Two Accounts Of John Geary's Life by Members of the GDG

Larry Tagg

Doug Cubbison

Esteemed member contributes:

Here's a piece I worked up on Geary:

John Geary had already lived an unsurpassed lifetime of leadership before he ever set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Forty-four years old, he certainly had the perfect physique for a leader. He was a huge man, six feet six inches tall, well over two hundred pounds and solidly built (although enemy soldiers had been whittling away at him for years; he was an easy target, and by Gettysburg he had already been wounded nine times). He also had a violent temper, which together with his size made a terrific impression on many in the army, who learned to give him a wide berth.

Geary was born in the Allegheny Mountains near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania He was attending Jefferson College when his father died, leaving him the head of the family and responsible for his father's debts. He left school and worked odd jobs, then went to Kentucky as a surveyor. There he speculated in land, making enough money to return to college in Pennsylvania, where he studied civil engineering. After graduation, he worked as an engineer constructing the Allegheny Portage Railroad. He had been active in the militia from the age of sixteen, and when the Mexican War came in 1846, he went to Mexico with a Pennsylvania regiment. He led the regiment in the assault on the fortress at Chapultapec, and was wounded five times. After these exploits, he was named the regiment's colonel and returned home a war hero.

Following the Mexican War, he was sent west and appointed postmaster of San Francisco, but lost the appointment when the national administration changed in 1849. In 1850, still serving in local offices there, he was named first mayor of San Francisco. He had to leave after about a year in office and go back to Pennsylvania because of his wife's failing health. After her death, President Franklin Pierce offered to appoint him governor of the Utah Territory, but Geary refused the appointment. In 1856, he accepted the governorship of the Kansas Territory, soon to be known as "Bleeding Kansas." Geary, an anti-slavery man, was unable to stop the bloodshed there, and stayed at this strife-torn post less than a year, again following the pattern of leaving before the end of his term to return to Pennsylvania.

A wealthy man by the time of the Civil War, Geary left his farm to raise the 28th Pennsylvania volunteer regiment and "Knap's Battery" in June 1861. Patrolling the Potomac near Harper's Ferry in March 1862 with his regiment, he was wounded below the knee by a piece of shell and captured, but was exchanged, promoted to brigadier general, and given command of a brigade in Banks's corps in time to be sent to the Shenandoah Valley to fight in that unfortunate campaign against Jackson in May 1862.

His brigade was then incorporated into Pope's Army of Virginia in late June. He led it at the battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, where he was seriously wounded--"a ball struck me in the ankle, and almost at the same instant a ball passed through my left arm," the latter shattering his elbow. Returning to duty in October with his arm in a bandage, he was given command of his division, replacing Christopher Auger, who had also been wounded at Cedar Mountain. By this time, Banks's old corps had been absorbed into the Army of the Potomac as the Twelfth Corps and was under the leadership of Major General Henry Slocum.

Although the Twelfth Corps missed the army's next engagement, at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Geary's division was heavily engaged at Chancellorsville the next May. There he was struck in the chest by a cannonball and knocked unconscious. When he came to, he was able to talk only in whispers for weeks.

Geary, as his numerous wounds attested, was a fearless man. In Kansas he had turned his back contemptuously on a man threatening to shoot him. General O.O. Howard later remarked on his "cheerful deportment, and his unfailing energy. . . . He reconnoitered without regard to personal safety." Geary demanded similar bravery in those around him. At Chancellorsville, Hancock was ordered to form with his division around Chancellor House. The angry Geary called to Hancock's troops to cover his retreat. "Charge, you cowards, charge!" he yelled. Two of Hancock's men were so insulted they lowered their bayonets toward Geary until an adjutant stepped in.

There was one recorded exception to Geary's insistence on squarely facing the enemy: As the story goes, Geary caught a soldier he thought was a skulker and threatened him with the flat of his sword. When the private replied, "Put up your sword or I'll shoot you," Geary apparently concluded that such combativeness was inconsistent with cowardice and apologized. Geary had been in command of the division for the better part of a year, long enough to know it inside and out. He had been in the military long enough that his lack of military education did not hamper him. However, except for his bravery, nowhere is he mentioned as an exceptional division commander.

At Gettysburg:

Geary arrived on the battlefield a little after 5:00 p.m. on July 1 from the Baltimore Pike. The day's fighting had already died down. He pushed his division toward Cemetery Hill and found Winfield Hancock, who placed Kane's Brigade behind Cemetery Hill before escorting the other two brigades to the army's left, where they slept on and around Little Round Top.

At daylight the next morning, Geary's men were wakened and countermarched to the Baltimore Pike, then to Culp's Hill--the army's right--going into line on the crest of the hill facing northeast. Geary acceded to brigadier "Old Pop" Greene's suggestion to construct defensive earthworks to strengthen the line, even though he himself thought that fighting behind barricades dissipated the men's fighting spirit.

That afternoon, Geary's Division heard the rumble of heavy fighting from the army's left. Geary soon got instructions to leave Greene's Brigade on Culp's Hill and follow Williams's Division, which was just pulling out. Unfortunately, the instructions didn't say where Williams was going, and the First Division was soon out of sight. Geary last saw William's men going south on the Baltimore Pike, so he headed down the pike (marching right by Slocum's "right wing" headquarters on Power's Hill) and didn't stop, even when he reached Rock Creek.

Geary, at the head of two brigades, blundered completely off the battlefield. He remained completely out of touch until 9:00 p.m. that night. His reputation was saved by the fact that he wasn't needed at his intended destination on the Union left--fighting had ended for the day.

