The Most Lovable of All Lee’s Generals: A.P. Hill

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Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and will likely become a book in their own right when I finish the chapter on the Union commanders.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them. Sometimes good and even honorable people serve malignant causes, while bad or even wicked people support good causes, usually for selfish reasons, but that is the constant quandary that human beings find themselves.

Today’s article is about Confederate Lieutenant General A.P. Hill. Hill is an interesting character to me, a man of a lot of contradictions both on and off the battlefield. He was gallant and reckless at the same time plagued with ill-health, some of which was certainly real, but at some times may have been stress induced. He made lasting friendships with men who he would later oppose in battle. He fought for a cause that he found repugnant for he hated slavery and the maltreatment of blacks, even condemning the actions of the people of his home town before the war in that regard. In an army filled with highly religious officers, even some who might be termed fanatical in terms of their beliefs, Hill was a skeptic who had little appreciation for those like Stonewall Jackson who he believed were fanatics.

So anyway, tomorrow I will be writing about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one of the darkest days in our history.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Ambrose Powell Hill was born about ten miles from Culpepper Court House Virginia in 1825. He was the youngest son of a “a highly esteemed, merchant, farmer, and politician….noted for his courage, famed for his hospitality and beloved for his character.” [1] The young Powell Hill was a good student and gifted horseman who loved the outdoors. His mother was introverted and a hypochondriac who seldom left the house and through her he acquired a love of reading.

As a child Hill attended Black Hills Seminary, a private school for well to do families and though he was a good student was not fond of the significant religious overtones of the school. In addition his mother, who had been raised Episcopalian became caught up in a Baptist revival which swept Northern Virginia in 1840. His mother embraced the austere faith of her new church. Soon “dancing, boisterous conduct, card-playing, and all forms of theatrics were banned in the Main Street home.” [2] From that time on the young Hill “spurned religion” and “always looked with disapproval on anyone who – like Stonewall Jackson, for instance- practiced religion with excessive intensity.” [3]

With his father’s approval and his mother approbation Hill sought admission to West Point and was accepted in 1842. Hill had little problem with the academics of the academy, but conduct was another matter. Hill entered the West Point with a good number of men who would become famous over the next two decades including George McClellan, Thomas Jackson, Cadmus Wilcox, Darius Couch and George Pickett. Hill would have been part of the illustrious class of 1846, but the young cadet had a certain proclivity for women and a certain amount of debauchery, causing him to lose a year of study after contracting “a case of gonorrhea, followed by complications, which were followed by lingering prostatitis.” [4] These afflictions caused many other ailments that would plague him the rest of his life. At West Point, Hill roomed with George McClellan, a refined cadet from Philadelphia, and became a longtime friend. His delayed graduation put him in the class of 1847 where along with his new roommate Julian McAllister and friends Harry Heth and Ambrose Burnside were the social leaders of the class due to their later “practical jokes and boisterous conduct.” [5]

Hill graduated fifteenth in his class and was assigned to the artillery. The young Second Lieutenant accompanied Brigadier General Joseph Lane’s brigade to Mexico where he saw limited action at the end of the war and mainly served on occupation duty. In Mexico and in the following years he was stricken with various fevers including typhoid and yellow fever, as well as recurrences of his prostatitis which so limited his ability to serve in the field with the artillery that he requested a transfer to a desk job. This he was granted by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who detailed him “for special duty in the United States Coast Survey offices in Washington D.C.” [6]

The assignment to the Coast Survey offices was unusual, especially for Hill’s era of service, for they were a part of the Department of the Navy. Despite much political support, Hill could not get promoted to captain, most likely due to the fact that he was working for the Navy. Hill was generally unlucky at love being twice engaged and twice rejected, the latter time when his fiancée’s parents learned that he had had gonorrhea.

