General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, commander of the Third Corps’ Second Division at Gettysburg, was a curious mixture of precision and conceit. On the very late evening hours of July 1st, 1863, with his men maneuvering towards the battlefield, his forces nearly collided with the Confederates in the vicinity of Black Horse Tavern, southwest of town, as they approached. As Humphreys later chose to describe the situation in his report:
“He was not aware of my presence, and I might have attacked him at daylight with the certainty of temporary success; but I was 3 miles distant from the remainder of the army, and I believed such a course would have been inconsistent with the general plan of operations of the commanding general. I therefore retraced my steps…” (Emphasis added)
This may well be read as a subtle swipe at his corps commander, General Daniel E. Sickles, who the next day famously induced the Third Corps to vulnerable battle without providing proper supports on either flank. Supports, of course, are often critical to the soundness of any position, and Sickles was no engineer. Humphreys’ command suffered terribly as a result; of the 5,000 men present for duty in the Second Division, casualties numbered some 2,088.
Engineering, careful and meticulous, by contrast, seemed born into the bloodstream of Andrew A. Humphreys. As the grandson of the designer of the USS Constitution, and the son of the Chief Naval Constructor in Philadelphia, his future appeared cast for him. Indeed, his father secured the sixteen-year old a West Point appointment, partly to instill in him the sense of order and discipline a future engineer would require. In this effort, however, he would prove only partially successful. Upon graduation in 1831, with a class standing of 13 out of 33, the young Andrew began his career; yet he retained his uncompromising attitudes. An early posting was the small locale of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Humphreys found “[M]y labor a dull, uninteresting task, and I go to it with disgust.”
His arrogance, however, did not preclude his innate skill – over the next thirty years Humphreys spent many years associated with numerous projects of ever-expanding national significance. In 1851, he was appointed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to head the Pacific Railroad Survey Office, reviewing the engineering of the three possible routes west – northern, central, or southern. It was a complex project, heavy both in engineering and in political imbroglio, and it consumed six years of Humphreys’ attention. Therefore, he would, however, be inescapably interrupted by the Railroad Survey requirements; he would not return to the River Survey office until 1857.
A year prior to the railroad appointment, however, had come to him the task that would mark the remainder of his life for six years: that of controlling the Mississippi River. In the fall of 1850, Congress appropriated funds for a river survey of the lower Mississippi, seeking to understand the source of its habitual floods, and the ritual appearance of sandbars at the mouth of the river that shut down commerce there for months at a time. It was an important and high-profile assignment, and upon his assignment to the River Survey Office, Humphreys was disheartened to learn that he would share this responsibility with a civilian, albeit a highly prominent one, for the job. Charles S. Ellet Jr., immediately got to work, observing much more than he researched, collecting very little serious hard information for his survey. The Ellet report was completed in less than a year.
Humphreys, on the other hand, threw everything he had he had into this effort. He was determined to demonstrate, completely and finally, the superiority of military engineers over civilians in large-scale projects of this sort. The 500 page document he ultimately produced, Report on the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River, was exceedingly impressive, and was not completed until 1867.
Humphreys achieved another notable record of a completely different sort – one of exemplary service as an engineer and commander with the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. At the outbreak of the conflict, Humphreys was promoted to Major and Chief Engineer of McClellan’s army; although some were wary of Humphreys, given his work on the Railroad Survey with Jefferson Davis, and the fact that his brother Joshua was serving in the Confederate Navy.
Though almost totally bereft in combat experience, the newly-minted Major Humphreys initially put his engineering skills to work fortifying the defenses of Washington. As the armies were assembled, more promotions followed, yet Humphreys longed to do more than build or make maps. He applied for combat, but the wheels of bureaucracy ground slowly. Finally, on August 30th, 1862, he was granted command of the 3rd Division of Porter’s V Corp. Consisting of new units, Humphreys found himself flourishing in his new role. However, this “engineer trained to precision” initially displayed something of a taskmaster’s personality when dealing with fresh troops, as he tended to be a strict disciplinarian. Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, noted him as a man of “distinguished and brilliant profanity.” In turn, the men of his command, gauging the fifty-plus year old Humphreys, marked for “continually washing himself and putting on paper dickeys,” and considered him old. They dubbed Humphreys “Old Goggle Eyes,” due to his spectacles.
Perhaps it was his seeming combination of intensity and organization that later produced “the gallant Humphreys” noted on occasion. In a Reserve role during the Battle of Antietam, his men marched an impressive twenty-three miles in a single day attempting to close that distance. It would be at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, however, that Humphreys’ particular drive and leadership truly shown forth.
At Fredericksburg, his division gained the furthest ground against the intense Rebel fire from Marye’s Heights. Belatedly committed to battle on the afternoon of December 13th, Humphreys’ division crossed the Rappahannock on the upper pontoon bridge, fixed bayonets, and pressed forward. Halted by blasts of the Rebels double canister, the division defiantly sang through its retreat in the growing darkness.
