In the summer of 1863, twenty-eight year old Alexander Webb was known as a rising young man of talent and ability. He had been brought up in a prominent family--his grandfather had been on George Washington's staff during the Revolutionary War; and his father, James Watson Webb, had been a Regular Army officer, an influential New York newspaper owner and editor, and a minister to Brazil. After graduating 13th out of 34 in his West Point class of 1855 (and marrying the same year), he was appointed to the artillery, serving in the Seminole War and then as a professor of mathematics at West Point before the Civil War began.
Webb was a good-looking, meticulously groomed officer, with a compact build, bronzed complexion, dark hair and goatee. Col. Charles S. Wainwright, chief of artillery of the First Corps, a friend and snobby social peer of Webb in New York City, wrote that he was one of the "most conscientious, hard working and fearless young officers that we have." Meade's aide Theodore Lyman considered him "jolly and pleasant," although he was put off by Webb's "way of suddenly laughing in a convulsive manner, by drawing in his breath, instead of letting it out--the way which goes to my bones." But Lyman regarded Webb as a "thorough soldier, wide-awake, quick, and attentive to detail," despite this annoying quirk.
Most of Webb's duty in the first two years of the Civil War was staff work with various generals, and his service was rewarded with the rapid promotion that came frequently to efficient staff-officers. When the war began, Webb first assisted the army's Chief of Artillery, whom he served through the Peninsula Campaign. During the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Webb acted as chief of staff for the Fifth Corps. For the rest of the year he was assigned to Washington as an inspector of artillery. In January 1863 he was returned to the Fifth Corps (now under Maj. Gen. George Meade), again as chief of staff. At Chancellorsville Meade thrust Webb into emergency service leading some detachments into battle in the confused fighting of May 3, and called "particular attention" to Webb's "intelligence and zeal" in his battle report.
Webb was rising rapidly on Meade's coattails in the days before Gettysburg, and he was available when General "Paddy" Owen, who commanded the Philadelphia Brigade, was clapped under arrest by his stern division commander, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, for some uncertain offense three days before the battle. Gibbon eagerly seized upon Webb to take over Owen's Pennsylvanian, largely Irish brigade.
Webb, a non-Irish New Yorker, was plunged into an uncomfortable situation. To the hard-bitten veterans, he looked dandified in his spit-and-polish staff-officer's uniform. A discipline problem had been eroding the effectiveness of the Philadelphia Brigade, with high straggling rates, absenteeism, arrests, even a shootout between two officers wherein a captain had been killed. The new brigadier must have felt pressure from Gibbon to ride the brigade hard after Owen had been discharged. Such a situation was bound to make for trouble. It came at the fording of Monocacy Creek on Webb's second day. The water was knee-deep, and the men naturally expected to take their shoes and socks off, since marching in wet feet meant blisters. But Webb ordered them not to halt. To set an example, he dismounted and waded too, but everybody saw his high boots, and knew that he could ride comfortably afterward. There were boos and catcalls and audible remarks, and resentment festered along with the blisters. To make matters worse, Webb called together his officers, who had been dressing like privates, and ordered them to wear their insignia. This was an unpopular idea, since shoulder straps made juicy targets for enemy sharpshooters. Further, he told them to bring all stragglers to brigade headquarters, where they would be summarily shot. Though the field officers undoubtedly left the meeting muttering mutinously among themselves, straggling in the brigade was drastically reduced.
Before Gettysburg, Webb had never commanded so much as a company of infantry. There was another problem: he was still so new that most of his soldiers wouldn't know him if saw they him. With such a handicap, he would have a hard time being obeyed in moments of crisis.
| Brought up and posted on Cemetery Ridge with the rest of the Second
Corps on the morning of July 2, Webb's brigade did no fighting until near dark
that evening, when the Confederate attack that started on the Union left
reached the center. At that point Webb lined up his 69th Pennsylvania regiment
and poured fire into Wright's Rebel Brigade as it topped the ridge. Webb
brought up another regiment at "double-quick," then added his two remaining
regiments. Wright's men began to run, and Webb's brigade chased them as far as
the Emmitsburg Road, where they captured about 300 Confederates and reclaimed a
Union battery. Soon after, Webb sent two regiments to answer a call for help
on Cemetery Hill.|
On July 3 Webb found himself posted under the Clump of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, the target for Pickett's Charge. In the middle of the tremendous bombardment which preceded the huge assault, Webb used the opportunity both to let the men see him (since many had not, owing to his newness) and to demonstrate the same contempt for danger he sensed they would soon need. He stood in front of the line, in the most conspicuous and exposed place, and leaned on his sword, puffing leisurely on a cigar while cannonballs whistled by and shells exploded all around. The men yelled at him to take shelter, but as one man wrote, "He stood like a statue watching the movement of the enemy." Later Webb said he felt that 110 guns had been sighting on him. "This was awful," he remembered. "I lost fifty of my men lying down, and . . . excellent officers, [while I] was struck three or four times with stones, etc. I knew then that we were to have a fierce attack. . . ."
In the short lull after the artillery went quiet, Webb made a few adjustments in his line, perhaps more than was good for nervous troops right before the big test. As Pickett's Virginian division bore down on them over the last few yards of ground, Webb's 71st Pennsylvania ran away, and Webb feared a breakthrough and personal disgrace. He walked back to his reserve regiment, the 72nd Pennsylvania, as Rebels swarmed over the stone wall just yards behind him. He shouted to the regiment to charge . . . and they refused to budge. He then walked over to the standard bearer to grab the colors and go forward with it himself. Evidently the standard bearer didn't recognize him, because he fought Webb for the colors before he went down, shot numerous times. Webb ultimately gave up on the 72nd and strode--directly in front of General Armistead and the seething, moaning mass of Confederates blasting away inside the wall--over to his 69th Pennsylvania regiment, whose line had bent back while still firing defiantly into the men in the Rebel spearhead. Webb lost a piece of the inside his thigh to a bullet on the walk over, but kept going. With the help of two of Hall's regiments, which came over about this time, and Harrow's men, who ran over in a mass to get in their shots, Webb and his men caused the Southerners to fall in heaps. Webb then saw the High Water Mark of the Confederacy recede and the gray army take its first steps back toward Richmond.
Hancock later said, at a toast, "In every battle and on every important field there is one spot to which every army [officer] would wish to be assigned--the spot upon which centers the fortunes of the field. There was but one such spot at Gettysburg and it fell to the lot of Gen'l Webb to have it and hold it and for holding it he must receive the credit due him." In the surge of adulation after Gettysburg, Webb received command of the division six weeks later and led it through the fall campaigns. When Gibbon returned to command in the spring of 1864, Webb went back to brigade command. At the battle of Spotsylvania in May he was hit by a bullet that passed through the corner of his right eye and came out his ear, but did not impair his mental abilities. He returned to the army in the last months of the war as the Army of the Potomac's chief of staff.
For further reading:
Lash, Gary G. "The Philadelphia Brigade at Gettysburg." Gettysburg Magazine 7, Jul 1992
Sword, Wiley. "Alexander Webb and his Colt Navy Revolver: In the 'Pinch of the Fight' During 'Pickett's Charge' at Gettysburg." Gettysburg Magazine 15, Jul 1996
_____, "Facing the Gray Wave: Alexander Webb at Gettysburg." Civil War Times Illustrated 19, Jan 1981