Pa. wreath ceremony honors Civil War general
PITTSBURGH — Officials of Allegheny Cemetery were to lay a wreath Monday morning at the grave of Gen. Alexander Hays.
Monday marks the 150th anniversary of his death in battle during the Civil War. He was buried in the Lawrenceville cemetery on May 14 following a large public funeral in Downtown Pittsburgh.
For Alexander Hays IV, a direct descendant and namesake of the general, this year's wreath-laying has brought back memories of earlier commemorations. Mr. Hays, 72, is a retired banker who lives in Canton, Ohio.
Members of the Davis Star Camp, Sons of Union Veterans, would take part in Decoration Day ceremonies at Allegheny Cemetery. "Decoration Day" was the original name for Memorial Day, the holiday set aside to honor those who died in military service.
Following the main service, the Sons of Union Veterans would march to the monument marking thethe general's grave. Speeches, songs, volleys of rifle fire and a wreath-laying all would be part of the programs that Mr. Hays attended as a young boy in the late 1940s.
As the ranks of the Davis Star Camp dwindled, participation in the ceremony at the Hays gravesite grew smaller. Annual Memorial Day programs at the general's grave ended sometime in the 1960s, Mr. Hays said.
The general was a graduate of West Point, and stories about their ancestor's devotion to "duty, honor, country" have been passed down in the family.
He was a stickler for proper dress, military etiquette and training, Mr. Hays said. In the hours before Pickett's Charge, the Confederate attack during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Hays continued to drill his front-line troops. "To keep his soldiers busy and quiet, he had them find as many rifles as possible, clean them, load them and then practice the manual of arms," Mr. Hays said.
The general also appreciated enterprise.
Reviewing a unit recently assigned to him known as the "Harper's Ferry Brigade," he spotted one soldier who was not wearing boots but whose feet were painted black.
"The soldier told him, 'I know you want all your men to be properly dressed, but I didn't have any boots.' So he polished his feet. The general promoted him to sergeant right there for his initiative."
Andrew Masich, president of the Heinz History Center, said the ultimate sacrifice that people like Hays made during the Civil War must be remembered. "These are the men who put themselves on the line to preserve the union and end the horror of slavery," he said.
Historian Jim Wudarczyk, a member of the Lawrenceville Historical Society, noted that the general was also a devoted family man. He wrote many letters to his spouse at home in Pittsburgh.
While they were students at West Point, Hays and Ulysses S. Grant became good friends. When Grant visited Pittsburgh in 1869 during his time as president, the one place he made sure to visit was the grave of his old comrade-in-arms.
"Grant rode out Penn Avenue to the cemetery in a carriage," Mr. Hays said. "When he got near to the lot, he told his driver to stop, and he walked the last several hundred feet."
Grant, a man who always kept his emotions in check, was seen to be crying, Mr. Masich said.
Mr. Hays has been a "corporater," or board member, of Allegheny Cemetery for about 30 years. He said poor health is likely to prevent him from visiting his ancestor's grave this month, but he said other family members are likely to travel to the cemetery to honor the fallen general.
Althoughthe general has been gone for 150 years, his name will live on in the family line into the next generation. Mr. Hays has a son, Alexander Hays V. He is an attorney with the Wilderness Society in Denver.
Gen. Alexander Hays is buried in Section 8, Lot 149, of Allegheny Cemetery. The cemetery is at 4734 Butler St., in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. During May, gates are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. More information is available by calling 412-682-1624 or at www.alleghenycemetery.com.