Alexander Stewart Webb is a hero…as discussed in an earlier post, the term is bantered around loosely in our society. Such imprecise remembrance has resulted in men(and women) like Webb being relegated to the footnotes of our history…
Webb was born in 1835 into a prominent military family from New York City. Webb’s father was an officer and diplomat, his grandfather had served on George Washington’s staff during the Revolution. Webb graduated from the US Military Academy in 1855 and served as an artillery officer during the Second Seminole War. Webb volunteered for the Union in 1861 and rose quickly through the ranks of the volunteer army. He fought bravely at Bull Run and received a commendation from General George McClellan for his actions during the defense of Malvern Hill in 1862.
He marched to Gettysburg in command of the gristled Philadelphia brigade of the Army of Potomac’s Second Corps. The brigade had lapsed from its former glory before Webb took command and in just a few short weeks he had restored some discipline to the dispirited veterans. His men did not see action until July 2, but fought well for their new commander. When Lee’s attack reached the center of the Union line Webb’s veterans repulsed the confederates and pursued them to the Emmitsburg road capturing nearly 300. Later, Webb led reinforcements to help push the confederates back on Cemetery Hill.
Alexander Webb received the Medal of Honor for his actions on July 3, 1863. Webb’s brigade occupied the crucial position at the “copse of trees” which was the focal point of Lee’s attack. Webb marched defiantly up and down his line during the fierce bombardment that preceded Pickett’s charge. The confederates under Armistead charged into Webb’s position and the two brigades were locked in deadly combat. Seizing the colors of the 72nd Pennsylvania, Webb led a charge into the confederates at the famous “angle” in the stone wall. The two generals nearly came to personal blows as Webb’s counter attack brought them to within feet of each other. Armistead fell mortally wounded while a ball passed through Webb’s upper thigh, but he remained on the field. Webb describes the action in his report of the battle. General George Gordon Meade nominated Webb for the Medal of Honor which he received in 1891.
Webb served with distinction the rest of the Civil War rising to the rank of Major General of Volunteers. After the war he was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army and served as an instructor at West Point. He retired from the Army in 1870 and spent 30 years as the president of New York’s City College. He died in 1911 and was buried in the cemetery at West Point.
Generic descriptions of heroism cheapen the bravery of men like Alexander Webb. Not every deed carried out in a uniform is heroic. Take time this Veterans Day weekend to remember the brave men and women who have served this country. Heroism is not difficult to define when we look to examples like Webb.