Alpheus Williams had been at his post longer than any high ranking officer in the Army of the Potomac. He had been given command of his division when the Army of the Potomac was first organized into corps on March 13, 1862. In the fifteen months between that date and Gettysburg, he had commanded his division, and frequently his corps, on battlefield after battlefield.
Williams had a curly beard, with spectacular mustachios that flared out on either side of his face. He wore his hair fairly long, curling around his ears. His men called him "Old Pap," not because he was particularly ancient--he was only fifty-three--but because they loved him and his way of riding around the field with an unlighted cigar stub gripped in his teeth. Indeed, they probably loved him for some of the same reasons they loved their first army commander, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, a general whom Williams resembled in many respects: he took good care of his men, and was genuinely anguished when they did not receive overcoats, shoes, blankets, and tents he had asked for; he was overly cautious, consistently reckoning enemy strength at about twice his own, even when the reverse was true; he denounced the public which asked for bold action, when he thought more time was necessary to prepare (which was always); he often seemed satisfied merely to avoid defeat; and he was averse to bringing the hardships of war to the enemy populace, taking pride in the fact that his soft-heartedness won him renown among Southern noncombatants as a Yankee general who would protect them. Although a hard fighter in battle, he was a distinctly unwarlike soul, writing at one point, "Indeed, I feel that all that is needed is kindness and gentleness to make all these people return to Union love." If there was a flower-child in the Union command, Williams was it.
Williams was born in the village of Deep River, Connecticut. His father died when he was eight, and his mother when he was seventeen, leaving him a patrimony of $75,000, which was quite a fortune in those days. He graduated from Yale in 1831, a law student, although his journal discloses that he did not take his legal studies too seriously. Indeed, for the few years after graduation, his main intent seemed to be spending his money; between 1832 and 1836, he did little but travel extensively in the U.S. and Europe.
Finally, however, Williams undertook the serious task of earning a living and mastering his profession. Upon returning from Europe, he decided to settle in Detroit, a boomtown in 1836. He married the daughter of one of Detroit's leading citizens and eventually fathered five children, two of whom died young. By 1840 he had been elected Probate Judge of Wayne County. In 1842 he became president of the Bank of St. Clair. In 1843 he purchased the Detroit Advertiser, a daily paper, selling it in 1848. In 1849, after his wife died at the age of thirty, he began a four-year term as postmaster of Detroit. When he arrived in Detroit in 1836 he had been admitted to the Brady Guards, a militia company, and from that time forward he assumed an increasingly prominent role in the military activities of the city. He was appointed lieutenant of the Michigan regiment bound for the Mexican War in 1847, but it arrived too late to see action. He also held other public military posts, including the presidency of the state's military board, and was a major in the Detroit Light Guard.
Thus it was that when the Civil War broke out in 1861, the state of Michigan looked to Williams to train its first volunteers. After commanding Michigan's camp of instruction at Fort Wayne, he left state service and became a brigadier general of volunteers in August 1861. He was first given a brigade in October 1861, then a division in politician Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks's corps in March 1862. Sent to fight Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley in May, Williams tasted defeat, but was grateful merely to outrun the pursuing Confederates, writing perhaps too complacently, "a successful retreat is often more meritorious than a decided victory."
Incorporated into Pope's Army of Virginia in the summer of 1862, Williams's division's next action was at Cedar Mountain, where Banks's corps was again alone against Jackson, and was again defeated. Williams and his men did not reach the scene of Pope's embarrassment at Second Bull Run until the battle was over.
Soon afterward, however, back in McClellan's Army of the Potomac as First Division of the newly minted Twelfth Corps, Williams's division was heavily engaged at Antietam. Here Williams took over the command of the corps when the new corps commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield, was mortally wounded. In October, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum received permanent command of the corps, and Williams went back to his division.
In December, the corps was on its way to join the rest of the army after guarding the Potomac, and missed the Battle of Fredericksburg.
In the confusion of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Williams's division was almost continuously in the thick of the fighting, losing 1,500 casualties receiving charge after Rebel charge on his position near Chancellor House.
By this time the gentle Williams, still a brigadier general while others less experienced were being promoted to major general, was grumbling about his lack of advancement. Since early in the war he had complained about the prejudice in favor of West Point graduates for higher command. Here, in a letter to his daughter, are his choice words about the merits of a military education:
You know that old army officers think that no man can be qualified to command who is not a graduate of West Point and has not spent at least fifteen years as a clerk in an army bureau or on duty at a frontier post as a lieutenant to a command of a dozen men, where there are no books, no drill, no military duty, nothing but a vast amount of whisky drinking, card playing, and terrific, profane swearing; and where, as a consequence, men forget in a year or so all they could learn in four years, and acquire habits of the most indolent and unambitious and dissolute kind. And yet, with honorable exceptions, such are the men who, in the eyes of one another at least, and I fear, too, of a good share of the public, are fit to command our armies or have any responsible positions in this war.
At least, the whole West Point influence is against any man who did not happen to spend four years of his life in that institution, and any man who has been there, even for a few months, no matter what his natural stupidity or his indolent, inefficient habits, his ignorance acquired or habitual, is fit for all responsibility and all power. I have seen much of these men and I confess to a most ineffable disgust with the whole thing. I begin to think that all the prominent acquisition obtained there is superciliousness, arrogance, and insolence.
