Hays Brigade on the March
What does Chancellorsville have to do with it?
Early morning June 25, 1863, under cloud covered skies, Hays Brigade began making preparations for the march to Gum Springs Virginia, where it would join the Army of the Potomac. It was hoped, after months of suffering the embarrassment of Harpers Ferry, toiling at the guard duty in the Washington defenses, enduring the ridicule of their fellow soldiers, they would now realize the opportunity to prove themselves. Finally at 2:00 p.m. under threatening skies, on roads turned to mud from days of rain the march began. It ended ten hours and ten miles later in a driving rain storm at Gum Springs Va. The foot weary soldiers, many having discarded what they considered “unnecessary baggage” along the way, dropping to the ground in exhaustion. While they may have drilled and trained, they were unused to marches, particularly under such conditions. However, this was nothing compared to the grueling march awaiting them. The following day the brigade caught up with the army 12 miles away at Edwards Ferry on the Potomac river (II Corps historian Francis Walker wrote later they joined at Gum Springs, all other accounts indicate Edwards Ferry).
State of Maryland Historical Marker Edward’s Ferry
There were several routes between Gum Springs and Edward’s Ferry, that used by Hays is not clear. Due its directness, as well as being the most improved of the day, they probably used the same as the II Corps earlier, shown in the below map.
Before we proceed let’s take a brief look at an event of some weeks earlier which would have ramifications at Gettysburg. On May 1 thru 3 at Chancellorsville, Va. the Army of the Potomac under Major General Joseph Hooker, despite a nearly 2 to 1 numerical advantage, had suffered defeat, once again, to General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in a battle many of Hooker’s subordinates believed could have been won. While Lee daringly split his forces in the face of a superior enemy force, Hooker rather than press any advantage, found himself out-generaled, fell back into defensive positions and eventually retreated across the Rappahannock River.
While this battle is considered by many to be Lee’s greatest victory, it also had a direct impact on the fight yet to come, that of Gettysburg nine weeks later.
Most recall that Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was wounded by friendly fire and later died of these wounds. This deprived Lee of a superb Corps commander and decades of Civil War buffs with an endless list of “what-ifs”, we’re not going anywhere near it. However there were other incidents as well, all of which did have an impact.
During one phase of the battle Major General Daniel Sickles III Corps occupying key high ground known as Hazel Grove, was ordered by Hooker to fall back to Fairview, nearer to Chancellorsville. Almost immediately Confederate artillery took control of this same superior ground and Sickles Corps endured a terrible drubbing in the process. This experience may well have played a role in Sickles actions at Gettysburg and by extension those that followed by Hancock and Hays.
Major General Darius Couch, commanding the II Corps was so disgusted by Hooker’s performance he threatened to resign or be reassigned. Writing later of his meeting with Hooker during the battle:“To hear from [Hooker’s] own lips that the advantages gained by the successful marches of his lieutenants were to culminate in fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much, and I retired from his presence with the belief that my commanding general was a beaten man”
Washington reassigned Couch to the Department of Susquehanna. During the battle the 1st Division of the II Corps performed exceedingly well, being the last to leave the field, covering the Union withdrawal. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the Division was now promoted to command the Corps. He would play a significant role at the battle of Gettysburg
Hancock was no longer the “slight youth” of 20 years earlier at West Point but, as First Lieutenant Frank Haskell of Hancock’s Corps described him: “Hancock was the tallest, 6′ 2″, and in many respects the best looking, gentlemanly, dignified and commanding officer……….He had the appearance of a man born to command”. Colonel Regis De Trobriand, of the III Corps at Gettysburg wrote of Hancock: “He is tall in stature, robust in figure, with movements of easy dignity … In action … dignity gives way to activity; his features become animated, his voice loud, his eyes are on fire, his blood kindles, and his bearing is that of a man carried away by passion – the character of his bravery”. During the Peninsula campaign, leading an attack at Williamsburg, Hancock earned the nickname “Hancock the Superb”. But along with the dignity and gentlemanly demeanor, came another part of Hancock: “Hancock had an unrivaled command of profanity”. His men liked to relate that at the Battle of Williamsburg, while leading the charge from the front, “The air was blue all around him”. One officer related: “Hancock always swore at everyone around him, above all on the battlefield”. Much like his soon to be subordinate Hays, Hancock was a man’s man, brooked no nonsense and was respected by his troops who were proud to say, they were part of “Hancock’s Corps”.
During the 19 years since graduation he had earned distinction on numerous battlefields, from the Mexican War where he was wounded at the battle of Churubusco earning a brevet promotion to First Lieutenant, through the Third Seminole War where he was promoted to Captain, as well as various posts in the west. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed a brigadier general of USV in September of 1861, then brigade command through September 17, 1862 at which time he was promoted to division command and finally Corps command May 22, 1863. This was one of the most important command changes preceding Gettysburg.
Aware that the Army of Northern Virginia was moving northward, Hancock’s II Corps and the remaining six Corps of the massive Army of the Potomac was marching as well.
Hays, confident in his troops wrote: “The Harpers Ferry Boys have turned out trumps, and when we do get a chance look out for blood”, and they were confident in themselves, having received months of training and drill from him, as well as their regiment commanders.
Gone from the 39th New York was D’Utassey, in his place Major Hugo Hildebrandt. The 39th, now an undersized regiment of four companies, made up primarily of European immigrants from New York City were known as “The Garibaldi Guard” since most of its members were Italian, having served with Guiseppi Garibaldi in Italy and were recognizable by their Bersaglieri headgear, a round felt hat with plume of feathers.
