Marye’s Heights proved one of the hardest fought patches of ground in the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. The first attempt by Union forces to take it, during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, resulted in failure and a significant loss of life. The second, during the May 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, ended in a Union victory.
Numerous acts of bravery during the second attempt are recorded in the annals of the war. They include Col. Alexander Shaler of the 65th New York Infantry. A 36-year-old stonemason’s son and militia officer, he had a reputation as a martinet hyper-focused on efficiency. When war came, then Maj. Shaler and the 7th New York State Militia departed for the South. In June 1861, he accepted the lieutenant colonelcy of the 65th. A sketch of his life in the June 30, 1861, issue of the New York Herald assessed Shaler as “a man who is a soldier by nature, possessing a great love for the service, full of courage and enthusiasm, and his record is destined to fill a bright page in the military history of our country.”
And so he did. Shaler advanced to colonel on Virginia’s Peninsula, and by the Second Battle of Fredericksburg he commanded a brigade in John Newton’s Division of the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps. On May 3, when Union forces launched a series of assaults to take Marye’s Heights, Newton reportedly uttered the words “boys, I fear you will never see Shaler again” as Shaler set off with his men in a supporting charge into a storm of fire.
Shaler, on horseback and waving the flag, could not have been more exposed as he rallied the troops. A comrade noted, “the God of battles was on his side, and he returned unharmed after bravely fulfilling his commission.” Though he and his men did not take the heights, they left a significant chink in the Confederate armor that contributed to ultimate success that day.
Shaler received his brigadier’s star in recognition of his actions. His corps commander, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, endorsed the promotion. “There is not a more gallant soldier in the Army of the Potomac.”
Three decades later, a grateful government awarded Shaler the Medal of Honor for Marye’s Heights. Shaler had also proven himself in numerous other engagements, including The Wilderness, where he suffered a wound and fell into enemy hands.
Shaler survived it all, and went on to a career as a Fire Department official and various civic postings. A founding member and onetime president of the National Rifle Association, the organization was established in 1871 to promote marksmanship in the wake of inefficiencies revealed during the late war. Shaler remained active in it and veterans’ reunions until his death in 1911.
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