He complained that "every such promotion over me, as Carl Schurz and twenty others in the last list, is an insult." He thought that part of the fault lay in Banks not recommending anyone from his corps, and further that advancement was only being given to Army of the Potomac officers who took part in the Peninsula Campaign in the preceding summer, when he had been in the Shenandoah Valley. Part of the problem, though, was Williams's own contempt for self-glorification--he refused to follow a common custom in the army, that of calling the press to his aid and employing reporters to sing his praises. Whatever the reasons, Williams was, and would continue to be, the forgotten man in the command of the Army of the Potomac. "In my judgment," wrote one of his staff officers later, "General Williams was one of the finest military commanders in the eastern army, and had he been fairly treated would have found his proper place at the head of it. He had all the attributes of manhood, was brave as a lion, was thoroughly versed in all the arts of war, and had a genius that inspired him where other men failed in a pressing emergency." This high opinion was echoed in the commendations of his superiors such as Hooker, Slocum, and later Sherman and Thomas.
Williams showed his humanity in his wartime letters to his two surviving daughters, which he managed to write even in the worst conditions of Civil War campaigning. These letters are unfailingly colorful, and into them he poured the romance of the scenery and the tableaux of war, signing them always "Your Affectionate Father." They are a great literary legacy, and, released as a book, have been called one of the 100 best Civil War books.
As he approached Gettysburg, Williams was demoralized by Chancellorsville, and on June 22 wrote forebodingly of the nearing critical battle:
If we are badly defeated there is little hope, I fear, of saving Washington. The troops held so sacredly about that 'corruption sink' would make a poor show before the victorious Rebels. God save our Republic! For I sometimes think that human heads and arms are working for our destruction . . . . I have seen dark times, but none where before I could not see some superior intellect that might probably be brought to our safety.
Even after commanding Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker was replaced with Maj. Gen. George Meade, a development which was encouraging to Williams, he wrote on June 29:
We run a fearful risk, because upon this small army everything depends. If we are badly defeated the Capital is gone and all our principal cities and our national honor. That this dilemma could have been suffered by men deputed to care for the safety of the Republic is indeed disheartening. That our northern people could sit down in search of the almighty dollar, when their all is depending upon this conflict, is indeed passing strange. If we fail in this war, be assured there is an end of northern prosperity. The Rebels in Baltimore and Washington will dictate terms and these terms will humiliate and destroy us. I would I had an archangel's voice to appeal to the patriotism (if there be any left) in the North!"
Williams may have been openly pessimistic on the eve of Gettysburg, but his determination was never impaired by these doubts. Entering the summer of 1863, Williams had more battle experience than any other division commander. He had been in command of his division for about 15 months, longer than any other general in the Union army had commanded any other unit, large or small. He was probably not fit for independent command, being overly cautious, but he could always be counted on to apply his superior experience to the utmost of his considerable ability.
| Williams, at the head of his division of two brigades, neared the
battlefield on the Baltimore Pike about 5:00 P.M. on July 1. He received an
order from Slocum to occupy Benner's Hill east of Gettysburg, and so turned
north off the road with his division and marched there only to find it occupied
by Confederates. Retracing their steps, Williams and his men slept near the
Baltimore Pike that night.|
After making the same march to Benner's Hill and back again the next morning, July 2, to make contact with the arriving Fifth Corps, Williams was directed by Slocum to go into position on Culp's Hill--the army's extreme right. Once there, Williams's division was joined by Lockwood's brigade, who had marched straight from the defenses of Baltimore. Lockwood's men extended the division's line from Culp's Hill south to the Baltimore Pike. It was about then that Slocum installed Williams as acting commander of the Twelfth Corps, under the impression that he himself commanded a multi-corps "Right Wing." It was as acting Twelfth Corps commander that Williams fought the rest of the battle.
Early that evening, as Longstreet's assault on the Union left threatened the army's position, Meade and Slocum somehow decided between them to march the entire Twelfth Corps to the threatened sector, leaving one brigade to guard Culp's Hill. Williams withdrew first with his division, and arrived near Little Round Top after the fighting had already ended. He gave directions for the division to file back to Culp's Hill, and then attended the meeting of generals at Meade's headquarters from 9:00 P.M. to midnight. After the meeting, he arrived on Culp's Hill to find that the Rebels of the Stonewall Division had attacked just after the Twelfth Corps left the defensive earthworks that evening, and now the Rebels held much of the line.
Williams labored all night to prepare an artillery barrage and morning assault on the Confederates clinging to Culp's Hill. Although it took all of the morning of July 3, from daybreak to 11:00 A.M., the Rebels were driven from their foothold on the hill and Twelfth Corps men regained their original line.
Williams had performed extremely well in an unfamiliar role at Gettysburg. His overwhelming attack on the morning of July 3 was his most notable achievement, and the army watched and listened from surrounding hills with admiration for the volume of fire and the ferocity of the attack.
Sent West in the fall with the rest of the Twelfth Corps, Williams would command a corps by the end of the war. However, he never received a promotion to major general.
For further reading:
Foster, Greg. "Alpheus Williams--'Old Pap.'" Civil War X, Jul/Aug 1992
Quaife, Milo M. From the Cannon's Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams. Lincoln 1995