Andrew A. Humphreys was not a magnetic leader. He had none of the charisma of Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, his corps commander. As he led his division onto the field at Gettysburg on July 2, the men had no affection for him. He was called "Old Goggle Eyes" because of his reading spectacles, and at the age of fifty-three, they considered him an old man, though he was tall and slim and not yet gray. He was new to his division, and his men knew him only as a strict disciplinarian, exacting and precise, an unfeeling, bow-legged tyrant.
It was true that Humphreys was one of the most demanding officers in the army. When he advanced into a fight, he left no one behind. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, one colonel had detached six of his youngest, frailest soldiers to stay behind and guard the regiment's knapsacks, but Humphreys, swearing mightily, ordered them back into line with the rest. Two were killed. Charles Anderson Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, thought him "one of the loudest swearers" he had ever known, a man of "distinguished and brilliant profanity," much like the Second Corps's Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock. But Dana also found Humphreys to be charming, a man completely without vanity in a profession swarming with prima donnas. Theodore Lyman of Meade's staff, who served under Humphreys later in the war, described him as a nice old gentleman who was boyish, with quick peppery ways, and extremely neat, "continually washing himself and putting on paper dickeys." Another of his peers considered him "eminent both as a scientist and a soldier, a man of broad and liberal views, of commanding intellect, and of the highest personal honor." Humphreys liked long conversations with his staff after meals and had knowledge of many things. He regarded the military profession as a "godlike occupation," and developed a positive fondness for battle, once observing that war was a "very bad thing in the sequel, but before and during a battle it is a damn fine thing!" The division's provost marshal recollected Humphreys as "without a superior on the field of battle--full of fire, and yet in absolute equipoise." Brig. Gen. Joseph Carr commented on the general's "conspicuous courage and remarkable coolness."
Humphreys was not gifted with the ability to inspire, so instead he led his men personally into battle, putting himself up front, writing later that "for certain good reasons connected with the effect of what I did upon the spirit of the men and from an invincible repugnance to ride anywhere else, I always rode at the head of my troops." Lt. Cavada of the general's staff recalled that just before he took his troops up to the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, Humphreys had bowed to his staff in his courtly way, "and in the blandest manner remarked, 'Young gentlemen, I intend to lead this assault; I presume, of course, you will wish to ride with me?'" Since it was put like that, the staff had done so, and five of the seven officers were knocked off their horses. After his men had taken as much as they could stand in front of the Stone Wall on Marye's Heights, the next brigade coming up the hill saw Humphreys sitting his horse all alone, looking out across the plain, bullets cutting the air all around him. Something about the way the general was taking it pleased them, and they sent up a cheer. Humphreys looked over, surprised, waved his cap to them with a grim smile, and then went riding off into the twilight. In this way Humphreys had turned his first division's dislike of him into admiration for his heroic leadership, and he would do the same with his new division at Gettysburg.
Humphreys was descended from the famed Humphreyses of Philadelphia, the distinguished naval architects who designed the USS Constitution and Constellation and many other ships of the Old Navy. Andrew graduated from West Point 13th out of 33 students in the class of 1831, and served in the artillery in the Seminole War. His interest shifted quickly to engineering, however, and by 1838 he was serving in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, conducting hydrographic surveys on the Mississippi River (like Generals Lee and Meade.) His Report on the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River was published the year the Civil War began, a contribution so valuable to the knowledge of the hydraulics of great rivers that it was translated into foreign languages and permanently established Humphreys's scientific reputation.
At the outbreak of the War, Humphreys was a man with military training but little experience with troops in the field. His health had never been good, and illness prevented him from joining the army until late 1861, when he was appointed as chief engineer to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan; he served on McClellan's staff during the Peninsula Campaign. Just before the Battle of Antietam he was given command of a new Fifth Corps division of nine-month men, which were held in reserve in that battle. It was three months later, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, that he and his division won fame for their valor, known for getting closest to the Stone Wall of any Union division before being driven back. "He behaved with distinguished gallantry at Fredericksburg," New Fifth Corps commander Maj. Gen. George Meade wrote afterward. Meade sympathized with Humphreys--even after such a performance, Meade said, Humphreys was omitted from a long list for promotion "including such names as. . . Sickles . . . who have really done nothing," probably as a result of Humphreys's long association with the discredited McClellan.