Geary's men marched back up the Pike, turned onto Culp's Hill, and were a couple hundred yards shy of their old lines when they were met by an enemy volley. It took until 1:00 a.m. to file carefully into lines improvised with the thought of pushing the Rebels off the hill at daybreak.

In the Twelfth Corps attack on the morning of July 3, Geary's men on top of the hill bore the brunt of the fighting from daybreak at about 4:30 a.m. until the Confederates were pushed off the hill, about 11:00 a.m.

Geary suffered no ill effects to his career from single-handedly subtracting a division from the army's strength in a moment of peril. He continued to command the division for the rest of the war.

Esteemed member (Doug Cubbison White Star Consulting) contributes:

I have just got home from a week-long research trip to Washington DC and Carlisle Barracks, and what should my road-weary eyes perceive but a series of posts on John White Geary.

There was one good response, but let me provide some additional information on the general. This information is taken from a series of articles that I am preparing on Geary and his division in the west.

John White Geary has yet to be the subject of a satisfactory or comprehensive biography. Harry M. Tinkcom's "John White Geary, Soldier-Statesman, 1819-1873" (Philadelphia, 1940) is poorly written, badly balanced, and contains numerous factual errors. Geary's granddaughter, Mary deForest Geary, authored "A Giant in Those Days, A Story About the Life of John White Geary" (Brunswick, Georgia, 1980). Although well written and highly informative about the man's character, this biography is more a collection of family oral history concerning the life and times of Geary than a scholarly, historically accurate effort. Geary's letters to his wife, Mary, his scrapbooks, and his personal papers are located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (with a copy of these letters at the Atlanta Historical Society, Atlanta, Georgia). These letters are the ones reprinted in "A Politician Goes to War." Geary's letters to his brother, and his official papers as Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are located in the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For some reason (I would call it inexcusably poor research), none of the Harrisburg material was incorporated into "A Politician Goes to War." Thus, this recently published book is sadly lacking a number of the most illuminating letters written by Geary.

Geary was intense and passionate, and he elicited great emotions in his subordinates, superiors, and peers alike. Geary was a vain man whose ambitions ran through the Commonwealth Capitol at Harrisburg all the way to the White House, was renowned for a short temper and a sharper tongue, and had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. Lieutenant Lloyd would write his wife during the Atlanta Campaign, "General Geary, the bastard, is our division commander." Sergeant Charles W. McKay, Company C, 154th New York Infantry, recorded his impressions of Geary:

Gen. John W. Geary commanded the division. The General was a man of large stature, fine black eyes, very robust physique, and when mounted upon his horse was a figure of commanding presence. He was a strict disciplinarian, withal a warm-hearted, emotional man, and although some of the men feared him, they all respected him. We sometimes thought he was making our path wearisome by strict discipline, yet he made his division the crack one of
Sherman's army.

As McKay noted, for all of Geary's faults, he was also an exemplary division commander. He was reliable and hard working, a meticulous administrator who paid careful attention to details and to his men's well being. He commanded his "White Stars" with skill and aplomb through severe engagements at Cedar Mountain, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wauhatchie, Lookout Mountain, Ringgold Gap, the entire Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the March through the Carolinas. Above all, John White Geary was a determined and aggressive fighter.

Concerning Geary's performance at Gettysburg, Geary has been criticized for a bungled march down the Baltimore Pike during the late afternoon of July 2, 1863- in effect, taking two brigades of his division out of battle for several hours (see, for example, Edward B. Coddington, "The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study In Command" (New York, 1968), pp. 433-434). It is my considered opinion that this should more properly be blamed upon poor staff work and a confused command situation at Twelfth Corps headquarters than Geary's leadership. For this, refer to Harry W. Pfanz, "Gettysburg- Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill" (Chapel Hill and London, 1993), chapter 12, "Blunder on the Right". Slocum was acting as a self-styled "right wing commander" and had pulled his staff with him. Pap Williams was thus attempting to run the XII Corps on short notice and with his own First Division staff officers. Needless to say, the XII Corps staff work was sadly lacking at Gettysburg, and Geary was the one to suffer most from it.

There were a few errors in Larry Tagg's fine post on Geary. He was born December 30, 1819 near Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. It should be noted that Geary assumed all of his father's debts, although he was not legally responsible for them, and paid them off in their entirety. He was the Lieutenant Colonel of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry in the Mexican War. He was first American postmaster of San Francisco, was the Alcalde (Spanish Mayor) of Sam Francisco, and was also the first American mayor of San Fransisco. He donated a great deal of his land to the city when he left, including Geary Park near downtown, and the main street through downtown San Fransisco is still named Geary Avenue. Geary was an abolitionist, but not until AFTER his experiences in Kansas. Prior to serving as Governor of Kansas, Geary was a democrat. Following his tenure in Kansas, he became a rabid Republican and active abolitionist. He was so successful in recruiting that he formed not only the 28th Pennsylvania and Knap's Battery, but also the 147th Pennsylvania Infantry. Geary's elbow was not shattered at Cedar Mountain...he was simply shot through the arm near the elbow. He was not shot in the chest with a cannon ball at Chancellorsville. He was stunned by the windage of a shell as it passed in very close proximity to his head. Geary died on February 8, 1873. Many of his actions as Governor, which included labor and educational reform far ahead of his time, had served to anger the big labor interests of the state. On my college ring (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) is the date "1875." This is one of a number of the universities in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth system started by Geary.

For those interested in the death of his son at Wauhatchie, Tennessee I would refer you to my article "Midnight Engagement, John Geary's White Star Division at Wauhatchie" in "Civil War Regiments, A Journal of the American Civil War" (Volume 3, No. 2, 1993).

Doug Cubbison