About Edward Porter Alexander
Edward Porter Alexander (May 26, 1835 – April 28, 1910) was an engineer, an officer in the U.S. Army, a Confederate general in the American Civil War, and later a railroad executive, planter, and author.
Alexander is best known as the officer in charge of the massive artillery bombardment preceding Pickett's Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, but he is also noted for his early use of signal and observation balloon intelligence in combat and is well regarded for his postwar memoirs and analyses of the war.
Alexander, known to his friends as Porter, was born in Washington, Georgia, the sixth of eight children of Adam Leopold Alexander and Sarah Hillhouse Gilbert Alexander.He became the brother-in-law of Alexander R. Lawton and Jeremy F. Gilmer. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1857, third in his class of 38 cadets, and was brevetted a second lieutenant of Engineers. He briefly taught engineering and fencing at the academy before he was ordered to report to Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston for the Utah War expedition. The mission was terminated before he reached Johnston and Alexander returned to West Point, where he participated in a number of weapons' experiments and worked as an assistant to Major Albert J. Myer, the first U.S. Army Signal Officer and the inventor of the "wig-wag" signal flag, or "aerial telegraphy", code. He was promoted to second lieutenant on October 10, 1858.
Alexander met Bettie Mason of Virginia in 1859 and married her on April 3, 1860. They would eventually have six children: Bessie Mason (born 1861), Edward Porter II and Lucy Roy (twins, born 1863), an unnamed girl (1865, died in infancy prior to naming), Adam Leopold (1867), and William Mason (1868). Alexander's final assignment for the U.S. Army was in the Washington Territory at Fort Steilacoom and at Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, California.
After learning of the secession of his home state of Georgia, Alexander resigned his U.S. Army commission on May 1, 1861, to join the Confederate Army as a captain of engineers. While organizing and training new recruits to form a Confederate signal service, he was ordered to report to Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas Junction, Virginia. He became the Chief Engineer and Signal Officer of the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac on June 3. At the First Battle of Bull Run, he made history by transmitting the first message in combat using signal flags over a long distance. Stationed atop "Signal Hill" in Manassas, Alexander saw Union troop movements and signaled to the brigade under Col. Nathan "Shanks" Evans, "Look out for your left, your position is turned", which meant that they were in danger of being attacked on their left flank. Upon receiving a similar message, Gens. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston sent timely reinforcements that turned the tide of battle in the Confederates' favor.
Alexander was promoted to major on July 1 and lieutenant colonel on December 31, 1861. During much of this period he was chief of ordnance in (what would eventually be called) the Army of Northern Virginia under Johnston, and was also active in signal work and intelligence gathering, dealing extensively with spies operating around Washington, D.C.
During the early days of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Alexander continued as chief of ordnance under Johnston, although he managed to participate in combat at the Battle of Williamsburg and was commended by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet for his actions there. When Gen. Robert E. Lee assumed command of the army, Alexander pre-positioned ordnance for Lee's offensive in the Seven Days Battles. He continued his intelligence gathering by volunteering to go up in a hot air balloon at Gaines' Mill on June 27, ascending several times and returning with valuable intelligence regarding the position of the Union Army. Alexander continued in ordnance for the Northern Virginia Campaign (Second Bull Run) and the Maryland Campaign (Antietam). Alexander barely missed capture by Federal cavalry under Col. Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis that had escaped from Harpers Ferry during the Maryland Campaign; over 40 of Longstreet's 80 ammunition wagons were captured.
Porter Alexander is best known as an artilleryman who played a prominent role in many of the important battles of the war. He served in different artillery capacities for Longstreet's First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and he started this role on November 7, 1862, leaving Lee's staff to command the battalion that was the corps' artillery reserve. He was promoted to colonel on December 5. He was instrumental in arranging the artillery in defense of Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, which proved to be the decisive factor in the Confederate victory. While the rest of Longstreet's corps was located around Suffolk, Virginia, Alexander accompanied Stonewall Jackson on his flanking march at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, and his artillery placements in Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville proved decisive.
