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Posted on Aug 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

A. P. Hill – Lee’s Enigmatic General

By Wyatt Kingseed

A man of contradictions—both in character and action—A.P. Hill, like his mentor, Lee, abhorred slavery. And like Lee, he resigned his federal commission to serve his native state. Originally a member of the West Point Academy class of 1846, whose storied members included McClellan, George Pickett, and Jackson, Hill lost a year to illness and did not graduate until 1847, fifteenth out of thirty-eight cadets. The delay cost him valuable experience in the Mexican War, whose fighting had wound down before his arrival. Leaving the Academy as a brevet second lieutenant of artillery, he instead served in Florida and Texas, and at the outset of the Civil War had completed four years in the Coastal Survey—hardly exciting duty.

Hill first drew real attention in the summer preceding Antietam, during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, where he out-performed the widely popular Stonewall. In the process, he established a reputation for impetuousness, daring and speed, and earned for his men the title of the “Light Division.” The same year his troops battled with distinction at Second Manassas, beating back the steady Philip Kearney. Lee noticed in his official report: “The attack was received by his troops with their accustomed steadiness and the battle raged with great fury. The enemy was repeatedly repulsed.”


The Federal army recognized Hill as a consistent performer and imposing enemy. After his brilliant Antietam rescue, Union respect for Hill nearly approached the level accorded Jackson. According to legend the Confederate general’s motivation stemmed from anger he carried toward his one-time West Point roommate and romantic rival, McClellan. Both had vied for the heart of Ellen Marcy. The woman chose McClellan, leaving Hill scarred and vengeful. Upon hearing that Hill was attacking, one frustrated member of the Army of the Potomac experienced with Hill’s doggedness, reportedly lamented, “For God’s sake, Nelly—why didn’t you marry him?”


His stellar performance at Antietam was not restricted to the dramatic rescue. Days earlier at Harper’s Ferry he had captured 11,000 prisoners, about 12,000 arms, 70 pieces of artillery, harness and horses, a large number of wagons, commissary, quartermaster’s, and ordnance stores. His looses numbered just 3 killed and 66 wounded. It was the largest single capture of Federal forces during the entire war.

Nearly as important was his rear-guard action at Boteler’s Ford three days after Antietam, on September 20th, 1862. Lee had ordered a retreat across the Potomac to mend his broken army. Federal troops intent on pursuit were close on his heels. Infantry brigades had crossed during the night and captured four rebel artillery pieces. Ignoring the seventy pieces of Union artillery arrayed on the opposite hills, Jackson sent Hill to evict the enemy. Hill described the confrontation in colorful prose:

“My lines advanced simultaneously, and soon encountered the enemy. This advance was made in the face of the most tremendous fire of artillery I ever saw, and too much praise cannot be awarded my regiments for their steady, unwavering step. It was as if each man felt that the fate of the army was centered in himself. The infantry opposition in front of Gregg’s center and right was but trifling, and soon brushed away. The enemy, however, massed in front of Pender, and, extending, endeavored to turn his left. General Pender became hotly engaged, and informing Archer of his danger, he (Archer) moved by the left flank, and forming on Pender’s left, a simultaneous, daring charge was made, and the enemy driven pell-mell into the river. Then commenced the most terrible slaughter that this war has yet witnessed. The broad surface of the Potomac was blue with the floating bodies of our foe. But few escaped to tell the tale. By their own account they lost 3,000 men, killed and drowned, from one brigade alone. Some 200 prisoners were taken. My own loss was 30 killed and 231 wounded; total, 261. This was a wholesome lesson to the enemy, and taught them to know that it may be dangerous sometimes to press a retreating army. In this battle I did not use a piece of artillery.”

Antietam cemented Lee’s fondness for his fellow Virginian. The commanding general understood how close it had been and what Hill’s timely arrival meant. It left a lasting impression. Though no one can know for certain, thoughts of that day likely visited Lee eight years later. In his deathbed delirium Lee issued a last order before lapsing into a final coma: “Tell Hill he must come up.” That phrase now holds a storied place in Southern lore.

In any case, for his Antietam effort, Lee considered Hill a leading candidate for future promotion. He expressed his confidence in the subordinate officer’s ability in a letter to President Jefferson Davis. “Next to Longstreet and Jackson, I consider General A.P. Hill the best commander with me. He fights his troops well, and takes care of them.”

When Stonewall Jackson fell at Chancellorsville the next spring, Lee made good on his promise to himself. He brought Hill into the first echelon of command when he reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia into three corps, placing the officer over the Third Corps, the largest of the three.

Coincidently, Jackson too would evoke Hill’s name in his last moments. “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front.” At Chancellorsville, Hill had joined Jackson on a reconnaissance foray to determine whether they should press a night attack after having earlier routed the Union right flank. In perhaps history’s most significant incident of friendly fire, Confederate troops mistook the party in the dark and fired a volley from twenty paces. Three rounds hit Jackson. For the moment, Hill escaped injury, but later was himself wounded by a shell fragment while helping evacuate his wounded chief. Jackson died two days later after pneumonia set in following the amputation of his shattered left arm.

The reasons for Hill’s lesser performance later in the war are multiple. After 1862 Hill, like all Southern commanders, including Lee, faced better opposition. Hesitant and timid commanders such as McClellan and Burnside often played into the hands of bold southern initiative. Victory became elusive once bulldogs Grant and Meade assumed the reins of the Union juggernaut. As Southern prospects dimmed as the war ground on, the likelihood of eventual defeat could not have been lost on Hill and his colleagues. Southern optimism gave way to depression—a difficult emotion for field commanders to carry into battle. Moreover, Hill routinely suffered physical problems, apparently resulting from venereal disease contracted while a plebe at West Point. By 1865, his body had suffered twenty years, leaving him frail and in a deteriorated state. At times he appeared gaunt and ashen. Increasingly, he found himself on the sidelines.

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