A. P. Hill was one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted lieutenants during the American Civil War. He was present at just about every major battle in the main Virginia theatre, as well as on both of Lee’s invasions of the north. Hill was born and educated in Virginia, before attending West Point from 1842 to 1847 (his graduation was delayed by a failure in philosophy and chemistry). He graduated from West Point during the Mexican War (1846-48), arrived in Mexico in time to see combat at Huamantla and Arlixco in October 1847.
After the Mexican War he performed garrison duty in Florida, taking part in the Seminole War of 1849-50, after which he was promoted to first lieutenant (September 1851). After a brief spell in Texas he returned to Florida for the Seminole War of 1853-55. From 1855 to 1860 he was based in Washington, working for the superintendent of the cast survey.
At the outbreak of the Civil War he resigned from the U.S. Army (1 March 1861) and joined the Confederate army, as colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry. This regiment was part of the Army of the Shenandoah at First Bull Run, where it formed part of the Confederate reserve. He remained with the army in North Virginia over the winter of 1861-62, receiving a promotion to Brigadier-General on 26 February 1862.
The action now moved to the Peninsula, where McClellan was attempting to bypass the defences around Manassas. Hill now commanded the First Brigade of Longstreet’s Division. This brigade suffered more casualties than any other Confederate division during the battle of Williamsburg (5 May 1862), but despite this retained its organisation throughout the battle. As a result of this fighting, on 26 May Hill was promoted to Major-General.
In this new role Hill was appointed to command the left of the Confederate defensive line around Richmond. His division was not involved in the battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks, which took place on the right of the Confederate line, but he would be heavily involved in the Seven Days’ Battles.
His first involvement came on the second day of the seven. Robert E. Lee’s plan was for Longstreet, A. P. Hill and D.H. Hill to launch an attack in combination with Stonewall Jackson, who was expected to arrive around Richmond at any moment. However, Jackson failed to appear when expected on 26 June (Battle of Mechanicsville). At 3.00 p.m. Hill decided that he could wait no longer, and launched a costly attack across the Chickahominy River that was repulsed with heavy losses.
On the third day, A. P. Hill was one again to the fore. At Gaines’s Mill he was once again expecting aid from Jackson, and once again it failed to arrive. Again Hill’s men fought unsupported for much of the day, with some aid from Longstreet’s division. However this time Hill’s attack was part of the plan, not an independent move.
Over the next two days Hill’s men followed the retreating Federal troops. On 30 June Lee attempted an ambitious seven pronged attack on McClellan’s men. Only A. P. Hill and Longstreet managed to launch their attacks, once again suffered heavily, losing 3,247 of the 20,000 total Confederate casualties. It was during this period that Hill’s division began to be known as “Hill’s Light Division” because of their speed of movement.
Despite these heavy losses, Hill’s division remained an effective unit. It was amongst the first to be sent north to help Jackson in the campaign against Pope that would end at Second Bull Run. Jackson was sent north at the start of July, A. P. Hill on 27 July and Longstreet on 13 August. Hill’s men acted as the reserve at the battle of Cedar Mountain (9 August) where they helped to stem a Union advance that had already swept away Jackson’s old “stonewall” division.
Hill remained with Jackson throughout the Second Bull Run campaign. During the battle his division formed the left wing of Jackson’s line, where it was subjected to repeated strong Union attacks, but held its ground. Once again Hill’s division suffered heavy casualties, but it played its part in pinning Pope’s army in place until Lee and Longstreet were in place to launch their counterattack on 30 August.
In the aftermath of Second Bull Run, Lee decided to launch an invasion of the north. Hill’s division took part in the capture of Harper’s Ferry that so badly disrupted Lee’s plans. After the surrender of Harper’s Ferry on 15 September, Jackson left Hill to complete the details of the surrender while he rushed to reinforce Lee at Antietam.
Hill did not linger at Harper’s Ferry – he was well aware of how vulnerable Lee’s position was. The battle of Antietam (17 September) was closely fought. In the middle of the afternoon Burnside launched an attack that came close to breaking the Confederate line. It was now that Hill earned his greatest fame. At the head of three of his brigades (2,500 men) he reached the battlefield just in time to hold the line. This was the enduring image of Hill – arriving at the right moment at the head of his men. His arrival, and McClellan’s refusal to use his reserves, allowed Lee to escape back into Virginia.
Hill’s division was present at Fredericksburg, but at the opposite end of the line to that engaged by the Union advance, and so took little active part in the battle. His next major contribution would come at Chancellorsville, where his division formed part of Stonewall Jackson’s corps. His division took part in Jackson’s famous flanking march on 2 May 1863. Late in the day Jackson was mortally wounded. Hill was on the scene, and briefly took command, before himself being wounded.
Although Hill’s wound prevented him from taking part in the rest of the battle at Chancellorsville, he was soon able to return to active service. In the aftermath of the death of Jackson, Lee re-organised his army into three corps, and appointed A. P. Hill to command the third corps, even though he was not first in line of seniority). Even before the death of Jackson, Lee had apparently considered A. P. Hill the best of his divisional commanders, although Longstreet later claimed that his was actually promoted because he was a Virginian. With corps command Hill also received a promotion to Lieutenant-General (23 May 1863).
Lee now began his second invasion of the north. On 1 July 1863 it was Hill’s corps that first encountered the Federal troops at Gettysburg. For much of the first day of that battle it was thus A. P. Hill who had command of the Confederate attacks. It was thus Hill who pushed the Federal troops out of Gettysburg. The first day of Gettysburg saw Hill make his most significant contributions to the battle. On the second day his corps held the centre of the Confederate line, while Longstreet was to launch the main attack on the right. On the third day ten of Hill’s brigades were detached to aid Longstreet in the final attack on the Federal lines.
When the fighting resumed in the Wilderness in May 1864 Hill was still at the head of his corps, but his health was not good. He fought a successful battle on 5 May, but when Longstreet was wounded on 6 May, Hill was ill, command of his corps having passed to Jubal Early. Hill was away from the army from 8 May to 21 May, entirely missing the battle of Spotsylvania, and the start of the fighting at the North Anna River. He was present at Cold Harbor, but didn’t play a major part in the fighting.
Having failed to capture Richmond, U.S. Grant now moved on to attack Petersburg. In the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg, 15-18 June 1864, A. P. Hill’s corps was placed in the trenches outside Petersburg. He remained there for the next eight months, until in March 1865 he was forced to take sick leave, although he remained in Petersburg. This was a bad moment to leave the lines. On 25 March Lee launched the attack on Fort Stedman that weakened his lines to the point where Grant was able to send Sheridan around the Confederate right. On 1 April Sheridan won a smashing victory at Five Forks. The next day Grant launched his final attack on the Petersburg lines. A. P. Hill left his sick bed to rush back to the front. Soon after reaching the front line, Hill was killed by Union musket fire. His corps died with him. On the retreat to Appomattox Lee made do with only two corps commanders.
A. P. Hill was an able divisional commander, possibly one of Lee’s best. He had played a crucial part at Cedar Mountain and Antietam. His division always moved quickly. He was more willing than Longstreet to risk high casualties if the results seemed worth it, although he did learn not to be as impetuous as he had been at Mechanicsville. His main limitation was that he was often ill, possibly with the long term effects of a venereal disease picked up while he was a West Point cadet. Both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are said to have called for A. P. Hill on their deathbeds.