Battle of Winchester on May 25 and forced back across the Potomac River into Maryland.  Ordered to join Major General John Pope's newly-formed Army of Virginia that summer, Banks' command became its II Corps.  On August 9, Banks' men engaged Jackson at the Battle of Cedar Mountain.  Holding the Union right, Williams' men fought tenaciously and one of his brigades, led by Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, played a key role in the engagement.  Eventually overwhelmed, Williams' men, along with the rest of Banks' corps, were forced to retreat.

  Operating away from the rest of the army, II Corps did not play a role in the Second Battle of Manassas later that month.   

Alpheus S. William - Army of the Potomac:

In the wake of the Union defeat at Second Manassas, Pope's army was disbanded and it units attached to Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac.  As part of this, II Corps was re-designated XII Corps and Major General Joseph K. Mansfield placed in command.  Retaining his position as a division commander, Williams led his men north as the army pursued General Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces into Maryland.  On September 13, men from Williams' division found a copy of Special Order 191, which detailed Lee's campaign plans, near Frederick, MD.  Passed up the chain of command, it provided McClellan with valuable insight into the enemy's intentions.

  In reserve at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, XII Corps entered the fray at the Battle of Antietam three days later.

Advancing onto the battlefield in the morning, XII Corps sought to aid Major General Joseph Hooker's I Corps in assaults against Jackson.  Shortly after engaging the enemy, Mansfield fell mortally wounded and command of the corps devolved to Williams.  Pressing XII Corps' attacks, he succeeded in advancing a brigade as far as the Dunker Church before intense Confederate fire forced it to withdraw.  Following the battle, leadership of XII Corps was given to Major General Henry Slocum and Williams returned to his division.  Moving south in December, XII Corps served in the army's reserve and did not take part in the defeat at Fredericksburg.      

In early May 1863, Williams' and XII Corps advanced with Hooker, now leading the army, to take part in the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Heavily engaged for much of the contest, Williams performed well and was a steady influence upon his men.  Having given good service during the war, he increasingly became agitated that less experienced West Point graduates were being promoted to major general while he was routinely passed over.  This was partially due to Williams' unwillingness to self-promote as well as fact that Banks had not recommended anyone his corps for promotion the previous year.    

Alpheus S. Williams - Gettysburg:

Following the Union debacle at Chancellorsville, Lee elected to move north to invade Pennsylvania.  Pursuing, the Army of the Potomac underwent a command change on June 28 when Major General George G. Meade replaced Hooker.  Arriving at the Battle of Gettysburg around 5:00 PM on July 1, Williams' division was initially tasked with occupying Benner's Hill east of town.  After finding the enemy in place on those heights, it was ordered to assume a defensive position on Culp's Hill the next day.  On July 2, Slocum came under the belief that Meade wished him to command the Right Wing of the army (XI & XII Corps) and appointed Williams to lead XII Corps.

  Late in the day, Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps commenced a series of heavy assaults against the Union left. 

Seeking to stabilize his lines in that part of the field, Meade ordered Williams to take all of XII Corps south.  Recognizing the importance of Culp's Hill, Williams successfully lobbied to have Brigadier General George S. Greene's brigade remain in place.  This decision proved wise as Greene repelled several enemy attacks that night and prevented the Confederates from turning the army's flank.  Returning with the bulk of XII Corps early on July 3, Williams mounted successful efforts to regain his former lines around Culp's Hill.  Though Williams' efforts at Gettysburg proved highly important to the outcome, Slocum was late in submitting his reports after the battle and as a result, his subordinate's contributions were not mentioned in Meade's official account of the engagement.  

Alpheus S. William - In the West:

In September, following Major General William S. Rosecrans' defeat at Chickamauga and subsequent retreat to Chattanooga, XI and XII Corps were dispatched to Tennessee to reinforce the beleaguered Army of the Cumberland.  Moving west, Williams' men were posted to guard railroads in eastern Tennessee and did not play a role in the Chattanooga Campaign.  The following spring, XI and XII Corps were consolidated into XX Corps under the command of Hooker.  Serving in Major General George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland, Williams' division took part in Major General William T. Sherman's advance on Atlanta.  Moving into Georgia, his men played a key role at the Battle of Resaca in mid-May.  Though lightly wounded in the arm at New Hope Church on May 26, Williams and his men were engaged at Kennesaw Mountain the following month. 

Arriving outside of Atlanta, Williams helped repulse the enemy at Peachtree Creek on July 20 and eight days later assumed command of the corps when Hooker left the army.  That autumn, Williams led XX Corps as it participated in Sherman's March to the Sea.  Given a brevet promotion to major general on January 12, 1865, he moved north with Sherman later in the month as Union troops advanced into South Carolina.  Entering North Carolina, XX Corps took part in the Battle of Bentonville in late March.  Shortly after the battle, Sherman, unhappy that the enemy had not been destroyed, replaced Williams with aggressive Major General Joseph A. Mower.  The decision proved controversial and angered many of XX Corps' men.  As in the past, Williams returned to division command for the final weeks of the war.

Alpheus S. Williams - Later Life:

Known as "Pap" to his men, Williams remained in the army until January 15, 1866.  Leaving the military, he never received a formal promotion to major general despite his successful service record.  Returning home to Michigan, financial issues prompted him to accept the post of US Minister to San Salvador.  Remaining abroad until 1869, Williams ran for governor of Michigan later that year but was defeated by Henry P. Baldwin.  Four years later, he successfully ran for Congress representing the state's 1st Congressional District.  On December 21, 1878, Williams suffered a severe stroke while at the US Capitol and died.  His remains were brought home and interred in Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery. 

Selected Sources