Birth Date: February 15, 1835
Birth Place: New York City, New York
Date of Death: February 12, 1911
Location of Death: Bronx, New York
Education: U.S. Military Academy at West Point – Class of 1855
Military Experience: Seminole War, Civil War
Major Battles: First Battle of Bull Run, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Campaign, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House
Awards/Medals/Promotions: brevet second lieutenant (July 1, 1855), second lieutenant (October 20, 1855), first lieutenant (April 28, 1861), captain (May 14, 1861), major (September 13, 1861), lieutenant colonel (August 20, 1862), brigadier general (June 23, 1863), brevet major general volunteers (August 4, 1864), brevet brigadier general Regular Army (March 13, 1865), brevet major general Regular Army (March 13, 1865), Medal of Honor (September 28, 1891)
Alexander Stewart Webb was born in New York City, New York on February 15, 1835 to James W. Webb and Helen Bache Webb, nee Lispenard.(i) His father was a well respected newspaper owner and provided a comfortable living for his family. Young Alexander was able to attend private schools. He was appointed to West Point in 1851, graduating 13th in his class.(ii) After graduating he would be appointed brevet second lieutenant of artillery. He would see action in the Seminole War in 1856. From 1856-1857 he would serve garrison duty at Fort Independence, Massachusetts and Fort Snelling, Minnesota. He would return to West Point as an assistant professor of mathematics in November 1857 – a position he retained until January 1861.
After resigning his position at West Point, Webb would be transferred to Washington City where he served in garrison duty until April 4, 1861. He would be sent to Fort Pickens, Florida in early April and was promoted first lieutenant on April 28, serving in the 2d U.S. Artillery. On July 3, 1861 he was ordered to join Brigadier General Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia (this was before the Federal Army was officially designated the Army of the Potomac). While there, he would be promoted captain in the 11th U.S. Infantry on May 14 and would be present at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.(iii)
With the retreat of the Federal Army to Washington City, after its defeat at Bull Run, Webb would serve as assistant to Brigadier General William F. Barry, chief of artillery of the Army of the Potomac. He would be promoted major of the 1st Rhode Island Artillery Volunteers on September 14, 1861 and would serve in the defenses of Washington until April 1, 1862.(iv) With the start of Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Webb would be sent with the Army of the Potomac to Fortress Monroe. He would see action at the Siege of Yorktown (April 5 – May 4), Mechanicsville (May 27) and Gaines’ Mill (June 27). During this time he served as Assistant Inspector General for Barry. He would be promoted lieutenant colonel of volunteers on August 20 and would serve as chief of staff in Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps during the Maryland Campaign.
After the Battle of Antietam, Webb would be assigned to Washington to serve in the camp of instruction as Inspector of Artillery. He would remain at Camp Barry through January 1863 when he transferred back to the Army of the Potomac as Assistant Inspector General of Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps. He would see action at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
On June 23, 1863, Webb would be promoted brigadier general of volunteers and would be transferred to Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps.(v) He would command the Second Brigade (Philadelphia Brigade) in Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Second Division. In late June, the Army of the Potomac would march north to Pennsylvania and would become engaged in the largest battle on North American soil – Gettysburg. The II Corps would reach Gettysburg on the evening of July 1 and would be positioned in the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. Webb’s brigade would be positioned near the center of the II Corps line and would not be part of the reinforcements Hancock sent to the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard to counter CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s attack against Major General Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps. However, they would be engaged against CSA Brigadier General Ambrose R. Wright’s late afternoon attack against their position. Webb’s brigade would push them back, beyond the Emmittsburg Road, capturing 300 Rebel prisoners and reclaiming a Federal artillery battery. During the evening hours, on July 2, he would detach two regiments to reinforce the I and XI corps on Cemetery Hill.
On the afternoon of July 3, Webb’s Philadelphia Brigade was holding the center of the II Corps line along Cemetery Ridge. They would eat a fairly quiet lunch with only the occasional artillery shell passing overhead. Webb was certainly unaware that his position would be the focal point for CSA General Robert E. Lee’s assault – an assault Lee hoped would break the Federal line and allow his Army of Northern Virginia to roll up the lines of the Army of the Potomac. Their position formed a salient angle with Colonel Norman J. Hall’s brigade to their left and Colonel Thomas A. Smyth’s brigade to their right. Smyth’s brigade was pulled back a couple hundred feet with the II Corps line extending north from their position. This formation created the salient angle with Webb’s brigade holding that angle. The 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment comprised the brigade’s first line. They covered approximately 250 feet of the stone fence. The 71st and 72d Pennsylvania Volunteers supported the 69th, forming a second line approximately 50 yards to the rear of the first line.(vi) Two companies of Webb’s remaining regiment, the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteers, were posted further to the rear, supporting the skirmish line to their front (the other eight companies of the 106th were still detached on Cemetery Hill). Two guns of Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing’s Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery were placed between the 69th and 71st (Cushing is included in my Soldier Profiles series – click HERE to read the article.)
