Alexander Hays at forty-four was a hot-headed, coarse-grained, hard-drinking Pennsylvanian who was most at home in a fight. He reviled "scientific leaders" and called strategy "a humbug. Next thing to cowardice." His appearance fitted his fiery personality: he was six feet tall and husky, with sandy red hair. As one of his soldiers admiringly described him, he was "a princely soldier; brave as a lion . . . one of those dashing, reckless, enthusiastic generals. . . . His old brigade, the Third of his division, idolized him, and we would have followed him to the death." Hays was never accused of bad judgment, but combat sent him into a showboating, extravagant boisterousness.
Born north of Pittsburgh in Venango County, Hays was the son of a member of Congress and general in the Pennsylvania militia. Developing a military bent himself, Alexander left Allegheny College in his senior year to enter West Point, though he was no scholar, graduating 20th out of 25 in the Academy's class of 1844. Once out of school, he showed a restless soul. After two years of frontier duty, he returned to Pittsburgh to get married, then plunged back into service in the Mexican War. After the war, Hays resigned army service to enter the iron business. His iron business failed, so he went to California in the Gold Rush. In 1851, he returned to western Pennsylvania yet again, engaging in bridge-building for railroads and towns.
Hays reentered the army when the Civil War broke out, and was made captain of a company of Regulars. By October 1861, however, he raised the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteers and become its colonel. He led the regiment for the first time in combat at Seven Pines, where they performed well, although Hays's brigadier did not single Hays out for distinction in his report. A month later, however, during the Seven Days' Battles, Hays made the most of his first chance for glory. At Glendale, he made a gritty bayonet charge with his regiment into the enemy line to cover the retreat of a friendly battery. Hays's thrill for battle showed in the purple prose of his own official report: "At once the men sprang to their feet, and with leveled bayonets dashed upon the enemy. The conflict was short, but most desperate, especially around the buildings. It was muzzle to muzzle, and the powder actually burned the faces of the opposing men as they contended through the paling fences." Three days later, in a letter to a friend, the episode had gained an even fiercer edge, as Hays wrote, "In a flash, yelling like incarnate fiends, we were upon them." Evidently Hays wasn't exaggerating too wildly--he was singled out for distinction in the reports by his brigadier, John Robinson, and his division commander, Phil Kearny, who called it a "heroic action." Hays went on sick leave a month later. The surgeon reported he had blindness in his right eye and partial paralysis of his left arm, from which he had suffered since the Seven Days.
Hays was out for a month, but was back in the thick of the fighting at Second Bull Run in August 1862, where his regiment spearheaded Phil Kearny's entire division in an attack on Jackson's men in the Railroad Cut. There, a Rebel bullet shattered Hays's leg, putting him out of the fighting for many months.
Hays was promoted to brigadier general while he convalesced. He returned to duty in the spring of 1863 and patiently commanded a brigade in the Washington defenses until the Confederate army raided Pennsylvania in June. When Maj. Gen. William French of Third Division, Second Corps was transferred to an improvised reserve division on June 28, three days before Gettysburg, Hays's brigade was added to the French's former command, and Hays took over as chief of the Third Division by virtue of his seniority.
Thus, at Gettysburg, not only was Hays completely new to division-level command, he was completely unfamiliar with two brigades of his new division. However, instead of the Old Army distrust of civilian recruits, he loved the volunteers, calling them his "'Bluebirds' whose badge is the 'Shamrock,'" and they loved him for the brave, vigorous leadership he gave.
At Gettysburg Hays, always an emotional fighter, had a special intensity at Gettysburg, explaining "I was fighting for my native state, and before I went in thought of those at home I so dearly love. If Gettysburg was lost all was lost for them, and I only interposed a life that would be otherwise worthless."
His sector of the Second Corps line--closest to Cemetery Hill--was not disturbed except by skirmishing in his front on July 2. The third brigade, however--his old command, now led by Col. George Willard--was led into battle by corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock and was initiated to fierce combat in the fighting to the south, attacking directly into the surging Confederate line.
On July 3, true to his nature, when his men were cowering under the terrific cannonade that preceded Pickett's Charge, Hays suddenly appeared and had his men gather up all discarded rifles, clean them, load them and have them handy. Not only did this occupy the men during the barrage, but afterward some of the men had as many as four loaded rifles at hand for the infantry assault Hays sensed was coming--"Now, boys, you will see some fun!" he shouted to his men when the artillery went silent. The Confederate lines came into view as Hays predicted, and as they approached, he drilled his men in the manual of arms to keep them steady. Then, one man reported, "he was riding up and down the lines in front of us, exhorting the 'boys' to stand fast and fight like men. . . . Once he rode by and said , 'Boys, don't let 'em touch these pieces,' and in a few minutes he rode back again laughing, sung out, 'Hurrah, boys, we're giving them hell,' and he dashed up to the brow of the hill and cheered our skirmishers." The men evidently took heart from his stagy performance.
Hays made some last-minute adjustments to the line and waited until the Southerners got entangled with the fences about two hundred yards away. Then he shouted "Fire!" and his entire line erupted in flame and curling smoke. Though outnumbered, Hay's division, with the help of a converging fire from friendly infantry and artillery to their right, slaughtered Pettigrew's and Trimble's men in their front. Hays threw out another regiment to pour fire into the flank of the massed Confederates, and after a few minutes the enemy lines melted away.
When the smoke cleared, Hays, who was unhurt but had had two horses shot out from under him, kissed his aide in the exhilaration of the moment, grabbed a captured Rebel battle flag and, riding down the division's line, dragged it ostentatiously in the dirt behind his horse, waving his hat and exhorting the men to cheer. The moment was so exciting, his aide wrote later, "My horse seemed to be off the ground traveling through the air."
Hancock praised Hays's conduct as "all that could be desired in a division commander" after the battle. Hays continued in command of the Third Division during the fall campaigning, but in the army reorganization of March 1864, Hays was reduced to the command of a brigade to make room at the division level for his senior in rank, Maj. Gen. David Birney. On May 5, 1864, the first day of the Wilderness battle, he was killed by a bullet through the head.