American Civil War: Major General Romeyn B. Ayres

Romeyn Ayres
Major General Romeyn B. Ayres. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Romeyn Ayres - Early Life & Career:

Born at East Creek, NY on December 20, 1825, Romeyn Beck Ayres was the son of a doctor. Educated locally, he obtained an extensive knowledge of Latin from his father who insisted that he study the language relentlessly. Seeking a military career, Ayres received an appointment to West Point in 1843. Arriving at the academy, his classmates included Ambrose Burnside, Henry Heth, John Gibbon, and Ambrose P. Hill. Despite his grounding in Latin and previous education, Ayres proved an average student at West Point and graduated ranked 22nd of 38 in the Class of 1847. Made a brevet second lieutenant, he was assigned to the 4th US Artillery. 

As the United States was engaged in the Mexican-American War, Ayres joined his unit in Mexico later that year. Traveling south, Ayres spent the majority of his time in Mexico serving in garrison duty at Puebla and Mexico City. Returning north after the conflict ended, he moved through a variety of peacetime posts on the frontier before reporting to Fort Monroe for duty at the artillery school in 1859. Developing a reputation as social and considerate individual, Ayres remained at Fort Monroe into 1861. With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and start of the Civil War that April, he received a promotion to captain and assumed command of a battery in the 5th US Artillery.

Romeyn Ayres - Artilleryman:

Attached to Brigadier General Daniel Tyler's division, Ayre's battery took part in the Battle of Blackburn's Ford on July 18. Three days later, his men were present at the First Battle of Bull Run but were initially held in reserve. As the Union position collapsed, Ayre's gunners distinguished themselves in covering the army's retreat. On October 3, he received an assignment to serve as chief of artillery for Brigadier General William F. Smith's division. In this role, Ayres traveled south in the spring to take part in Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. Moving up the Peninsula, he participated in the Siege of Yorktown and advance on Richmond. In late June, as General Robert Lee moved to the offensive, Ayres continued to provide reliable service in resisting Confederate assaults during the Seven Days Battles.

That September, Ayres moved north with the Army of the Potomac during the Maryland Campaign. Arriving at the Battle of Antietam on September 17 as part of VI Corps, he saw little action and remained largely in reserve. Later that fall, Ayres received a promotion to brigadier general on November 29 and assumed command of all VI Corps' artillery. At the Battle of Fredericksburg the following month, he directed his guns from positions on Stafford Heights as the army's assaults moved forward. A short time later, Ayres suffered an injury when his horse fell. While on sick leave, he resolved to leave the artillery as infantry officers received promotions at a faster rate. 

Romeyn Ayres - Changing Branches:

Asking for a transfer to the infantry, Ayres request was granted and on April 21, 1863 he received command of the 1st Brigade in Major General George Sykes' division of V Corps. Known as the "Regular Division," Sykes' force was largely composed of regular US Army troops rather than state volunteers. Ayres took his new command into action on May 1 at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Initially driving the enemy back, Sykes' division was halted by Confederate counterattacks and orders from army command Major General Joseph Hooker. For the remainder of the battle, it was only lightly engaged. The following month, the army underwent a rapid reorganization as Hooker was relieved and replaced by V Corps' commander Major General George G. Meade. As part of this, Sykes ascended to corps command while Ayres assumed leadership of the Regular Division.

Moving north in pursuit of Lee, Ayres division arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg around midday on July 2. After a brief rest near Power's Hill, his men were ordered south to reinforce the Union left against an attack by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. During this time, Sykes detached Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed's brigade to support the defense of Little Round Top while Ayres received a directive to assist Brigadier General John C. Caldwell's division near the Wheatfield. Advancing across the field, Ayres moved into line near Caldwell. A short time later, the collapse of the Union position in the Peach Orchard to the north compelled Ayres and Caldwell's men to fall back as their flank was threatened. Conducting a fighting retreat, the Regular Division took heavy losses as it move back across the field.

Romeyn Ayres - Overland Campaign & Later War:

Despite having to fall back, Ayres' leadership was praised by Sykes following the battle. After traveling to New York City to aid in suppressing draft riots there later in the month, he led his division during the inconclusive Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns that fall. In the spring of 1864 when the Army of the Potomac was reorganized following Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's arrival, the number of corps and divisions was reduced. As a result, Ayres found himself reduced to leading a brigade largely composed of regulars in Brigadier General Charles Griffin's V Corps division. As Grant's Overland Campaign began in May, Ayres' men were heavily engaged at the Wilderness and saw action at Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor.  

On June 6, Ayres received command of V Corps' Second Division as the army began making preparations to shift south across the James River. Leading his men, he took part in the attacks on Petersburg later that month and the resulting siege. In recognition of Ayres' service during the fighting in May-June, he received a brevet promotion to major general on August 1. As the siege progressed, Ayres played a central role in the Battle of Globe Tavern in late August and operated with V Corps against the Weldon Railroad. The following spring, his men contributed to the key victory at Five Forks on April 1 which helped force Lee to abandon Petersburg. In subsequent days, Ayres led his division during the Appomattox Campaign which resulted in Lee's surrender on April 9.

Romeyn Ayres - Later Life:

In the months after the end of the war, Ayres directed a division in the Provisional Corps before assuming command of the District of the Shenandoah Valley. Departing this post in April 1866, he was mustered out of the volunteer service and reverted to his regular US Army rank of lieutenant colonel. Over the next decade, Ayres performed garrison duty at various posts through the South before aiding in suppressing railroad strikes in 1877. Promoted to colonel and made commander of the 2nd US Artillery in 1879, he later was posted at Fort Hamilton, NY. Ayres died December 4, 1888 at Fort Hamilton and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  

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