A.P. Hill was the most inconsistent and enigmatic of the three Rebel lieutenant generals in corp command at Gettysburg; he could perform at times what Longstreet called "prodigies," but at other times was disappointing. At thirty-seven, he was also the youngest and best-looking of the corps chiefs--thin-faced and pale, with a chiseled nose, deep-set eyes, and high cheekbones jutting above a full auburn beard, a look perfectly in tune with the romantic times. To these natural gifts he added grace and an instinctive sense of style. He wore his flowing hair parted high on the right side and brushed straight back over his ears, long in the back. (Longstreet sneered that there was "a good deal of 'curled darling'" about Hill.) He dressed with an eye for the picturesque, and was particularly remembered for the fireman-red wool hunting shirt he occasionally wore when fighting was expected. There was a kind of swagger implicit in a general wearing such an eye-catching garment within range of the enemy. He called it his "battle shirt," and when his men saw it they would pass the word down the line, "Little Powell's got on his battle shirt!" and everybody would know to check their weapons.
Hill was narrow-chested and frail, and his health was fragile, probably as a result of complications from the advanced stages of gonorrhea, which he had contracted as a cadet at West Point. Always emotional, he was so high-strung before battle that he had an increasing tendency to become unwell when the fighting was about to commence. These debilitating symptoms did not show themselves in his relationship with his men--he was extraordinarily affectionate and always concerned with their welfare. He maintained, however, a strict formality with his subordinate officers, regarding it as an important part of discipline. Backslapping or embracing a comrade was against his nature, but his warm manner and his thoughtfulness made him popular among his junior officers and staff. One officer even called him "the most lovable of all Lee's generals." His expression was described as "grave but gentle," and "his manner so courteous as almost to lack decision."
Hill was far from lacking decision. The trouble was just the opposite--he was too heedless and impetuous by far. His policy was to pitch headlong into whatever lay in his path, with little regard for its strength or position. As things had turned out, his impulsiveness had benefited the Confederacy--Hill had provided the killing punch in battle after battle since the Peninsula. At Mechanicsburg, he had jump-started Lee's Seven Days offensive when he couldn't stand the strain of standing idle. At Cedar Mountain, he had pitched in and saved Jackson from defeat, and at Sharpsburg, his late-afternoon attack had saved Lee's whole army. Lee's reference to him in the official report of that battle, "And then A.P. Hill came up," had become a byword in the army. Hill and his "Light Division" had become the embodiment of the Confederate army's offensive spirit. One fact bespeaks their mythic pull: both Jackson and Lee would call on Hill and his men in their dying delirium.
The Yankees were awed as well. By the Gettysburg campaign, the Federals had the impression that whenever they were being pushed especially hard they were probably fighting A.P. Hill. They developed a legend to account for it, which was based on real events. Before the war, A.P. Hill had asked for the hand of the beautiful Ellen Marcy. She was willing, but, her father, a regular army officer, disapproved--Hill was a mere lieutenant of modest means, a Southerner on top of that, and Marcy aimed higher for his daughter. Ellen obeyed her father, and his judgment was soon rewarded when a railroad president, who made more in a year than Hill had amassed in a lifetime, asked to marry Ellen. This time, Ellen accepted. The new husband was George McClellan, and within a year he was commander of the Army of the Potomac, with Ellen's father along as chief of staff. The Federal soldiers believed that Hill took it personally, that he still carried a grudge. So one morning, when musket fire crackled out of the stillness and Hill's Light Division came swarming into view with a fiendish Rebel yell, a Yankee veteran took one look and wailed: "God's sake, Nelly--why didn't you marry him?" (Unfortunately for the legend, Hill had married the beautiful sister of Kentucky raider John Hunt Morgan, a woman so devoted to her husband it sometimes took a direct order from Lee himself to remove her from the lines before a battle.)
While Hill was gentle with those under his command, his attitude with superiors was notoriously prickly. It began after the Peninsula Campaign, when a columnist in the Richmond Examiner glorified Hill's performance at the expense of other officers. Many of those were angry and jealous, especially Hill's immediate superior, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet. A quarrel between the two ensued. Longstreet placed Hill under arrest, and the two men were at the point of a duel. Lee solved the crisis by detaching Hill's division to join Stonewall Jackson's corps, which was then facing Pope's army. However, Hill got along no better with Jackson, who soon had him under arrest for disregarding marching procedures. Although circumstances quickly forced Jackson to restore Hill to duty, the contentious Hill sought vindication through a court-martial until Jackson's death. For their part, neither Jackson and Longstreet could bring themselves to make more than a cursory mention of the rebellious Hill in their battle reports, no matter what feats his hard-fighting Light Division performed.
