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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

Union general Ambrose Burnside’s corps, numbering some 12,000 men, had finally made it across Antietam Creek. It had taken hours. Five times, 400 well-positioned Confederate riflemen of the Second and Twentieth Georgia Volunteer regiments atop bluffs on the opposite bank had managed to beat back fierce federal attacks. Not until their ammunition was nearly depleted and they had suffered too many loses in their officer ranks could Burnside push enough infantrymen across the narrow bridge to dislodge the heroic defenders. Now safely across, the northern troops threatened to turn the Confederate right flank. If successful, they would block access to escape routs into Virginia at Potomac River forges, just a few miles away. The Confederate army faced being crushed like an accordion.


Already, General Lee had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties on what would go down in history as America’s bloodiest day. Federal tactical blunders and the advantage of shorter interior lines had allowed Lee to so far skillfully fight his opponent, George B. McClellan, to a stalemate. But Lee’s men were spent. Everything now hung in the balance in the most critical moment of the war to date.

Help was on the way. In one of the war’s most fortuitous act of timing, Major General A.P. Hill arrived on the scene to tip the balance in the South’s favor. He brought 3,000 hot and tired infantrymen, dragging after a forced seventeen-mile, seven-hour march from Harper’s Ferry. Summoning a remarkable reserve of adrenalin and ignoring their fatigue, the rebels smashed headlong into Burnside’s troops. The unexpected move caught the Northern brigades by surprise.

Ambrose Powell Hill

Stonewall Jackson’s aide, Henry Kyd Douglas, later recalled the dramatic scene. Speaking of Hill, he said: “He recognized the situation and without waiting for the rest of the division and without a breathing spell he threw his column into lines and moved against the enemy, taking no note of their lost numbers.” The gambit worked. “The blue line paused, stopped, hesitated, and hesitating lost.” The federal troops yielded their advantage and beat a hasty retreat back across Burnside’s Bridge and Antietam Creek.

Kyd Douglas’ apt description captured General Hill’s tenacious character, and his tendency to throw caution to the wind. It was a trait he exhibited throughout the Civil War—at times to his favor, at others, to his detriment. Visually, Hill was a picture of dash and élan. Known for his auburn beard and red woolen hunter’s shirt that he donned for battle, Ambrose Powell Hill was a fighter. Yet Antietam marked a turning point, the pinnacle of the man’s success. Thereafter, a different story would unfold. As brave, daring, and bold as anyone on either side during the war’s first two years, he became less aggressive and ineffective the last two. By the end, Hill’s great promise had all but evaporated, leaving him one of the war’s biggest enigmas.

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