I Think Hill The Best Soldier of His Grade. (General Lee, 1863)
Ambrose Powell (“A.P”) Hill entered West Point in the class
of 1842. He came from Culpeper County Virginia, a slight boy with a fiery
temperment and wild personality. Graduating in the middle of a class of thirty
five, in 1846, he was sent to Mexico as an 1st lieutenant artillery
officer, but he arrived just as Mexico City was falling to Scott’s army and saw
Stationed for short periods in Texas and Florida, Hill
contracted yellow fever, typhoid fever, and malaria. These illnesses rendered
him bed-stricken for long periods of time during the 1850s and when he
recovered he switched to the Coast Surveying Department where
he was stationed
in Washington. There he met and became engaged to Mary Ellen Marcy, but her
father, Randolph Marcy, disapproved, and Mary Ellen broke off the engagement
and married George McClellan, in 1860.
Hill resigned his commission shortly after Mary Ellen
returned the engagement ring and returned to his boyhood home at “good old
Culpeper.” When Lincoln’s election occurred, in November 1860, he sought a commission
with the Virginia state militia and was given command, as its colonel, of the Thirteenth
Virginia Infantry Regiment. Later, in May 1861, the regiment became
incorporated in the 7,000 man Army of the Shenandoah, under the command of
Joseph E. Johnston.
Hill’s Confederate Army career started slowly, then almost
immediately vaulted him into the highest level of Lee’s officer corps, General
Lee called him—“The best soldier of his grade.”
At the first battle of Bull Run, in July 1861, Hill’s
regiment was not engaged in action, stationed instead several miles from the
battlefield at Manassas Junction. Then, when Johnston’s army (now 50,000
strong) shifted from Manassas to the Yorktown Peninsula, to counter McClellan’s
advance to Richmond, Hill was promoted to brigadier-general and given command
of James Longstreet’s brigade (First Brigade) when Longstreet was promoted to
division command. At Williamsburg, during Johnston’s retreat from McClellan’s
advancing front, Hill handled his brigade successfully in a short battle which
forced Winfield Hancock’s brigade back from Fort Magruder.
After the battle of Seven Pines, General Lee took command of
the army from Johnston who had been wounded, and called several brigades from
the west to reinforce the army. These brigades, along with the First Brigade,
Lee organized into a ten thousand man division—the largest in the army at that
time—and gave it to Hill, promoting him to major-general. Hill was now thirty-six
At the Battle of Gaines Mill, Hill’s division was positioned
in front of Boatswain Creek, the center of Lee’s attacking lines, and fought to
break through Fitz John Porter’s defenses for four hours, suffering 4,000
causalities. Though bent, almost broken several times during the long struggle
for control of the creek valley, Porter held Hill’s success to the seizing
momentarily of the lower tier of Union barricades near creek level. But Hill’s
effort made it possible, late in the day, for Jackson’s command—prominently the
John Hood’s Fourth Texas—to charge almost unimpeded, into the middle
barricades, charge the rim of the plateau Porter was holding, and shock the
defenders into making a mad retreat toward the Chickahominy bridges.
Pursuing McClellan’s retreat toward Harrison’s Landing,
Hill’s division attempted to cut his trains in two as they were passing Frayser’s
Farm, but McClellan cut his way through by the skin of his teeth and made it to
Soon Lee was sending Jackson and Hill north to Gordonsville
to counter the emerging threat posed by the appearance of John Pope and his
Army of Virginia on the Rapidan. Jackson, always the believer in the concept of
shocking the enemy with unexpected attacks, threw his division across the river
at Cedar Mountain and struck at Union general Nathaniel Banks’s advance. Banks,
though, fought his troops like tigers to Jackson’s surprise, driving Jackson’s
brigades in disorder back to the river crossing, almost turning the situation
into a rout—the rout stopped only in the nick of time when Hill’s division
arrived and slammed into Banks’s right, driving it back and threatening to cut
off Banks’s from Pope’s main body that was miles north on the Culpeper Road.
Later, at Second Manassas, Hill’s division was in the thick
of the battle, holding Jackson’s left wing from collapsing under the wild
assaults Pope threw at it, with Heintzelman’s and Sigel’s corps. But his
greatest glory came with his arrival at Sharpsburg late in the afternoon, when
Lee’s position at Sharpsburg was crumbling under the weight of McClellan’s
At Chancellorsville, six months later, Hill was riding
alongside Jackson as he was trotting his horse down a lane in the darkness,
trying to gauge where Howard’s 11th Corps was positioned in the
woods, after its wild flight from his earlier surprise attack. The sound of the
horses spooked those on both sides in the woods and a volley of rifle fire rang
out. Bullets struck Jackson and Hill, Jackson’s elbow was shattered, Hill a
wound in the leg. Both generals were taken to the rear, unable to continue in
command. Jackson died from his wounds, Hill recovered.
At this point in his career, Hill became the third soldier
that Lee trusted to command a corps in his army. Hill held corps command from Chancellorsv ille to Gettysburg, through the long struggle with Grant down through the
Wilderness to Cold Harbor and to Petersbur, and the siege, the Crater and Five Forks.
When Sheridan routed Pickett’s division at Five Forks,
turning finally Lee’s defensive position at Petersburg, Hill was with Lee at
headquarters. Charles Venable, one of Lee’s aides, burst into the room,
shouting “The lines are broken! Grant’s pouring them in!” Hill immediately
jumped up and ran out the door, Lee calling to him to come back, and leaped
upon his horse and galloped off toward Five Forks, two of his aides following
him. Pulling his pistol as he rode, he soon came upon a mob of Confederates
swarming past him, with shouts of. “We’re flanked!” They’re right behind us!” Hill
stood in the stirrups, waving his pistol in one hand, holding the reins in the
other, shouting as he rode—“Come on, men, follow me! Do you want to live
forever?” The crowd was gone now, like water in a stream cut off, only driblets,
a few scattered groups; then the blue coats began to appear and he rode
directly toward them, screaming, “Surrender, the division is coming up.” A
rifle barked and Hill slumped against the neck of his whinnying horse and fell
dead to the ground. He is buried in Richmond.
Hill's remains have had a strange journey. While Richmond was burning his son trundled the body into the city in a wagon, with the idea of burying it in Hollywood Cemetery. The violence in the city made this impossible so the body was taken up the James and buried on an estate. Several years later the body was exhumed and reburied in Hollywood. Then, in 1887, a developer, building a subdivision in the Richmond suburbs, came up with the idea of a monument to Hill, to be placed at the entrance of the development, and Hill's remains were exhumed again and buried underneath it. (The intersection of Laburnum Ave and Hermitage Road.) A bizarre ending for a great Confederate general, but his relatives allowed it.
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