Perhaps the fact that he was not from the landed aristocracy of the South made Hill so pugnacious about his rights and his honor. He was the son of a Culpeper, Virginia merchant. He graduated from West Point in 1847, 15th in a class of 38. His fourteen years of pre-war service were standard Regular Army: he served with the 1st Artillery in Mexico and against the Seminoles, then, after 1855, in the Washington, D.C. office of the U.S. Coast Survey. When he entered Confederate service in March 1861, he was made colonel of the Shenandoah Valley's 13th Virginia regiment, with which he won notice in West Virginia in June. Already marked for advancement, Hill was in reserve at First Manassas in July. Promoted to brigadier general in February 1862, he immediately attracted attention for his ability in the early campaigning on the Peninsula at Yorktown and Williamsburg, where his brigade's organization was applauded by Longstreet as "perfect throughout the battle, and it was marched off the field in as good order as it entered it." He fought so well that he was promoted to major general on May 26 and given a division in time for the climactic Seven Days. Though he was the lone unproven division commander when Lee took charge of the army in June, Hill quickly demonstrated ability at his new level. One of Lee's staff reported: "[Hill's] defenses are as well advanced as those of any part of the line. His troops are in fine condition . . . Hill is every inch a soldier and is destined to make his mark." To his division, which he led with such impetuosity, he gave the name "The Light Division," presumably for its speed in executing maneuvers. With it, he was the first into action at Mechanicsville and Gaines' Mill on successive days.
After his distinction in the Seven Days and his transfer from the Peninsula to join Stonewall Jackson in the Second Manassas Campaign, Hill and the Light Division fought well at Cedar Mountain, where they were held in reserve but plunged into the battle on Hill's own initiative. At Second Manassas, Hill stumbled. Although his men fought well in defense along the Railroad Cut, Hill's front crumbled when he failed to close a gap between two of his brigades--Early's division had to come to his rescue.
Hill redeemed himself in the following Maryland Campaign, where much of the burden of maneuver in capturing Harper's Ferry was given to the Light Division. After the Union surrender at Harper's Ferry, Hill's men marched from there to Sharpsburg in nine hours (it had taken McLaws's men forty-one) and attacked immediately upon arriving, saving the day and the army. With that exploit, the Light Division and their leader passed into Confederate legend. In his letter to President Davis on October 2, after recommending Jackson and Longstreet for promotion, Lee wrote, "Next to these two officers, I consider A.P. Hill the best commander with me. He fights his troops well and takes good care of them."
At Fredericksburg in December there was a reprise of the situation that had developed along the Railroad Cut at Second Manassas. Hill had left a gap between two of his brigades in what he thought were impenetrable woods. An attacking Union division found the gap, pried it open and threatened to break the Rebel line. Early's division again came to the rescue--counterattacking, driving the Federals back, and restoring the line. Hill's poor deployment thus resulted in the only tense moment Lee's army experienced all day, and the gap--and Hill's responsibility for it--was noted in Jackson's report after the battle.
At Chancellorsville, Hill's fortunes rose again. His division formed the bulk of the force which made Jackson's famed march around the Union right flank. After the Union wing had been crushed and Jackson wounded in the gathering darkness, Hill took command of the corps. He was himself wounded minutes later, however, by a bit of metal which hit him in the calves, and, unable to walk or even ride a horse, he was forced to relinquish command. He returned three days later.
After unequal fortune in the previous ten months (potent in attack but careless in defense), Hill was among the half-dozen candidates for command of Jackson's corps after Jackson succumbed later in May. "I think upon the whole," Lee wrote in a letter to Jefferson Davis, that Hill "is the best solder of his grade with me." Though Lee finally decided to place Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell at the head of Jackson's old corps, the day after he named Ewell to command the Second Corps he announced the formation of a Third Corps under the direction of Hill. The prickly merchant's son, so full of petty rebellions when placed under anyone less than Lee himself, was finally at the head of his own corps, newly promoted to lieutenant general.