But Hill eventually found a bride as war drew near, Kitty Morgan McClung. She was a young and well off widow who was the sister of Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan. The two had a happy marriage and were nearly insuperable, Hill affectionately called her Dolly. They had four daughters, only two of who reached adulthood the last born three months after Hill’s death at Petersburg. During the war Dolly had a hard time remaining away from her husband. “She appeared to be impervious to danger and repeatedly ignored Hill’s admonitions to stay away from the front.” [7] Legend has it that she was nearly captured when attempting to spy on Union General Philip Sheridan.

When war came Hill’s friends at the Coastal Survey attempted to convince him to remain with the Union, as serving in their office he would have little chance of taking up arms against Virginia. The now happily settled and married Virginian was torn. He hated slavery and the depreciations visited on blacks; having in 1850 responded to the lynching of a young black man in his home town of Lynchburg: “Shame, shame upon you all, good citizens…Virginia must crawl unless you vindicate good order or discipline and hang every son of a bitch connected with this outrage.” [8] Likewise he was not in favor of secession, but he, like so many other Southern officers felt a stronger connection to family and his Virginia heritage than to the Union, and resigned his commission on February 26th 1861.

Hill was appointed as a Colonel of infantry in May 1861 to organize and command the 13th Virginia Infantry regiment. He commanded the regiment in the Valley and western Virginia as well as at First Manassas. By February 1862 he was a Brigadier General commanding Longstreet’s old Virginia brigade on the Peninsula where he distinguished himself against McClellan at Williamsburg. On May 26th 1862 he was promoted to Major General and given command of the very large so called “Light Division.” He emerged from the fighting on the Peninsula, the battles around Richmond and the Seven Days “with the reputation of being one of the best combat officers that Lee had.” [9] However, his success on the battlefield, like so many commanders, came at great cost. In those battles his division suffered nearly 5,500 casualties. “Six colonels and three majors were killed; two brigadiers (Anderson and Pender), eleven colonels and six lieutenant colonels wounded.” [10]

Hill had an earned reputation as a brilliant division commander with the Light Division. Despite his clashes with Longstreet, and especially with Jackson, who had Hill arrested twice and attempted to have him court-martialed, Lee recommended him to take command of Third Corps. Lee sang his praise of Hill and his abilities to Jefferson Davis noting that Hill was “the best soldier of his grade with me.” [11] However, Hill had never commanded more than one division in action, except for the confused hour after Jackson had been struck down. Hill, however, was devoted, prompt, and energetic, and deserved promotion.” [12]

Hill’s reputation as a superb division commander was well earned. At Antietam when Lee’s army was in danger of destruction, he “drove his men at a killing pace toward the sound of distant gunfire….” [13] Hill’s “Light Division’s remarkable march from Harper’s Ferry- seventeen miles in less than eight hours- rivaled the best marks by Jackson’s famous foot cavalry.” [14] Upon his arrival “instantly recognized the military situation, Kyd Douglas wrote, “and without waiting for the rest of the division and without a breathing spell he threw his columns into line and moved against the enemy, taking no note of their numbers.” [15] Hill’s march saved the Army of Northern Virginia from destruction as he dealt reverses to his old friends McClellan and Burnside. “Lee’s reference to him in his official Sharpsburg report, “And then A.P. Hill came up,” had become a byword in the army.” [16] There were other times, notably at Second Manassas and Fredericksburg where “he was sometimes careless on the battlefield,” and in both instances “his defensive postings were poor and nearly proved very costly.” [17]

Hill was a “nervous wiry man with a persistent chip of underappreciation [sic] on his shoulders and a bevy of chronic illnesses when under stress.” [18] He had an “impetuous streak and fiery temperament that matched his red beard, traits that at times had brought him trouble on the battlefield and off…” [19] Despite this, Hill exhibited a fondness and care for the welfare of his men that earned their respect and admiration. One officer called him “the most lovable of all Lee’s generals,” while “his manner so courteous as almost to lack decision.” [20]

Hill detested Jackson, who he referred to as “that old Presbyterian fool.” [21] His poor relations with Jackson’s confidants at Second Corps ensured that Ewell took Second Corps when Lee reorganized the army after Chancellorsville.