At 1:00 p.m., Longstreet ordered Colonel E. Porter Alexander to open what would be the largest artillery bombardment of the Civil War. This barrage was intended to soften the Federal lines and damage as many Union artillery placements as possible. The artillery bombardment would also signal Major General George E. Pickett to prepare for his attack against the Federal army on Cemetery Ridge. While creating a significant amount of noise, and visually captivating sights, Alexander’s artillery was not effective in softening the Union lines. Brigadier General John Gibbon noted that many of the Rebel shells were not detonating or were detonating late, their range being too long and landing on the reverse slope of the Federal line, near Taneytown Road.(vii)
By 2:00 p.m., fire from E. Porter Alexander’s reserve artillery began to wane. Over the next thirty minutes Pickett would prepare his lines and step off, encouraging his men, “Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!,” and exhorting them to stand to the work.”(viii) Lieutenant Frank Haskell, an aide on the staff of Gibbon, captured the moment succinctly, “None on that crest now need be told that the enemy is advancing. Every eye could see his legions, an overwhelming, resistless tide of an ocean of armed men, sweeping upon us! Right on they move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment or ditch, or wall, or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard, and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.” Now scanning his own lines, Haskell continued, “All was orderly and still upon our crest – no noise, and no confusion.” The II Corps men were “survivors of a dozen battles,” and “…knew well enough what this array in front portended…”(ix) The mass of Rebels pushed forward deliberately, as if on the parade ground. While Haskell accurately described the advance, he was not fully correct. There was a significant impediment that stood between Pickett’s infantrymen and the Federal line – a long, well built fence along the Emmittsburg Road. By the time the Rebel soldiers reached this point they were taking heavy losses from the Federal infantry on Cemetery Ridge. Well within range of the very lethal spherical case and canister, the large guns would tear large gaps in the Confederate formations. These gaps would immediately be closed by the next line, stepping forward into the teeth of the Federal artillery. Due to this heavy cannonading from Cemetery Ridge, the attacking Rebels did not have time to tear down the fence that impeded their advance. Instead they have to rapidly scale the fence and start forward from the opposite side.
Meanwhile, Webb was encouraging his brigade. He implored his men to do as well today, as they had done the previous day when they captured portions of Wright’s Brigade. While his infantrymen were well positioned along the “angle,” he was concerned that Cushing’s only pair of working guns would not provide his infantry with the support they required. Having advised the seriously wounded Cushing that he expected the enemy to push directly on their position, Cushing replied, “I had better run my guns right up to the stone fence and bring all my canister alongside each piece.” Webb concurred with Cushing’s assessment and it may well have saved the day as Cushing’s artillerymen were U.S. Regular Army veterans.(x) With Cushing’s pair of 3” rifled Parrott guns now at the stone wall, Webb wisely ordered eight companies of his 71st Pennsylvania to the right of the artillery, positioning them to cover the wall until it made its jog to the east where it joined up with Smyth’s brigade.
It was when Pickett’s Confederate Division slammed into Webb’s 1,000 men, at the stone fence, that Webb provided his most valuable service to his country. Having been sent forward moments before, the 71st Pennsylvania’s commander, Colonel Richard Smith, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kochersperger to command the eight companies assigned to the “angle.” While he conveniently stayed behind with his other two companies, he advised Kochersperger to withdraw should the enemy come too close. This order, while at odds with the Federal army’s need to hold their position, would cause a 50 yard gap to open in the Federal line at the very point where Pickett’s division would attack. Once again, Haskell eloquently describes the unfolding situation, “Great Heaven! There by the group of trees, and the angles of the wall, was breaking from the cover of their works, and without orders or reason, with no hand lifted to check them, was falling back a fear-stricken flock of confusion.”(xi) This fear-stricken flock was the eight companies of the 71st Pennsylvania sent to the “angle.” Kochersperger quite obviously had taken Smith’s orders to heart and ordered his men to fall back just as Pickett’s division was pushing toward them. This gap allowed CSA Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, and a small band of his Rebel soldiers, to pierce the Federal line near Cushing’s two guns. With Cushing already killed the Federal artillerists quickly bolted to the rear. Armistead’s men quickly gathered around the two guns but were unable to use them as they were caught in an effective “no-man’s land.”