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, where his division was not heavily engaged, many of his men, whose terms of service had expired, were too tired or disgusted to re-enlist. Nearly a division in all evaporated from the Fifth Corps, so on May 23, about five weeks before Gettysburg, Humphreys was transferred to a Third Corps division to replace Maj. Gen. Hiram Berry, who had been killed at Chancellorsville. Humphreys would be the only West Point-trained career soldier in his new corps; although Third Corps chief Sickles--himself a political general--might not have fully appreciated it, Humphreys was a valuable addition to his command.
In mid-1863, Humphreys, though unfamiliar with his new division, was developing into a fine field officer. Meade considered him a "splendid man," and when Meade became commander of the Army of the Potomac three days before Gettysburg, he asked Humphreys to be his chief of staff. Humphreys refused, not wanting to give up combat duty for a desk job.
Moving toward Gettysburg from Emmitsburg on the afternoon of July 1, Humphreys's division arrived after dark, followed a guide along the wrong road and almost blundered straight into a swarm of Confederates at Black Horse Tavern, miles to the west of the nearest friendly troops. Humphreys discovered his peril, tiptoed his division away from the near-meeting and, about midnight, found his place with the other Third Corps units camped on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge.
In mid-afternoon of July 2, Humphreys's division moved forward, by Sickles's order, to an exposed position, stretched out in a line running generally north and south along the Emmitsburg Road, facing west. Humphreys's left abutted the men of Birney's other Third Corps division at the Peach Orchard. His right was in the air, a half-mile in front of the Second Corps supports on Cemetery Ridge.
When the Confederate attack came soon afterward, it started on the far Union left against Maj. Gen. David Birney's men, and to Humphreys's dismay, his reserve brigade--Burling's--was drawn away to the south to help Birney, who parceled Burling's regiments out one by one to meet emergencies. This left Humphreys with only two brigades when the Confederate attack reached his front. "Had my Division been left intact," he wrote, "I would have driven the enemy back, but this ruinous habit (it doesn't deserve the name of system) of putting troops in position & then drawing off its reserves & second line to help others, who if similarly disposed would need no such help, is disgusting." The Confederates of Barksdale's, Wilcox's, and Perry's brigades converged on Humphreys's short line from the left, front, and right.
Sickles was by now down with his leg gone, and Birney ordered Humphreys to form a new line to the rear. Despite the immense difficulty of retreating in good order and redeploying while under intense attack by superior numbers, Humphreys managed to execute Birney's order, largely, according to subordinates, by placing himself "at the most exposed positions in the extreme front, giving personal attention to all the movements of the Division" with "conspicuous courage and remarkable coolness." At one point, Humphrey's horse, already wounded six times, was hit by a shell, sprang in the air and threw the general violently to the ground. Humphreys mounted an aide's horse and continued. Keeping the ranks steady by riding up and down and drawing his men back slowly with iron discipline, he managed to withdraw his division all the way to Cemetery Ridge, leaving 1,500 men dead or wounded on the half-mile of ground over which he had made his fighting retreat. He wrote later that the experience was even worse than storming the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg. Second Corps chief Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock recalled that afterward there seemed to be nothing left of Humphreys's division but a mass of regimental flags still waving defiantly.
Humphreys's brigades stayed on Cemetery Ridge that night. They were moved to the rear at sunrise the next morning, and spent July 3 in reserve behind the ridge.
Reward for Humphreys's heroic performance on July 2 was immediate. Five days after the battle, he was promoted to major general and drafted as Meade's new chief of staff upon the unlamented departure of the previous chief, Dan Butterfield. When Hancock's Gettysburg wound finally forced him from the field at the end of 1864, General Grant named Humphreys his successor as head of the Second Corps. Humphreys held that high command until Appomattox four months later. Charles Anderson Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, called Humphreys "the great soldier of the Army of the Potomac."
For further reading:
Humphreys, Andrew A. From Gettysburg To The Rapidan. The Army of the Potomac, July 1863 to April 1864. Dayton, 1987
Humphreys, Henry H. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, a Biography. Philadelphia, 1924
Reardon, Carol. "Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys's Pennsylvania Division at Fredericksburg." in Gary Gallagher, ed. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock. Chapel Hill, 1995
Round, Harold. "A.A. Humphreys." Civil War Times Illustrated, Feb 1966