Edward Porter Alexander

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For the museum administrator, see Edward Porter Alexander (1907-2003)
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Edward Porter Alexander

Edward Porter Alexander (May 26, 1835April 28, 1910) was an engineer, an officer in the U.S. Army and Confederate States Army, an author, and a railroad executive. He was known to his friends as Porter.

Early life and education

Alexander was born in Washington, Georgia. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1857 as a second lieutenant of Engineers. He briefly taught engineering and fencing at the academy, but then joined Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston for an expedition to Utah to deal with Mormon resistance and attempt to replace Brigham Young as governor of the territory. This assignment was followed by his last for the U.S., in the Oregon Territory and at Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, California.

Civil War

Alexander resigned his commission May 1, 1861, to join the Confederate army. As a captain, he was the Chief Engineer and Signal Officer of the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac. At the First Battle of Bull Run he made history by transmitting the first message in combat using signal flags over a long distance. (Before the war, Alexander worked with Major Albert J. Myer, the first U.S. Army Signal Officer and the inventor of the "wig-wag" signal flag, or "aerial telegraphy", code.) Stationed atop "Signal Hill" in Manassas, Virginia, Alexander saw Union troop movements and signaled to the forces under P.G.T. Beauregard, "Look to your left, you are turned", which meant that they were going to be flanked on their left. In later battles he was one of only a few Confederate officers who conducted aerial reconnaissance using balloons.

Porter Alexander is best known as the artillery chief for the First (Longstreet's) Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, which he joined after Bull Run. Alexander's artillery played a prominent part throughout the Eastern theater. He was instrumental in arranging the artillery in defense of Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg. And his artillery placements in Hazel Grove at the Battle of Chancellorsville proved decisive. But his most famous engagement was on July 3, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, now as a full colonel at age 26. On that day, Alexander was effectively in control of the artillery for the full army (despite William N. Pendleton's formal role under Lee). He conducted a massive two-hour bombardment, arguably the largest in the war, using over 140 guns against the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. General Longstreet practically put Alexander in charge of launching George Pickett on his famous charge.

Alexander accompanied the First Corps in 1863 to Tennessee to reinforce Gen. Braxton Bragg. He returned with them to Virginia for the remainder of the war, now with the rank of brigadier general. He was wounded in the shoulder by sharpshooter fire during the Siege of Petersburg and convalesced briefly in his native Georgia.

At Appomattox Court House, it was Alexander who proposed 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.

Later life: mathematics, railroads, and writing

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. 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 1899.

Alexander was a respected author following the war. He wrote many magazine articles and two major books: Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander and Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative. 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.

Alexander died in Savannah, Georgia, and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Augusta, Georgia.


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