by Andy Mateja

During the Civil War, both sides had their share of interesting military personalities. One of the most colorful of these was Ambrose Powell Hill of Virginia. He was considered by some to be the third ablest commander in Gen Robt E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia….right behind Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet.  His celebrated “Light Division” had no equal in either army during the war.

Very little was written about Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill in comparison to his fellow commanders such as Lee, Jackson Longstreet and Stuart.

Originally from Culpepper VA, Hill received an appointment to West Point when only 16 years old  where he graduated 15th in a class of 38. He also was a roommate of future Union commander George B. McClellan. Hill served with the artillery during the Mexican War and later fought Indians in Florida where he contacted Yellow Fever. Like many other Southerners, he resigned his commission in 1861 to fight with Virginia. Within 90 days he rose in rank from Colonel to Major General due to his aggressive combat style.

Being McClellan’s roommate was not all that he “shared” with his future Civil War opponent.  A young lady named Nelly Marcy was Hill’s girlfriend before the war but she ultimately married McClellan.  Nelly’s father was a military captain who did not want her to marry a fellow military officer.  He made an exception and personally preferred McClellan, but Nelly nevertheless became engaged to Hill.  Her father became incensed and presented an ultimatum to Nelly …comply with his wishes about McClellan or he would turn his back on his daughter over Hill.  Nelly acquiesced to her father’s wishes.  Complicating the matter worse, Nelly’s mother who also disliked Hill, implied “social diseases” contributed to Hill’s fragile health. Hill ultimately married the sister of famed Confederate cavalry raider Maj Gen John Hunt Morgan.

“Little Powell” as he was affectionately called we heavily engaged against McClellan’s army during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. Due to internal squabbling (and a potential duel) with his immediate commander Maj Gen James Longstreet, he was transferred to Stonewall Jackson’s command just before the Second Battle of Bull Run. His timely arrival at Cedar Mountain on Aug 9th saved the day for Jackson.

Hill was gaining notoriety in the army through his skills of maneuver and tenacious fighting. He would always wear a red shirt before going into battle which became his trademark.  He was loved by his men and considered a true “Southern Gentleman”.

While Hill had difficulties with Longstreet, he had even more with Stonewall Jackson. Robt E. Lee was serving more as a “referee” in these command problems with Hill and his immediate superiors.

Nevertheless, A.P. Hill continued to shine as a field commander. Notably his most famous battlefield performance was at the Battle of Antietam on Sept 17th 1862.  While Lee’s army was overwhelmed and fought to a frazzle, Hill brought his Light Division onto the field in the nick of time to blunt Union Maj Gen Ambrose Burnside’s flanking attack.  Lee was so happy that he actually “hugged” Hill for saving the day.

A few months later at Fredericksburg, Hill did not prepare his defenses adequately against the Union attack which almost cost the otherwise successful Confederate victory to be lost. This time Hill required reinforcements to arrive in the nick of time to save the day.

At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Stonewall Jackson was accidently wounded by his own men and Hill was the likely candidate to take command. However Hill was also wounded during the conflict and had to wait until the army was reorganized by Lee after the ultimate death of Jackson.  Hill was promoted to Lt General and command of the newly created Third Corps under Lee.

It was at this time that Hill stared to experience command problems. It was one of his new divisions (Maj Gen Heath’s) that brought on the Battle of Gettysburg before Lee was prepared and his command decisions during the three-day battle (and Confederate defeat) left much to be desired.

Later at Bristoe Station in October 1863, Hill sacrificed 1300 of his men in a needless charge. The following year at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, Hill was ill-prepared in a defensive position awaiting the arrival of Gen Longstreet’s Corps.  Gen Lee was so concerned that he personally attempted to lead combat troops into battle himself which he was prevented from doing by the very men he was trying to lead. “Lee to the Rear” was the chant these men were yelling to protect the commander whom they idolized.

Hill took his position in Confederate defensive line during the siege of Richmond & Petersburg from June 1864 through April 2nd 1865 against Union Lt General Ulysses S. Grant’s overwhelming forces.  When Grant’s army finally broke through the Confederate defenses, A.P. Hill tried to rally his men but was instantly killed by an enemy sharpshooter. He was buried in Chesterfield VA and later moved to Richmond.

While at times problematic, it was to his credit and devotion to duty that both Robt E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both called on A.P. Hill during their final moments of life. There was no question that he left an indelible mark on those around him ……..command and commanders alike.

He was truly “One of a Kind”……….

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