Ambrose Powell Hill was born on November 9, 1825, at Greenland, his father’s plantation near Culpeper. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842, but repeated a year due to illness and therefore was not graduated in 1846 with Jackson,, , and George Stoneman. Instead, he finished in 1847, fifteenth of thirty-eight. ( and were graduated the same year.) His antebellum U.S. Army service included assignments as quartermaster of the 1st Artillery and with the U.S. Coast Survey.
In 1856, while stationed in Washington, D.C., Hill proposed marriage to Mary Ellen Marcy, whose father was an Army officer. Her family disapproved, however, and Hill later cited his health as one of the reasons. Marcy ended up marrying McClellan, who was one of Hill’s good friends. In 1859, Hill married Kitty Morgan McClung, sister of future Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan. His health, meanwhile, continued to be a concern. According to historian James I. Robertson Jr., Hill suffered from prostatitis, the result of gonorrhea he had contracted while at West Point.
Beginning of the Civil War
In March 1861, Hill was appointed colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry, a regiment that was held in reserve at the(1861). In early 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general but did not see his first combat of the war until May, when he led a brigade in Longstreet’s division at the on the Peninsula. Hill fought well enough against his old friend McClellan that he was quickly promoted again. Tall but slight, Hill was a “[s]maller and more slender man than I thought,” according to one of his soldiers, but nevertheless a “[d]etermined looking man with keen, clear, eye.” He was now the youngest major general in the Confederate army.
At the head of a six-brigade “light” division that was, in fact, the largest in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Hill built a reputation for marching quickly, fighting at a moment’s notice, and committing his troops decisively. Still, after the(1862) on the outskirts of the Confederate capital at , the Confederate high command was in personal turmoil, with Hill and Longstreet sniping at each other in the pages of the Richmond Examiner. The dispute reached such a pitch that a duel seemed imminent. Lee attempted to solve the problem by transferring Hill to Jackson’s command, but he soon clashed even more seriously with his new superior. The rift hurt both men’s effectiveness in spite of Lee’s best efforts to mediate it.
At theon August 9, 1862, Hill’s Light Division helped Jackson win a narrow victory when it joined a counterattack just as darkness fell. On the defensive later that month, at the , Hill’s division stoutly withstood a succession of attacks even when in danger of running out of ammunition.
Hill’s most memorable day of the war, however, was September 17 at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Lee’s first invasion of the North had begun with Hill under arrest—Stephen W. Sears describes him as “stumping along in high dudgeon at the rear of the column”—after bickering with Jackson over an order. After the Second Corps had gobbled up the Union garrison at, Virginia, Hill was left behind to handle the surrender while the rest of Lee’s army continued to move through Maryland. When the Confederates encountered McClellan’s across Antietam Creek, Hill made an extraordinary forced march from Virginia to arrive in time to launch a ferocious mid-afternoon assault against Burnside’s Ninth Corps. He saved Lee’s outnumbered army from almost certain destruction in what was the bloodiest single day of the war and, indeed, in American history. Shortly afterward, Lee called Hill his best general after Longstreet and Jackson, observing, “He fights his troops well and takes good care of them.”
As a Corps Commander
Thein December 1862 was another story. The only Union success in what was otherwise a miserable defeat came when achieved a breakthrough against Hill’s division, requiring troops under to help restore order. Hill performed brilliantly the following May at Chancellorsville, and when Jackson was wounded, he would have assumed command of the corps had he not himself been wounded at almost the same time. (The corps went instead to the ranking general on the field, the cavalryman .)
Although Hill recovered from his wound, Jackson did not, and the famous general’s death resulted in Lee reorganizing the Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet kept the First Corps andwas promoted to fill Jackson’s position. Calling him “the best soldier of his grade with me,” Lee promoted Hill to lieutenant general in command of a new Third Corps. His first test came two months later, in Pennsylvania.
Thebegan almost by accident, with advance elements of Hill’s corps colliding with Union troops on July 1, 1863. Hill’s soldiers fought as well as ever, but their units’ movements were not coordinated to maximize their impact. After several hours of sporadic combat, they joined Ewell’s Second Corps in a large-scale attack, suffering heavy casualties but eventually driving Union troops off Seminary Ridge. Hill’s third division arrived at Gettysburg that night and attacked the following day, but to little effect. The battle’s climax came on July 3, with . Two-thirds of the units participating in the doomed frontal assault belonged to Hill’s Third Corps, the other third to Longstreet’s First Corps. Confusion resulted. Longstreet assumed that Hill was responsible for his units, while Hill assumed that the more senior Longstreet was responsible for the entire attack. In the end, neither general took control of his own troops.
Hill’s worst day as a general came at Bristoe Station on October 14. His haste to attack and his failure to reconnoiter resulted in a debacle in which two Confederate brigades were nearly destroyed by three Union divisions he did not know were there. (They were hiding behind a railroad embankment.) A Confederate general, Carnot Posey, was mortally wounded and Lee, by all accounts, was upset with Hill. On a tour of the battlefield the next day, however, he refrained from rebuking Hill directly, only saying, “Well, well, General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”
The following spring, on the first day of the, the Third Corps stood its ground against repeated assaults. A vigorous Union attack early the next day, however, drove many of Hill’s men back in confusion before a counterattack by Longstreet’s First Corps turned the tide. Longstreet was wounded in the battle, only a short distance from where Jackson had been shot a year earlier. A week later, during the , Hill fell ill and was forced to hand his corps over to Early. He returned to duty after two weeks but did not perform well in the battles at (1864) and Cold Harbor (1864).
For the next ten months, Hill’s poor health further hampered his ability to lead, and the static nature of the war on the Petersburg–Richmond front during themeant that, although elements of his corps were conspicuous in several battles, he had few opportunities to shine. After Union general-in-chief ‘s troops broke through Lee’s lines near Petersburg on April 2, 1865, Hill attempted to rally his units but was killed instantly by a bullet through the heart.
Both Jackson and Lee are said to have called for Hill from their deathbeds, Jackson saying, “Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action,” and Lee saying, “Tell Hill he must come up!” Though questions have been raised about either man’s ability to say anything of substance in their last moments, the meaning of these anecdotes is nevertheless clear: both generals believed that they could depend on Hill, whose record as a division commander was perhaps the best in the short history of the Army of Northern Virginia.