Alexander's most famous engagement was on July 3, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, during which he was in command of the artillery for Longstreet's corps. On that day, he was effectively in control of the artillery for the full army (despite Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton's formal role as chief of artillery under Lee). He conducted a massive two-hour bombardment, arguably the largest in the war, using between 150 and 170 guns against the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately, the poor quality of the Confederate fuses delayed the planned detonation of many of the shells, and a number of the guns were not properly ranged, so that the rear areas sustained more damage than the front lines. General Longstreet effectively put Alexander in charge of launching Maj. Gen. George Pickett on his famous charge, putting the young colonel under enormous pressure to determine whether the Union artillery defenses had been effectively suppressed. Alexander would blame Lee for the defeat at Gettysburg, writing in 1901: "Never, never, never did Gen. Lee himself bollox [sic] a fight as he did this."
Alexander accompanied the First Corps to northern Georgia in the fall of 1863 to reinforce Gen. Braxton Bragg for the Battle of Chickamauga. He personally arrived too late to participate in the battle, but served as Longstreet's chief of artillery in the subsequent Knoxville Campaign and in the Department of East Tennessee in early 1864. He returned with the corps to Virginia for the remainder of the war, now with the rank of brigadier general (as of February 26, 1864). He served in all the battles of the Overland Campaign and when Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant slipped around Lee's army to cross the James River and assault Petersburg, Alexander was able to move his guns quickly through the lines and had them in place to repel the main attack.
During the Siege of Petersburg, Alexander had to adapt his artillery tactics to trench warfare, including experimentation with various types of mortars. He became convinced that the Union forces were attempting to tunnel under the Confederate lines, but before he was able to act on this, he was wounded in the shoulder by a sharpshooter. As he departed on medical leave to Georgia, he informed Gen. Lee of his suspicion and unsuccessful attempts were made to locate the tunneling activity. The resulting Battle of the Crater caught the Confederates by surprise, although it ended in a significant Union defeat. Alexander returned to the Army in February 1865 and supervised the defenses of Richmond along the James River. He retreated along with Lee's army in the Appomattox Campaign.
At Appomattox Court House, it was Alexander who made the famous proposal to Robert E. Lee that the army disperse into the hills for a guerrilla war, rather than surrendering. Lee rebuked him, and Alexander later wrote about regretting his suggestion.
After the surrender, Alexander briefly toyed with joining the Brazilian Army. Finding that he no longer desired the Georgia plantation life of his youth, he taught mathematics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and then served in executive positions with the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad (executive superintendent), the Savannah and Memphis Railroad (president), and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (president). He became friends with Grover Cleveland and spent many hours duck hunting. In May 1897, President Cleveland sent Alexander to be the arbiter of a boundary dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, in preparation for a possible canal to be dug across Central America. He spent two years surveying and supervising the boundary, completed the work to the great acclaim of the two governments, and returned to the U.S. in October 1899. His wife Bettie became ill while he was in Nicaragua and she died on November 20, 1899. In October 1901, Alexander married Mary Mason, his first wife's niece.
Alexander was a respected author following the war. He wrote many magazine articles and two major books: Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative (published in 1907) and Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander (posthumous, 1989). Unlike such Confederate officers as Jubal Early and William Pendleton, he eschewed the bitter Lost Cause theories of why the South was doomed to fail, given the overwhelming superiority of the North. Most historians consider Alexander's memoirs to be one of the most objective and sharpest resources written by a person involved in the Civil War. Historian David Eicher called Fighting for the Confederacy "a superb personal narrative with a good deal of analysis of Lee's operations ... Dramatic and revealing, an important source on the general, his fellow officers, and the Army of Northern Virginia." His other books include Railway Practice (1887) and Catterel, Ratterel (Doggerel) (1888).
Alexander died in Savannah, Georgia, and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Augusta, Georgia.
Alexander plays an important role in the description of Pickett's Charge in Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels. In the 1993 film adaptation of the novel, Gettysburg, he is portrayed by actor James Patrick Stuart, who reprised the role in the prequel Gods and Generals.
Alexander also appears in Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel How Few Remain.