Lee appointed Hill to command Third Corps of which “half of the troops had been with him all along” [22] in the Light Division. Lee liked Hill’s aggressiveness and command instincts, which mirrored his own. Lee hoped that Hill’s aggressive instincts as a division commander would translate into success at the corps level. Longstreet was not in favor of Powell Hill’s appointment, most likely due to his altercation with him the previous year and lobbied for the promotion of D.H. Hill.

In his letter recommending the promotion of A.P. Hill and Ewell to serve as corps commanders, Lee wrote to Davis:

“I wish to take advantage of every circumstance to inspire and encourage…the officers and men to believe that their labors are appreciated, and that when vacancies occur that they will receive the advantages of promotion….I do not know where to get better men than those I have named.” [23]

But the decision to promote Ewell and Hill, both Virginians, stirred some dissent among those that believed that Lee was “favoring Virginians over officers from other states. The promotion of A.P. Hill, as previous noted was “made over the head of two Major Generals more senior than Hill- North Carolinian D.H. Hill and Georgian Lafayette McLaws.” [24] There is some validity to this perception, as Longstreet’s biographer Jeffry Wert noted:

“While the bulk of the troops hailed from outside the Old Dominion, two of the three corps commanders, six of the ten division commanders – including Jeb Stuart with the cavalry – and sixteen of forty-seven brigade commanders were natives of Virginia, along with the army commander and the chief of artillery.” [25]

As a Corps commander Hill enjoyed the confidence of many of his commanders, “the affection of his staff and the admiration of his men.” [26] He ceases to engage in conflict with other officers but “after advancement to corps command, Hill – the victim of what now seems to be a psychosomatic ailment – performed somewhat unevenly and was often incapacitated.” [27] For whatever reason, ill-health or the added responsibility Hill “is not the same man who impetuously led the fighting Light division.” [28]

His sickness did not mean that he was either shirking duty or a coward. During the final agony of the Army of Northern Virginia Hill, who was very sick, left his sick bed against the advice of his doctor to resume command of his decimated Third Corps at Petersburg. On April 1st he was shot through the heart by a Union infantryman of the 138th Pennsylvania as he attempted to ascertain the situation his broken corps faced as the Confederate lines collapsed.

His pregnant wife was told of his death and in the chaos of the fall of Richmond and the Confederate retreat it took several days before Hill’s body was buried. Dolly remarried in 1870, one of her daughters noted that “she was very averse to talking of anything connected with the war…” and nothing, not even a pardon from the Federal government “softened Dolly’s bitterness over the struggle that had taken her husband’s life.” [29] That bitterness also made her refuse “to support any of the “Lost Cause” sentiments that sprouted up during this time.” [30] She died in Lexington Kentucky in 1920.

Notes

[1] Robertson, James I. Jr. General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior Random House, New York 1987 p.5

[2] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.6

[3] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill pp.6-7

[4] Waugh, John C. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox, Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and their Brothers Ballantine Books, New York 1994 p.166

[5] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.13

[6] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.26

[7] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.91

[8] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.22

[9] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.95

[10] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.95

[11] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.526

[12] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.304

[13] Ibid. Robertson, General A.P. Hillp.143

[14] Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1983 p.285

[15] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.144

[16] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.301

[17] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.45

[18] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.22

[19] Ibid. Sears Landscape Turned Red p.285

[20] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.301

[21] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.22

[22] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.434

[23] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.526

[24] Ibid. Taylor, John Duty Faithfully Performed p.290

[25] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.249

[26] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.35

[27] Ibid. Warner Generals in Gray p.135

[28] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.35

[29] Ibid. Robertson General A.P. Hill p.321

[30] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.91

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