I thought it might be interesting to write a series of what I will call “command profiles,” essays in which I will try to analyze some of the men placed in command positions during the Civil War. While these will certainly contain some biographic information, my intent is not to merely provide biographies. Rather, I want to see if I can give the reader a brief analysis of these men in terms of their abilities as commanders in the field. Each had his talents and his own limitations, and only the experience of war would bring either to light. Some of the men I will examine are household names, but many will be men known only to those who have studied the war closely, and they are, perhaps, the most interesting commanders of all.
This first entry in the series looks at Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill, who served in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Students of the war know Hill well, but he is generally unknown to most of the American public. Hill belongs to a small, unique group in Lee’s army that also includes Jubal Early and Richard Ewell. All three men might be referred to as a “characters” because, while they all played pivotal roles in Lee’s army, at the same time, each possessed interesting personality traits, some of which adversely impacted their ability to perform as commanders. As a result, each man would perform brilliantly on occasion, but then be just as prone to utter and seemingly inexplicable mediocrity.
In any case, despite solid or even brilliant performances, in the eyes of the public and historians alike, neither Hill, Early, nor Ewell would ever share the stature of Lee’s other, more noteworthy commanders, such as Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, or even Jeb Stuart. Ironically, all three served under Jackson, and that may explain some of their lack of historical recognition. Perhaps because they were subordinates to the legendary Stonewall, they have always been seen as unworthy successors who simply never measured up to either the public’s or history’s standards and, thus, always remain in Jackson’s somewhat immense shadow.
A.P. Hill’s resume includes a solid Virginia lineage, West Point education, and the usual service pattern of an engineer in the pre-war Army. He served in Mexico as a young officer and performed capably, but not brilliantly, under fire. As the Civil War approached, he found himself an anti-slavery secessionist who supported Virginia’s secession purely from a state rights point of view. Like other former professional soldiers in the Confederate armies, Hill made a rapid ascent up the chain of command. A regiment commander at First Manassas, he was a brigade commander by April 1862 and a division commander only a month later.
During this rise, he demonstrated all the traits one would expect from a professional and desire in a field commander—he was organized, took care of his men, never risked them unnecessarily, had initiative, was courageous, and handled his troops well under fire. After all, in what was perhaps the zenith of his military career, it was Hill who led his division on a forced march from Harper’s Ferry to the battle field at Antietam, arriving just in time to stop Burnside’s attack on the Confederate right and save Lee’s army from potential disaster.
However, both before and after Antietam, A.P. Hill also demonstrated the personality traits that would limit his abilities as a commander. While Hill was seemingly placid on the surface, he apparently teemed with temper and emotion inside. He had a disturbing tendency to be intemperate, impatient, and impetuous, and, as a result, he would occasionally take actions that were described as “imprudent.” Lee got his first taste of this at Mechanicsville during the Seven Days Battles of late June 1862. Here, Hill attacked McClellan’s right wing without orders to do so, while Lee was trying to avoid a fight through maneuver. Hill recovered his reputation in Lee’s eyes with outstanding performances during that same series of battles at Gaines’ Mill and Frayser’s Farm, but he ran afoul of Longstreet over articles concerning the latter battle, which were published in a newspaper whose editor was a former member of Hill’s staff. Hill was placed under arrest by Longstreet in the first of what would be a series of squabbles between Hill and the officers he served.
Hill’s request that he be removed from Longstreet’s command was granted when Lee transferred him and his Light Division to Jackson’s corps. For Hill, this would be truly a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” While Hill knew Jackson from his cadet days at West Point and service in Mexico, the two feuded from the outset. Despite the fact that Jackson respected Hill’s fighting abilities, he would not tolerate his tendency to either loosely interpret orders or rigorously follow only certain commands. For his part, Hill chafed under Jackson’s secretiveness and uncommunicative nature. In addition, while Hill may have been impetuous, he still believed in order and organization, two things he either did not see in Jackson’s way of doing things or which, were seemingly never evident due to Jackson’s habit of not revealing his plans to his subordinate commanders.
Therefore, if Jackson’s orders appeared incomplete, Hill would take the initiative and operate based on his own judgment, which Jackson saw as insubordinate and which resulted in a series of charges against Hill. Perhaps the worst insult for Hill came on the march to Maryland, when Jackson ordered Hill to march at the rear of his division because he had not observed Jackson’s orders to rest his men ten minutes out of every hour. The feud was so bad that even Hill’s legendary performance at Antietam and Lee’s personal intervention could not stop the two generals from their quarreling. Jackson and Hill both continued to stoke the fire between them and only Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville ended the squabbling.
With Jackson’s death, Lee reorganized his army and established a new 3rd Corps under Hill’s command. From that point forward, one gets a general sense that, as a corps commander, Hill had probably exceeded his own capabilities. His performance as a corps commander became one more of mediocrity than of either brilliance or incompetence. In other words, it is not that Hill caused noteworthy disasters but more that he and his corps cannot be found delivering the smashing offensive blows that his division was once known for.
In his first action as corps commander at Gettysburg, it was elements of his corps that stumbled into John Buford’s cavalry and, eventually, the Union I Corps west of Gettysburg. While some criticized him for allowing the large-scale engagement to occur contrary to Lee’s orders and point to it as another example of his imprudence, Hill was simply operating based upon the intelligence he and Lee had been provided, which indicated the Army of the Potomac was not yet in the vicinity. As the fighting started, Hill was not on the scene and his men went in slowly, developing the battle at a snail’s pace because they did not know what was in front of them. Eventually, they would put enough forces on the field to send the I Corps retreating back through Gettysburg, but at great cost. Once the battle was fully underway on July 2 and 3, Hill and his corps sank into obscurity and were simply not a factor. Again, some have said this was evidence that Lee had no confidence in Hill or that Hill was not yet able to grasp the role of corps commander. However, this probably was not Hill’s fault. In reality, some of his divisions were badly beat up on the first day and, as a result, Lee kept his men in reserve or called upon divisions and brigades piecemeal to support either Ewell or Longstreet. Therefore, he had no opportunity to really prove himself.
On the other hand, however, from Gettysburg until his death at Petersburg in April 1865, Hill performed adequately but never with brilliance. The sole exception, unfortunately, was the disaster at Bristoe Station, where his impetuous and impatient manner caught up with him. His ill advised attack cost thousands of lives and probably only the good graces of Robert E. Lee prevented him from being relieved of command. Had Hill lived to see the post-war years, perhaps he could have resurrected his career and, like others, written his own version of events, made his accomplishments seem greater than they might have been, and successfully emerged from Stonewall Jackson’s shadow.