John Geary had already lived an unsurpassed lifetime of leadership before he ever set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Forty-four years old, he certainly had the perfect physique for a leader. He was a huge man, six feet six inches tall, well over two hundred pounds and solidly built (although enemy soldiers had been whittling away at him for years--he was an easy target, and by Gettysburg he had already been wounded nine times). One of his men described him as "a man of large stature, fine black eyes, very robust physique, and when mounted upon his horse was a figure of commanding presence. He was a strict disciplinarian, withal a warm-hearted, emotional man, and although some of the men feared him, they all respected him." He had a violent temper, which together with his size made a terrific impression on many in the army, who learned to give him a wide berth.

Geary was born in the Allegheny Mountains near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania He was attending Jefferson College when his father died, leaving him the head of the family and responsible for his father's debts. He left school and worked odd jobs, then went to Kentucky as a surveyor. There he speculated in land, making enough money to return to college in Pennsylvania, where he studied civil engineering. After graduation, he worked as an engineer constructing the Allegheny Portage Railroad. He had been active in the militia from the age of sixteen, and when the Mexican War came in 1846, he went to Mexico with a Pennsylvania regiment. He led the regiment in the assault on the fortress at Chapultapec, and was wounded five times. After this exploit, he was named the regiment's colonel and returned home a war hero.

Following the Mexican War, he was sent west and appointed postmaster of San Francisco, but lost the appointment when the national administration changed in 1849. In 1850, still serving in local offices there, he was named first mayor of San Francisco. He had to leave after about a year in office and go back to Pennsylvania because of his wife's failing health. After her death, President Franklin Pierce offered to appoint him governor of the Utah Territory, but Geary refused the appointment. In 1856, he accepted the governorship of the Kansas Territory, soon to be known as "Bleeding Kansas." Geary, an anti-slavery man, was unable to stop the bloodshed there, and stayed at this strife-torn post less than a year, again following the pattern of leaving before the end of his term to return to Pennsylvania.

A wealthy man by the time of the Civil War, Geary left his farm to raise the 28th Pennsylvania volunteer regiment and "Knap's Battery" in June 1861. Patrolling the Potomac near Harper's Ferry in March 1862 with his regiment, he was wounded below the knee by a piece of shell and captured, but was exchanged and promoted to brigadier general on April 25. Geary was given command of a brigade in Massachusetts politician Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks's corps in time to be sent to the Shenandoah Valley to fight in that unfortunate campaign against Jackson in May 1862.

Geary's brigade was then incorporated into Pope's Army of Virginia in late June. He led it at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, where he was seriously wounded--"a ball struck me in the ankle, and almost at the same instant a ball passed through my left arm," the latter in the elbow. Returning to duty in October with his arm in a bandage, he was raised to command of his division, replacing Maj. Gen. Christopher Auger, who had also been wounded at Cedar Mountain. By this time, Banks's old corps had been absorbed into the Army of the Potomac as the Twelfth Corps and was under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum.

Although the Twelfth Corps missed the army's next engagement, at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Geary's division was heavily engaged at Chancellorsville the next May. There he was stunned by the windage of a cannonball which just missed his head, and knocked unconscious. When he came to, he was able to talk only in whispers for weeks.

Geary, as his numerous wounds attested, was a fearless man. In Kansas he had turned his back contemptuously on a man threatening to shoot him. General O.O. Howard later remarked that "he reconnoitered without regard to personal safety." Geary demanded similar bravery in those around him. At Chancellorsville, Hancock was ordered to form with his division around Chancellor House. The angry Geary called to Hancock's troops to cover his retreat. "Charge, you cowards, charge!" he yelled. Two of Hancock's men were so insulted they lowered their bayonets toward Geary until an adjutant stepped in. There was one recorded exception to Geary's insistence on squarely facing the enemy: As the story goes, Geary caught a soldier he thought was a skulker and threatened him with the flat of his sword. When the private replied, "Put up your sword or I'll shoot you," Geary apparently concluded that such combativeness was inconsistent with cowardice and apologized.

By the summer of 1863, Geary had been in command of the division for the better part of a year, long enough to know it inside and out. He had been in the military long enough that his lack of military education did not hamper him. However, except for his bravery, nowhere is he mentioned as an exceptional division commander.

At Gettysburg
Geary arrived on the battlefield a little after 5:00 P.M. on July 1 by the Baltimore Pike. The day's fighting had already ended. He pushed his division toward Cemetery Hill and found Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock, who placed Kane's brigade behind Cemetery Hill before escorting the other two brigades to the army's left, where they slept on and around Little Round Top.

At daylight the next morning, July 2, Geary's men were wakened and countermarched to the Baltimore Pike, then to Culp's Hill--the army's right--going into line on the crest of the hill facing northeast. There, Geary acceded to brigadier "Old Pop" Greene's suggestion to construct defensive earthworks to strengthen the line, even though he himself thought that fighting behind barricades dissipated the men's fighting spirit.

That afternoon, Geary heard the rumble of heavy fighting from the army's left. He soon got instructions to leave Greene's brigade on Culp's Hill and follow Williams's division, which was just pulling out. Unfortunately, the instructions didn't say where Williams was going, and soon that division had marched out of sight. Geary last saw William's men going south on the Baltimore Pike, so he headed down the pike (marching right by Slocum's "Right Wing" headquarters on Power's Hill) and didn't stop, even when he reached Rock Creek. Geary, at the head of two brigades, wandered completely off the battlefield. He remained completely out of touch until 9:00 P.M. that night. His reputation was saved by the fact that he wasn't needed at his intended destination on the Union left--the fighting had ended for the day.

Geary's men eventually marched back up the Pike, turned onto Culp's Hill, and were a couple hundred yards shy of their old lines when they were met by an enemy volley. It took until 1:00 A.M. to file carefully into lines improvised with the intent to push the Rebels off the hill at daybreak.

During the Twelfth Corps attack on the morning of July 3, Geary's men on top of the hill bore the brunt of the fighting from daybreak until the Confederates were pushed off the hill, about 11:00 A.M.

Geary's career suffered no ill effects from his single-handedly subtracting a division from the army's strength in a moment of peril on July 2--perhaps because the snafu was caused by bad staff work, properly traced to the confusion of Slocum's new "Right Wing" command structure. Geary continued to command his division for the rest of the war.

For further reading:
Beers, Paul. "General John W. Geary: A Profile." Civil War Times Illustrated 9, Jun 1970
Geary, John W. A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of . . . . University Park, 1995
Tinkom, Harry Marlin. John White Geary, Soldier-Statesman. Philadelphia, 1940

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg