Jim and Gayle Hays, of Bailey Island, at the mortuary cannon for Jim Hays’ great-great-grandfather, Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays. (EMILE CLAVET PHOTO)
What began as a ladies’ golfing trip to North Carolina in April 2021 turned into a journey of discovery for a Bailey Island man with deep Harpswell roots and a distinguished ancestor who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War.
Jim Hays grew up knowing that his great-great-grandfather, Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, attended West Point, fought in the war with Mexico, spent some time prospecting for gold in California and ultimately rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army. A massive tome, “Life and Letters of General Alexander Hays,” compiled by the general’s son, had been handed down from one generation to the next, along with one of the general’s swords. Unfortunately, the sword was lost somewhere along the way.
But Jim had never been to Gettysburg, where Brig. Gen. Hays and his men helped turn back Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, and change the course of American history, or to the Virginia crossroads where a sniper’s bullet took the general’s life on May 5, 1864, during a brutal, confusing clash called the Battle of the Wilderness.
That all changed after Jim decided to tag along on his wife Gayle’s golf outing with a few of his fellow “golf widowers,” including his friend and fellow Harpswell resident Joe Neuhof, a history buff. Once off the greens, a few couples traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Neuhof had arranged a tour of several nearby Civil War battlefields, including the Wilderness. On their 19th wedding anniversary, Jim and Gayle stood next to the mortuary cannon along Brock Road marking the spot near where his great-great-grandfather fell.
“It was really the most emotional part of the journey, seeing the place where he died,” Jim recalled. “It helped develop a personal connection to this person I’d spent my whole life hearing and reading about.”
A lot of Jim’s life had been spent on Bailey Island. His ancestors have lived on Bailey and Orr’s islands for more than two centuries. (Gayle’s family goes way back over on Harpswell Neck.) Jim recalls going to school in Cape Elizabeth and taking the Casco Bay Lines ferry to Harpswell to spend weekends and summers with relatives on the island. “It was a wonderful time to be a kid,” he said.
After attending Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute, now Southern Maine Community College, Jim served in the military and spent some time in building construction before going to work at Bath Iron Works for 20 years. He later operated Capt. Hays Boat Tours and served as Harpswell’s first full-time harbor master from 2005-2017.
“It was a great way to learn every nook and cranny of Harpswell, that’s for sure,” Jim said. He recalls promoting aquaculture in his role as harbor master at a time when oyster farming was just starting out in the area. Today, Jim has his own oyster farm in Gun Point Cove. “I wanted to see if I could grow oysters and found I can without having to work too hard at it,” he chuckled.
Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays.
Jim became aware of his heroic ancestor as a youngster through trips to visit his father’s family in Pennsylvania. He remembers seeing the big biography of Alexander Hays at the age of 10. “It was always a part of my life, but it turns out I really needed to take this journey to make it all seem real,” he said.
Alexander Hays’ journey started in Franklin, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1819, the son of Samuel Hays, a member of Congress and general in the Pennsylvania militia. He graduated from West Point in 1844, having become close friends with a cadet from the class ahead of him — Ulysses S. Grant.
Hays served in the Mexican-American War and was honored for his bravery during an engagement near Atlixco. In 1848, he resigned from the Army. Like his friend Grant, he tried his hand at a variety of ventures. He manufactured iron in Pennsylvania for a time before joining the gold rush to California. He later served as an engineer for the city of Pittsburgh, helping design several bridge projects there.
When the Civil War broke out, he rejoined the Union Army as a colonel with the 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteers. He and his men fought in the Seven Days Battles outside Richmond, where he was severely wounded. He also saw action at the Second Battle of Bull Run, where he was again wounded and subsequently promoted, and in the defenses of Washington, D.C.
At Gettysburg, Hays’ division defended the right side of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The division helped repulse Pickett’s Charge, even counterattacking the left flank of the Confederate attacking force. Hays’ flair for the dramatic was noted in the volume compiled by his son: “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 in the dirt …”
Jim and Gayle’s group traveled to Gettysburg after leaving their first stop at the Wilderness. They took a bike tour arranged by Neuhof. “The first thing we came upon was a statue of Gen. Hays,” said Jim. “And we also found his name at the top of the Pennsylvania monument, which is enormous. It was amazing to see.”
After Gettysburg, Brig. Gen. Hays took part in the Union Army’s Overland Campaign, now under the command of his old friend Gen. Grant. The fighting was constant and often at close quarters, but Grant pushed forward against the Confederates, regardless of the cost.
Unfortunately, during the Battle of the Wilderness, it cost him his close friend.
Hays was out in front of his troops on the first day of the battle, rallying his men and giving them a pep talk, when a sniper shot him out of his saddle. Many men were lost that day, but for Grant, the loss of his West Point friend was painful and personal. Later, during one of his presidential campaigns, Grant visited Hays’ widow and offered his condolences. Then he went to Hays’ grave in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery and wept openly.
Hays was immensely popular with the troops serving under him, including a number from Kansas, because of his bravery and his willingness to share a drink. Army officials named Fort Hays in Kansas in his honor in 1866 and Hays, Kansas, bears his name today. Jim said his father visited the small city in the 1970s during a cross-country trip. “It was quite a treat for him,” he said.
For Jim, his own trip into his country’s and family’s history was eye-opening. “I’d seen photos of Gen. Hays and pictures of statues of him,” he said, “but seeing the places he fought and died really brought him to life for me. Something I’ll never forget.”
Doug Warren, of Orr’s Island, retired from a career as an editor at the Portland Press Herald, Miami Herald and Boston Globe. He serves as vice president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.