Thirty-eight-year-old Romeyn Ayres was a career army officer, a competent professional at the head of the only division of professional soldiers in the Army of the Potomac. Six feet tall, he had grown portly and was balding so as to leave him with a topknot. He sported a massive, wiry beard and spiky mustache that nearly hid his mouth and ears, making him look older than he was. His high intelligent forehead and philosophical gaze imparted the air of a stoic, yet the mere size of the man asserted authority. He was a very social man in the best sense of the word; considerate of others and full of fun without sacrificing his dignity to indulge it. He had adopted extremely meticulous personal habits and was an immaculate dresser. Despite his cultivated appearance, Ayres acquired the reputation of a stubborn fighter who convinced his men early on that they could expect to be driven hard.
Ayres was born along the Mohawk River in upstate New York, the son of a small-town doctor who raised several sons for professional life--Romeyn was singled out for a military career and was tutored rigorously in Latin by his father. He entered West Point, where he was an indifferent scholar, graduating 22nd (despite his Latin scholarship) out of the 38 members of the class of 1847--John Gibbon and A. P. Hill were his classmates. He was posted to the artillery and entered the humdrum army life of the 1850's, serving in garrisons in the East and on the frontier. He developed the usual Regular Army observance of regulations, but retained a common-sense rebelliousness, a paradoxical streak that stayed with him throughout his career. On a march in Texas, during a few days' rest he happened to pitch his camp near the permanent command of an officer who outranked him.. This officer was a letter-of-the-law man about Army Regulations, and had his reveille "at daybreak." Ayres had always liked to sleep in, but the senior officer assumed command over Ayres, and ordered him to comply with the Regulations.
After an interview with his superior, Ayres retired to his camp and issued the following order, sending the officer a copy:
Until further orders, daylight in this camp will be at six o'clock.
Ayres became a captain in the 5th Artillery at the outset of the Civil War and commanded its Battery E, distinguishing himself at Bull Run, where his battery's rearguard action saved the fleeing Union army from Confederate cavalry in the aftermath the battle. He rose swiftly in the artillery, fighting as Chief of Artillery for a Sixth Corps division on the Peninsula and at Antietam, and was promoted to Chief of Artillery for the entire Sixth Corps before the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. All of his performances in these battles were followed by numerous commendations by officers who obviously admired his ability.
Since promotion was much swifter in the infantry, able artillery officers were often given infantry commissions as a reward for good service. This was granted to Ayres. After three months on sick leave recuperating from lameness caused by an injury he received when his horse fell, he was given a brigade of infantry, the First Brigade of the Regular Division (which would be commanded at Gettysburg by Hannibal Day), on April 21, 1863. As the historian of Sykes's Regular Division put it, "It was reassuring for the men to learn that this crusty old Regular had been in the field from the start and carried a reputation for quiet dependability." Infantry command brought out Ayres's sometimes bizarre reactions to the grimness of war: In one battle, a colonel of his brigade cowered under fire and was observed by Ayres. After a private interview with Ayres, the next day the colonel was found in the hottest part of the action. Soon an officer of his regiment reported to Ayres, "General, poor Colonel _____ is killed." "Thank God!" replied Ayres, "his children can now be proud of him."
At Chancellorsville in early May 1863, Ayres's new brigade was not heavily engaged; the entire Fifth Corps was never put in by faltering commander Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker.
Afterward came the Gettysburg campaign, and Ayres assumed command of the division in the chain of promotions brought about by Meade's ascension to command of the army--Sykes taking Meade's place at the head of the Fifth Corps, and Ayres taking Sykes's place at the head of the Regular Division--which occurred only three days before the crucial battle of the war. Command of an infantry division was a new and untried responsibility for Ayres--even his experience in command of a brigade, at Chancellorsville, didn't amount to much. But Ayres was a career soldier who had shown rare ability as a divisional and corps artillery commander through much of the war, and his character and professional training suited him extremely well for the crisis. Also, the Regulars were the division most likely to perform correctly without any commander at all, out of sheer force of habit.
| On July 1, while the battle of the first day was being fought on the
ridges west of Gettysburg, Ayres was with the main Fifth Corps column, marching
from Union Mills to Hanover, then heading toward Gettysburg about 7:00 in the
evening. Ayres's division arrived on the battlefield from the Baltimore Pike
at 11:00 on the morning of July 2, along with Barnes's division. The men
immediately went into camp near Power's Hill and rested for a few hours.|
Ayres's three brigades were hurried to the Union left with the rest of the Fifth Corps when Longstreet's Corps threatened that flank about 4:00 that afternoon. Soon after they arrived, corps commander Maj. Gen. George Sykes detached Brig. Gen. Stephen Weed's lead brigade to reinforce Col. Strong Vincent's brigade, fighting for its life on Little Round Top. He then directed Ayres to bring his two Regular brigades to the support of Caldwell's division, which was counterattacking the Rebels in the Wheatfield. Ayres advanced, heading west from Plum Run Valley into the woods on the east side of the Wheatfield, and while he was conferring with Caldwell on the best next step, an aide noticed that Caldwell's men were running away on the right.
The cause of the Union flight was the Confederate breakthrough in the Peach Orchard, which opened the way for a flood of Southerners, mostly Wofford's Georgians, to stream past the Wheatfield and around Ayres's right, threatening to surround him. Ayres's two Regular brigades made quickly for the rear, suffering heavily as they ran a gauntlet of fire. Neither would be fit for further duty due to their losses.
At Gettysburg, Ayres and his Regulars never had a chance to show how well they could fight. Ayres escaped any personal blame--he was included in Sykes's praise of all the Fifth Corps division leaders, and he continued to lead the Regular Division until spring of the next year. In the army reorganization of March 1864, he was replaced by Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, but another Fifth Corps division was soon found for Ayres in June 1864, which he led until the end of the war.