Hill's appointment to corps command sparked considerable negative reaction. Many, Longstreet in particular, thought that Hill had been chosen primarily because he was a Virginian; the rejected candidates--Maj. Gens. John Hood, D.H. Hill, Lafayette McLaws, and R.H. Anderson--were all from other states. Thus, Hill had plenty to prove as he approached the climactic battle of the war in an unaccustomed role, unfamiliar with most of his command. It did not bode well that as the rifles crackled on the army's approach to the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Hill started to suffer from an unidentifiable illness.
| Hill precipitated the Battle of Gettysburg, when, on June 30, he was
asked by division commander Maj. Gen. Henry Heth if he had any objection to
Heth marching into Gettysburg the next day to get some shoes. With a cocky
nonchalance that typified the Army of Northern Virginia in the early summer of
1863, Hill replied famously, "None in the world."|
On July 1, Hill was ailing and out of sorts. When Heth's division approached Gettysburg from the east by the Chambersburg Pike that morning, they received a costly repulse by unexpected Army of the Potomac infantry. Hill decided to renew the battle on a larger scale and brought up Pender's division, in direct contradiction of Lee's explicit orders to avoid a general engagement until the entire army was concentrated. While Heth's division regrouped and Pender's division arrived and deployed in the early afternoon, both Hill and Lee arrived on the scene. Meanwhile, the action passed to Rodes's division, newly arrived, who attacked the enemy right flank from Oak Hill. When Heth asked to renew his attack and aid Rodes, who was having his own hard time with the rugged Union defenders, Hill referred Heth directly to Lee. Lee hesitated, then gave the go-ahead. Heth struck and met a firestorm from the staunch Union First Corps brigades. When his attackers tired and after Heth himself had been wounded, Hill sent Pender's Division surging forward. After a bitter struggle on Seminary Ridge, the Federal resistance collapsed and the exhausted Yankees retired on the double-quick toward Cemetery Hill, losing, by Hill's count, 2,300 prisoners to Hill's pursuit.
Lee and Hill now faced the decision whether or not to attack Cemetery Hill, where the Union troops were rallying. The usually combative Hill, still feeling unwell and looking "very delicate" according to British observer Arthur Fremantle, complained that his troops had been exhausted and disorganized by six hours of fighting. Even though Hill had some fresh brigades, Lee did not press him on the issue, and did not consider a fresh attack by Hill's corps for the remainder of the evening. (In the recriminations that followed the battle, Hill escaped all blame for the failure to attack Cemetery Hill in the fading daylight of July 1 because Lee was present with Hill. That blame was instead heaped on Ewell.)
On July 2, Hill again showed no vigor in his leadership, apparently still suffering from the illness of the first day. He spent most of the day with Lee near the Lutheran Seminary. In the morning Hill brought Anderson's division forward to support Longstreet's planned assault, but Hill communicated poorly with Anderson, who was late in getting the basic information that Longstreet would be deploying on his right. Further, it was not Hill but Lee who, in the early evening, gave the word to send Anderson's forward. Then, apparently considering the entire assault the affair of his old nemesis Longstreet, Hill did not supervise Anderson's attack, which thus failed for lack of support when it had some chance of carrying Cemetery Ridge in the fading daylight.
Hill was present at the meeting held soon after sunrise on July 3 where Lee and Longstreet discussed the plans for the third day's assault. Heth's and Pender's divisions from Hill's Corps were transferred to Longstreet's authority for the attack on the center which would become known as Pickett's Charge. With two of the three divisions in the assault from his corps, it would have been natural for Hill to be in charge, but Lee apparently thought the new corps commander was not up to it. Hill's duties were to "hold the center at all hazards" according to Lee's written orders, but in fact Hill spent the last day of the battle of Gettysburg without an independent command. Before Pickett's Charge, Hill approached Lee with a request to lead his entire corps in the attack. Lee refused.
As Gettysburg and subsequent battles would prove, Little Powell had finally been promoted into a position where he did not excel, and his health continued to deteriorate. He continued in command of the Third Corps, but he led it into a disastrous ambush at Bristoe Station that fall, and then was too ill to command at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. He was probably dying of renal failure due to the advanced stages of gonorrhea when he was shot and killed by a stray group of Federal soldiers near Petersburg in the last days of the war.
For further reading:
Hassler, William W. A.P. Hill: Lee's Forgotten General. Richmond, 1957
_____. "A.P. Hill: Mystery Man of the Confederacy." Civil War Times Illustrated 16, Oct 1977
_____. "The Hill-Jackson Feud." Civil War Times Illustrated 4, May 1965
Robertson, James I., Jr. General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior. New York, 1987
Schenk, Martin. Up Came Hill: The Story of the Light Division and of Its Leaders. Harrisburg, PA, 1958