The following excerpt, related to events 152 years ago today, is adapted from my new book Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness, part of the Emerging Civil War Series. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to support the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield.
“This morning was beautiful,” wrote Brigadier General Alexander Hays on May 4, 1864, in a letter to his wife. “It might have been an appropriate harbinger of the day of the regeneration of mankind, but it only brought to remembrance, through the throats of many bugles, the duty enjoined upon each one, perhaps before the setting sun, to lay down a life for his country.”
It would be the last letter Hays would write to his wife. The next afternoon, on May 5, Hays would die in the battle that swirled around the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection.
But Hays’s death would later serve as a symbol of the “regeneration” he’d hoped for. In June 1905, surviving members of 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry, Hays’ original unit, dedicated a monument to their fallen general in the vicinity where he was killed.
At the dedication ceremony Reverend John H. Light “beseeched divine blessing for the movement to heal the wounds of war.” Speaker John T. Goolrick, a local judge and Confederate veteran, condemned Southerners who, even then, forty-one years after the war, tried to keep sectional tensions alive. Goolrick promised that the Confederate people—especially veterans and their sons—would protect the Hays monument and, every Memorial Day, would decorate it. W.S. Embrey, who’d served in the Confederate army as a major, owned the land where the monument had been raised, and he presented the title for the parcel to the Pennsylvanians.
For their part, the Pennsylvanians also made an effort toward reconciliation. On their way to the dedication ceremony, they stopped at the Chancellorsville battlefield to pay their respects to Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, who’d fallen there in May 1863. Following the dedication of the Hays Memorial, the veterans also contributed nearly one thousand dollars toward the Confederate cemetery fund.
In 1959, the National Park Service took possession of the 0.6-acre parcel where the Hays Memorial stands. The site of Hays’s death, however, took place in the woods a bit to the west.
“I am not surprised that he met his death at the head of his troops; it was just like him,” said Hays’ friend, Ulysses Grant. “He was a man who would never follow, but would always lead in battle.”
In death, Hays’s memory also served to set the good example.