Webb, caught in a terrible position, had to plug the gap which the 71st Pennsylvania’s retreat had opened. His second line, manned by the 72d Pennsylvania Volunteers, was some 70 yards behind the “angle.” He quickly ordered the 72d forward, but they failed to move. Next he tried to take the National colors away from their color bearer. He would not let go. While the 72d stayed put, their colorfully clothed Zouave infantrymen opened a galling rifle fire into the position vacated by the 71st. This fire was most likely responsible for mortally wounding Armistead as he struggled with his small command around Cushing’s guns. Webb was everywhere at once. When the 72d did not move, he quickly moved forward to lead the men of the 69th as they battled at the wall. Arriving there he most certainly was struck with the carnage from the fight that had turned from a rifle battle into hand-to-hand combat. Webb would receive a superficial wound to his leg while at the wall. Colonel Dennis O’Kane of the 69 th Pennsylvania would be mortally wounded. On the other side of the wall, CSA Brigadier General Richard Garnett was killed instantly by a bullet to the head. Miraculously, the Federal line held. While holding their position is a testament to the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers élan, they were not alone in the fight. Timely reinforcements from Norman Hall’s brigade also helped Webb hold the “angle.” Additionally, the Rebel command structure had taken a beating with two brigadier generals out of the fight in Pickett’s division alone. The charge was doomed and the Confederate infantry retreated across the fields towards Seminary Ridge. Colonel Charles Wainwright, commander of the Union I Corps artillery was told by Webb, “…that when the enemy reached the wall all his lines began to shake, and for a moment he thought they were gone; but most of the rebs stopped at the wall…. That halt at the wall was the ruin of the enemy, as such halts almost always are; yet so natural is it for men to seek cover that it is almost impossible to get them to pass it under such circumstances.”(xii) Certainly, the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg may have been much different had Webb’s brigade not held its position at the “angle.” Webb was brave under fire and encouraged his men to fight like the veterans they were. Without a doubt he was upset with the cowardly performance of his 71st Pennsylvania. Writing his wife after the battle, Webb stated, “When my men fell back I almost wished to be killed, I was almost disgraced.”(xiii)
Webb would receive brevet promotion to major of U.S. Regular Army for his actions at Gettysburg. He would command Gibbon’s division of the II Corps during the Rapidan Campaign and at Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863. Upon Gibbon’s return to command, Webb would return to brigade command during the Overland Campaign. He would see action at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. While leading his brigade during the II Corps attack on the Mule Shoe salient, on May 12, 1864, Webb would receive a serious head wound. This wound would remove him from field command until January 11, 1865 when he would return as Chief of Staff to Major General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. He would receive brevet promotion to major general volunteers on August 1, 1864 for his gallant actions at Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. He would remain Chief of Staff for the Army of the Potomac through the conclusion of the Civil War. On March 13, 1865, Webb received brevet promotion to brigadier general and major general U.S. Regular Army. After the Civil War, he would remain in the U.S. Army and would reach the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served in both the 44th and 5th U.S. Infantry. Prior to retiring in 1870, he would also serve as assistant professor of geography, history and ethics at West Point.(xiv)
Webb and his wife, Anna Elizabeth nee Remsen, had eight children together. They married on November 28, 1855. After retiring from the U.S. Army, Webb returned to New York City and became president of the City College of New York, a position he would hold for 32 years. On September 28, 1891, General Webb received the highest military honor the United States awards – the Medal of Honor – for his brave leadership at the Battle of Gettysburg. The official citation reads, “Distinguished personal gallantry in leading his men forward at a critical period in the contest.”(xv) Webb died on February 12, 1911 at Bronx, New York. He was 75 years old. He is a true American HERO.
i.See Alexander Stewart Webb at ancestry.com (http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/18374139/person/650870239)
ii. Cullum, George W., Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Vol. II, published by D. Van Nostrand in 1868, Pg. 401.
iii. Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1999, Pg. 545.
iv. Cullum, George W., Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Vol. II, published by D. Van Nostrand in 1868, Pg. 402.
vi. Trudeau, Noah A., Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, published by Harper Collins in 2002, Pgs. 495-496.
vii. Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg, published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2003, Pgs. 396-397.
viii. Trudeau, Noah A., Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, published by Harper Collins in 2002, Pg. 476.
ix. Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg, published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2003, Pg. 409.
x. Ibid, Pg. 436.
xi. Ibid, Pg. 445.
xii. Ibid, Pg. 452.
xiii. Ibid, Pg. 450.
xiv. Cullum, George W., Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Vol. II, published by D. Van Nostrand in 1868, Pg. 402.
xv. Proft, R.J. (Bob), editor, United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations, published by Highland House II, Inc. in 2006, Pg. 1,037.