Lt. David Shield’s, one of Hays staff related: ‘General Hays had many of the officers and many of the worthless men and “non-coms” mustered out for the good of the service, and formed the remainder into a battalion of four companies, under Major Hugo Hildebrandt, a typical German soldier (a Prussian) and a good soldier “one of the better ones” and thoroughly in General Hays esteem.’
126th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
The 126th New York, the infamous “Harpers Ferry Cowards”, “Band Box Soldiers” and any number of other derogatory names remained under the command of Colonel Eliakim Sherrill who had recovered from his wounds and in whom Hays had confidence. Sherrill despite having no military experience prior to Harpers Ferry had shown himself to be a leader as well as courageous, and under Hays’ guidance learned his trade. An excerpt of testimony by an officer during the earlier mentioned Congressional Commission (See Part 1): “I never saw a braver man than Colonel Sherrill in my life”. Sherrill, home in Geneva, N.Y. on furlough and recruiting duty when word arrived that his regiment might be marching soon, immediately prepared to depart. Asked by a friend why he didn’t wait until his furlough expired, replied: “I expect there will be a battle, and I would not have my regiment go into battle without me for the value of my whole farm’ (Sherrill owned a very sizeable farm). The months of service under Hays had their effect, the raw civilians who came under fire at Harpers Ferry, were now drilled and trained troops. Surgeon Charles Hoyt of the regiment remembered the men “were fast being educated in the school of the soldier…………in fine condition and most excellent spirits”.
125th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
The 125th New York remained under the command of Colonel George Lamb Willard. Born in New York City in 1827 Willard had enlisted in the 15th Ohio Volunteers during the Mexican War, where he was breveted a second lieutenant, 8th U.S. Infantry on the recommendation of Major General Winfield Scott, for “gallantry and distinguished service throughout the war”. After the war, Willard remained in the army serving with the 8th Infantry in Texas and New Mexico attaining the rank of Captain on April 27, 1861. Early in the Civil War he was promoted to Major and transferred to the 19th U.S. Infantry where he served throughout the Peninsula Campaign, being breveted to Lt. Colonel on July 1, 1862, for meritorious service. In August 1862 he was appointed Colonel of the 125th New York (see Part 1). Like the other regiments, the 125th had steadily improved since coming under Hays Brigade command, and may have had a step up on the others, having Willard, a combat experienced regular army officer.
The fourth regiment forming the brigade was the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry
Colonel Jesse Segoine resigned, apparently due to ill health in early January, 1863 and in his place Lt. Colonel Clinton MacDougall was promoted and assumed command. Born in Scotland in 1839, MacDougall first immigrated to Canada in 1842 with his parents who later settled in Auburn, New York. In September of 1861 he was appointed Captain of the 75th New York Volunteer Infantry. During service in Pensacola Florida, mistaken as the enemy, he was wounded by his own troops while passing through the picket line. In August of 1862 believing himself too inexperienced he turned down command of the 111th, instead accepting the position of Lt. Colonel and second to Segoine in that regiment. Now one year later he found himself in that very position, but now, with the experience he had gained under Hays, would prove he was ready. The 111th would arrive at Gettysburg less Companies B and C, detached to guard the Acotink bridge on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, about 16 miles from Alexandria, Va.
After Chancellorsville the II Corps’ 3rd Brigade in its 3rd Division no longer remained a viable command, in addition to casualties two regiments had mustered out, with those remaining troops having been reassigned to the 2nd Brigade. Therefore upon their arrival, Hays Brigade constituted the new 3rd.
Writing of the occasion later, Corps historian Brevet Brigadier General Francis Walker noted: “Here joined, for the first time, a body of troops destined to bear a conspicuous share in all the future labors and dangers of the Second Corps, from the fast approaching conflict on the bloody slopes of Gettysburg to the final triumph of 1865. This was the brigade of the dashing Alexander Hays – General Hays, who had greatly distinguished himself on the Peninsula”.
Those flowery sentiments would come later, for now they were still held in low esteem.
If they thought they’d be welcomed with opened arms, they were sorely mistaken. They met the same insults they had heard before, the only difference, they were now being hurled by men with whom they’d be marching into combat: “Harpers Ferry cowards”, “Band box soldiers” and “White Gloved Brigade”, a reference to their appearance with blackened boots and white gloves, when last seen by Hancock’s war weary men in Centerville. The veterans taunted them further telling them they “….would yet have a chance to smell powder” . Battle hardened veterans of numerous campaigns, who even if the so called “Coward” incident hadn’t occurred, wouldn’t have been impressed with the brigade’s record of one encounter, which many would consider hardly more than a skirmish.
In the next installment: The troops see multiple command changes and meet the 1st Brigade.
Husk, Martin W. – The 111th New York Volunteer Infantry: A Civil War History
Tagg, Larry – The Generals of Gettysburg, The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle
Tucker, Glenn – Hancock the Superb
Coddington, Edwin B. – The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command
Mahood, Wayne – Fight all Day, March all Night
Murray, R.L. The Redemption of the Harpers Ferry Cowards – The 111th and 126th New York State Volunteers at Gettysburg
Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion Vol 2
Hartwig, Scott, To Antietam Creek
Willison, Arabella M., Disaster, Struggle, Triumph – The Adventures of 1000 Boys in Blue
O.R. series 1, vol XIX, part 1
O.R. series 1, vol XXVII, part 1
Campbell, Eric – Remember Harpers Ferry – The Degradation, Humiliation and Redemption of Col. George L. Willard’s Brigade
Elmore, Thomas L – A Meteorological and Astronomical Chronology of the Gettysburg Campaign
Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division
Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection USAHEC
State of Maryland Historical Trust