Ambrose Powell Hill was born on November 9, 1825, at Greenland, his father’s plantation near Culpeper, Virginia. His parents were Thomas and Frances Hill.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Hill attended local schools before entering the United States Military Academy in 1842. While at West Point, Hill and future Union General George B. McClellan were roommates. Other notable classmates included Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George Pickett, Ambrose Burnside, and Henry Heth. Hill graduated in 1847, a year late because of illness, ranked fifteenth in his class of thirty-eight cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, the army brevetted Hill as a second lieutenant and assigned him to the 1st U.S. Artillery. He served in the Mexican War (1846–1848) and the Seminole Wars in Florida (1849–1850) and (1853–1855). Following his first stint in Florida, Hill served briefly in Texas and he received a promotion to first lieutenant in September 1851. During his second tour of duty in Florida, Hill contracted yellow fever in 1855. From 1856 to 1860, Hill worked with the U.S. Coast Survey in Washington, DC.
While in Washington, Hill met Kitty Morgan McClung, the sister of future Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan. The couple married on July 18, 1859.
Hill resigned from the U.S. Army in March 1861, just prior to Virginia seceding from the Union (April 17, 1861), to accept an appointment as a colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry. His regiment served during the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), but saw no action.
On February 26, 1862, Confederate officials promoted Hill to brigadier general, commanding a brigade in Major General James Longstreet’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign. During that campaign, Hill received a promotion to major general on May 26, 1862, after the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862). Hill’s earned fame as commander of his “Light Division” in the Army of Northern Virginia, which had a reputation for being able to move quickly and fight fiercely.
Conflict with Superiors
Known to his soldiers as “Little Powell,” Hill typically wore a red shirt into battle. He had a personal reputation as being combative and short-tempered. During the Seven Days Battles (June 25–July 1, 1862), Hill had had a falling out with Longstreet. To avert a duel between the two generals, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee transferred Hill to General Stonewall Jackson’s corps.
Hill and Jackson did not fare much better. Jackson charged Hill with dereliction of duty eight times during their time together. On September 3, 1862, Jackson had Hill arrested and temporarily relieved of his command when Hill questioned Jackson’s leadership abilities in front of subordinate officers. Hill’s running feud with Jackson continued until Jackson’s death at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.
Despite disputes with his superiors, Hill was an outstanding commander during the early years of the war. On August 9, 1862, Hill’s division arrived in the nick of time to prevent Jackson’s Stonewall Brigade from being overrun by a Federal attack at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. At the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862), Hill’s division fended off a succession of furious Union assaults. On September 17, 1862, Hill’s division saved Robert E. Lee’s army from destruction at the Battle of Antietam by marching his troops from Harpers Ferry, Virginia to Sharpsburg, Maryland and launching a blistering attack against Union forces.
Wounded at Chancellorsville
Hill performed poorly at the Battle of Fredericksburg. (December 13, 1862) when Union General George Meade’s troops breached his line, requiring reinforcements from Major General Jubal Early to save the day. Hill redeemed himself by performing brilliantly at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). During that battle, on May 2, Hill briefly assumed command of the Confederate 2nd Corps after friendly fire mortally wounded Jackson. Hill was wounded shortly thereafter and ceded command to Major General J. E. B. Stuart.
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. He selected Richard S. Ewell to fill Jackson’s position and on May 24, 1863, promoted Hill to the rank of lieutenant general, placing him in command of the newly created 3rd Corps.
Battle of Gettysburg
Hill’s first test as a corps commander came five weeks later at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–July 3, 1863). Hill’s soldiers opened the battle when they engaged Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry on July 1. Hill has been the subject of some criticism for his decision to engage the Union forces at Gettysburg before the Confederate army was fully joined for battle. On the third day of the battle, two-thirds of the units that took part in the deadly frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge were part of Hill’s 3rd Corps.
Battle of Bristoe Station
The low point of Hill’s career came at the Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863. He lost over 1,300 Confederate soldiers when poor planning resulted in an ill-advised attack against three Union divisions commanded by Major General Gouverneur K. Warren. Reportedly, General Lee cut off Hill’s excuses for the disaster by saying, “Well, well, general, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”
Plagued by Poor Health
In the spring of 1864, Hill’s health began to decline. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864), Hill succumbed to illness and relinquished command of his corps to Jubal Early. Hill returned to command two weeks later, but health issues hampered his ability to lead during the Overland Campaign, resulting in poor performance.
Death on the Battlefield
On April 2, 1865, federal troops broke Lee’s defensive line at Petersburg. As Hill hurried to the front with a lone staff officer, Corporal John W. Mauck of the 138th Pennsylvania, shot Hill through the heart, killing him instantly.
Hill was buried initially in the old Winston Family Cemetery in Chesterfield, Virginia. In 1867, his remains were moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.