Pages Menu

Categories Menu

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

A. P. Hill – Lee’s Enigmatic General

By Wyatt Kingseed

And his emotional personality had long affected his mood, likely contributing to more frequent absences by war’s end. If Hill exhibited stern stuff on the battlefield, off it, he possessed a remarkably thin skin. Combined with unchecked emotions and an unhealthy overabundance of pride, he repeatedly found himself at odds with superiors, at times giving both James Longstreet and Jackson fits. This inability to get along with corps commanders gave Lee headaches and first arose when the Light Division fell under Longstreet’s Second Corps. After a commendable performance during the Seven Days’ Battles in 1862, Longstreet felt slighted by favorable press coverage Hill received following the Gaine’s Mill clash. Longstreet thought it overstated Hill’s responsibility to the detriment of other officers. Whether Hill was responsible is uncertain, but Longstreet, who fired off a clarifying letter to a competing newspaper, felt him culpable.


Hill, now the one offended, over-reacted and asked Lee for a transfer. Lee tried to ignore the request, likely hoping the two men would heal their rift, but Hill refused to back-down. He escalated the squabble by exhibiting insolence toward Longstreet, and when tensions boiled over to the point that a duel seemed imminent, Lee intervened and sent Hills division to Jackson’s First Corps. Yet, Jackson, a paragon of virtue and discipline, and Hill possessed personalities that were even less compatible. Hill epitomized Southern charm and enjoyed a good life. It was oil and water. Predictably, Hill rebelled. On the march north to Maryland towards the clash at Antietam, the spirited general found himself under arrest after publicly challenging Jackson’s marching orders. However, with the prospects of a major clash with the enemy ahead, duty called. Hill apologized and Jackson restored his command; and on the plains south of Sharpsburg, Hill saved the army from likely annihilation.

Thereafter, though severely strained, the two strong-willed officers managed to hold their relationship together until Jackson’s death eight months later and A.P. Hill’s ascension to corps command as a Lieutenant General. Born in Culpepper, Virginia in 1825, Hill was but thirty-eight years old, the youngest of Lee’s chief lieutenants.

It proved an unwise choice as Hill apparently lacked whatever qualities distinguished a soldier’s ability to move up the ladder of command from a division to a corps. His first major test came at Gettysburg in July 1863. There, Hill’s division was first to engage the enemy west of town. Though the Confederates won the day, it was a strategic blunder as Union forces managed to secure strong defensive positions east and south of town, setting the stage for failed attacks on Day Two and Three. Throughout the first two days, Hill’s men sustained heavy casualties in close fighting, most notably along Seminary Ridge and at Emmitsburg Road. But in doing so, they did not measure up to Lee’s standards, who may have unfairly compared the effort to what he had come to expect from the brilliant Jackson. In any case, he must have found Hill’s performance lacking. Given his options, Lee turned to Longstreet to direct Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle, despite the majority of the troops being from Hill’s Third Corps.

Before that watershed battle, however, Hill’s performance had already begun to wane. At Fredericksburg in December 1862, he unwisely left a large hole in his line. Troops under George Gordon Meade pierced the opening and threatened to roll up the Confederate flank until Meade was left hanging without reinforcements. Jackson rushed reserves forward to plug the gap and squelch the danger.

Longstreet, later critiquing Union general William Franklin’s failure to exploit the advantage, assessed the lost opportunity thusly: “He would in all probability have given us trouble. The partial success he had at that point might have been pushed vigorously by such a force and might have thrown our right entirely from position, in which event the result would have depended on the skillful handling of the forces.” In other words, Hill’s gaff seriously jeopardized Lee’s army.

That Hill’s lapse of judgment went unpunished, or even merited a gentle rebuke in battle reports, seems a point of leniency by both Lee and Jackson. Hill had been advised of the danger. The Light Division suffered some 2,120 casualties in the action, a far greater number than would have occurred under more prudent troop deployment.

An even greater gaff occurred three months after Gettysburg. Hill fell into a trap at Bristoe Station, failing to conduct routine reconnaissance before he ordered a blind charge of two brigades against Union troops waiting to cross Broad Run. Three divisions of federal infantrymen, hidden in a railroad cut, rose up to unleash a withering enfilading fire against his men. Hill recalled it as a “very deliberate and destructive fire.”

One Southern participant remembers their first lines “were mowed down like grain before a reaper.” The Third Corps took 1,900 casualties; outnumbering Union loses by 6 to 1. The following day, Lee and Hill surveyed the corps-strewn battlefield. Hill’s explanation of the previous day’s events left Lee disillusioned. "Well, well, General," he said, when the younger officer had finished, "bury these poor men and let us say no more about it."

Hill acknowledged in his official battle report that it wasn’t his finest hour, albeit he couched his self-criticism in as lenient terms as possible: “I am convinced that I made the attack too hastily, and at the same time that a delay of half an hour, and there would have been no enemy to attack. In that event I believe I should equally have blamed myself for not attacking at once.”

One had to wonder if Hill’s nagging illness increasingly clouded his thinking. By war’s end his old ailment may have begun to get the best of him. His absence from the battlefield became more frequent, including the critical test at bloody Spotsylvania. In any case, his health could not have helped his disposition or judgment.

By late May, 1865 the war’s outcome was no longer in doubt. General Grant had relentlessly driven Lee and his haggard army for the last year. Trench warfare ruled the day. As the rebels finally sought to abandon Petersburg and vacate the Southern capitol, Richmond, Hill rose from his sick bed to rally his troops. Riding ahead to reconnoiter the field, he encountered enemy skirmishers of the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, who shot him dead as he attempted their capture.

George Tucker, his sergeant of couriers, accompanied the general on his last ride. Tucker remembered the scene: “He fell, where his gallant spirit was ever found, in the path of duty, and left behind luminous with heroic deeds for the land and course he loved so well.”

Lee, with little time to grieve, cried upon hearing the news and murmured, “He is at rest now and we who are left are the ones to suffer.” Hill’s death was senseless. By then, the South’s cause was lost—its time almost up. One week later Lee would sign surrender documents with Grant at a little table in an Appomattox farmhouse.

The New York Times noted A.P. Hill’s passing, paying a reluctant compliment. “He has shown considerable ability and great bravery in a wicked cause,” it wrote. Since the death of Stonewall Jackson and the wounding of Longstreet, Hill had been “Lee’s mainstay.”

Today, the body of the last great Southern general to die in the war lies beneath a Richmond monument topped with his likeness.


Pages: 1 2 3