Recalling the attack, a member of Humphreys’ staff recalled his direct leadership style – “Young gentlemen, I intend to lead this assault; I presume, of course, you will wish to ride with me?” This sort of blunt challenge proved irresistible to his officers, who cheered on “their old man,” as the General himself doffed his cap in response. Riding ahead of the men, five of the seven officers were knocked off of their horses by the intensity of Confederate fire. The General himself suffered numerous “close calls:” his hat was shot away, his uniform bore evidence of projectiles, and two horses had been killed under him, with a third, badly wounded. Appearing later on a small gray horse of a “contrary and rearing disposition,” Humphreys remarked that he had had three valuable horses killed under him, and now he would get only cheap ones.”
General Daniel Butterfield, commanding the V Corps, reported, “General Humphreys personally led his division in the most gallant manner. His attack was spirited, and worthy of veterans. Made as it was by raw troops, the value of the example set by the division commander can hardly be estimated.”
Following the blessings of a light engagement during the Chancellorsville campaign, Humphreys was reassigned to the 2nd Division of the III Corps on May 23. Upon Gen. George Meade’s ascension to command the Army of the Potomac, Meade requested Humphreys become his Chief of Staff – which he declined to do. This desire to keep a field command also insured the III Corps would retain at least one West Pointer between its corps and remaining division commanders, as both Daniel Sickles and David Birney were uniformed politicos. This made Humphreys’ training, discipline, and experience all the more crucial for the fight that lay ahead.
Upon the general advance of Sickles’ III Corps, Humphreys found himself in a difficult circumstance – his right flank open and exposed, soon to be stripped of Col. George Burling’s 3rd Brigade, sent to bolster the left of the corps as the Confederate attack mounted. This left only the remnants of the first two brigades, Brigadier General Joseph Carr’s and Colonel William Brewster’s, to deal with the convergence of three surging Confederate brigades, supported by artillery.
Withdrawal from their exposed position in the face of such concentrated force proved to be a nearly impossible proposition, yet Humphreys managed to bring it about, by displaying “conspicuous courage and remarkable coolness.” Writing his wife Rebecca afterwards, Humphreys recalled how it was done: “Twenty times did I bring my men to a halt and face about; myself and [son] Harry and others of my staff forcing the men to it.” Such a leader made a prominent and irresistible target. At one point, his horse, wounded six times, was hit by an artillery shell, throwing the general violently to the ground, yet he was remounted, and continued. Again he noted to Rebecca, “[T]he fire that we went through was hotter in artillery, and as destructive as at Fredericksburg.” The retreat continued until the remnants of the Division reformed on Cemetery Ridge.
On July 8th, shortly following Lee’s defeat, Humphreys was promoted to the rank of Major-General, to accept the position of Meade’s Chief of Staff. Even with a promotion, and the recognition that he and the Commanding General worked well together, Humphreys still regretted the acquisition of a desk job in place of a field command. He would get his wish, however, as Gen. Winfield S. Hancock proved physically incapable of sustained field service as a result of his Gettysburg wound. Humphreys therefore commanded II Corps from November of 1864 through Appomattox.
On March 13th, 1865, he was brevetted brigadier general in the regular army, followed by another on May 26th in which he was awarded brevet major-general for in the regular army for “gallant and meritorious service at the battle of Gettysburg,” as well as for the Battle of Sailor’s Creek during the Appomattox campaign.
Peace, however, was not destined to return to Humphreys with the cessation of armed conflict. In 1866, he was promoted to a full Brigadier General in the Regular Army, recognizing, once again, his “gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Gettysburg.” At this time, and perhaps more importantly, he was also made the Chief of Engineers within the Army’s Corps of Engineers.
With the war over, Humphreys returned all of his energies to the Mississippi River assignment. There, a new foe awaited him – James Buchanan Eads. The two men clashed repeatedly, and with increasing bitterness, over two major projects concerning their visions concerning the waterway.
Eads had grown up around St. Louis, Missouri, in a grinding workman’s contrast to the polished society of Philadelphia. A bright young man, he had made the most of the river and all that it offered. At the age of 22, in 1842, observing the number of wrecked cargoes that could be claimed from the riverbed, he had conceived a salvage vessel and diving bell that would allow such operations. As a result, Eads became wealthy, and well-known. His flat – boats, constructed during wartime as iron-clad gunboats to aid the Union cause during the western river campaigns, were later fondly recalled by President Ulysses S. Grant, and gave Eads hefty postwar political clout.
Ultimately, in this new railroad era, a new cross-Mississippi monument would be erected, with the collusion of Grant, Eads, and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Known as “the Eads Bridge,” located at St. Louis, it marks one battle Gen. Humphreys, as Chief of the Army’s Corps of Engineers, lost. He felt sure it would silt up, be an obstacle to river traffic, channel development and flood control.
Humphreys’ work on the river, Report on the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River, served to highlight his commitment to a cause, just as his presence on the battlefield had earlier. As the re-united, industrialized Union sought to expand further West, the determined vision of both men, Eads and Humphreys, over how to address the problems posed by the Mississippi River and its tributaries left lasting impacts. Humphreys would ultimately be proven correct – but he would not live to see it. As on the battlefields, his service is much appreciated – but often overlooked.
Bert Barnett, Park Ranger