Ambrose Powell Hill, known to friends and family as “little Powell” was born on 9 November 1825, the seventh and last child of Thomas and Fannie Russell Baptist Hill of Culpepper Virginia. As a child, he was an avid student, bright and self-reliant.
These qualities he brought with him to West Point in 1842, a class that included such famous names as Darius N. Couch, George B. McClellan, George E. Pickett, and a quiet young man who would later be known as the legendary “Stonewall” Jackson. In this crowd of legendary figures, Hill took his place. However, in 1844, Hill was compelled to leave the Academy for a time due to a sickness, which eventually caused him to miss so many classes that he was required to repeat his third year, transferred to the class of 1847. Without any further distractions, Hill graduated in 1847, fifteenth out of a class of thirty-eight. He was appointed to the 1st U.S. Artillery, serving in the Mexican War as well as the Seminole Wars.
Following these wars, Hill served on garrison duty in Florida, Texas, and then again in Florida, before falling sick with yellow fever. Nursed back to partial recovery by his friend, John Scholfield, Hill returned to Virginia to recuperate fully before returning to duty.
But it soon became clear that Hill’s temperament would not allow him to return to garrison duty, and, due to the kindness of Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, Hill was given a desk job in Washington D.C. on 23 November 1855. During this time in Washington, he married a young widow by the name of Kitty Morgan McClung on 18 July 1859, just two years before secession would disrupt the peace of the nation.
Hill had long expected secession, writing in 1850, “If the Union is dissolved, I shall make tracks for home, and offer my service to the Governor, and intimate my modest desire for a brigade at least. I’ve been a snub long enough, and wish now to seek the bubble reputation at the cannon’s mouth.”
Yet despite Hill’s determination to fight for the South, he carried with him a deep distaste for slavery and cared nothing for secession. However, he saw it as his paramount duty to uphold and protect his family’s honor and Virginia’s traditions, and thus, convinced that Virginia would soon follow the rest of the South in secession, Hill resigned from the U.S. Army on 26 February 1861, casting his lot in with the Confederacy.
Hill was made a Colonel in the Confederate Army on 9 May, receiving command of the 13th Virginia Regiment, which he subsequently led at First Manassas. On 26 February 1862, Hill received his first star as well as command of a brigade in James Longstreet’s division. In this position, Hill gained distinction during the Peninsular Campaign when he repulsed McClellan’s assault on the Confederate rearguard at Williamsburg, receiving for his bold and skillful handling of his troops a promotion to major general on 26 May. Over a period of just 90 days, Hill had moved from regimental colonel to major general in command of a division.
With this new rank, Hill performed brilliantly in the Seven Days Battle, marching promptly and executing movements with great effectiveness. The reputation gained by Hill’s men in this battle was never lost, as the “light division” remains to this day the best-known division of the Civil War.
After Seven Days, Hill was transferred to the command of “Stonewall” Jackson, fighting with his typical courage at Cedar Mountain, where his timely arrival saved the rest of Jackson’s forces, and Second Manassas, where his stubborn and determined defense of what Jackson referred to as the “post of greatest danger” led to the repulse of General Pope’s Army of Virginia. During Lee’s invasion of the North in 1862, it was yet again Hill’s timely arrival on the field that saved the Army of Northern Virginia from destruction, driving back McClellan’s forces and forcing him into a stalemate.
Throughout Hill’s career as a soldier, he demonstrated a reckless courage that won him the admiration of his troops and the respect of his colleagues, as well as an unusual love and caring for his troops that won him their love in turn. One of his chaplains later wrote, “I remember seeing him visiting, as was his custom, his field hospitals, looking after the comfort of his wounded, and with his own hands lifting some of the poor fellows into more comfortable positions.” Always chivalrous, Hill treated even his enemies with a courteousness and generosity that was a part of his nature.
Yet this very tendency towards chivalry constantly got him in trouble with his immediate superior, General Jackson. Proud and headstrong, Hill easily took offense at the sometimes demanding oversight of Jackson, the unyielding disciplinarian. Jackson’s intolerance of Hill’s mistakes often led to furious responses from Hill who was placed under arrest on more than one occasion. Indeed, it was because Hill could not get along with Longstreet that Lee had transferred him to Jackson’s command in the first place.
However, despite the long feud that continued between these two generals, they would always lay it aside when battle approached, focusing on their common goal: the destruction of the enemy. Even Jackson acknowledged that no one could lead a division like Hill, and Lee’s opinion of him as his best commander apart from Jackson and Longstreet ensured that, if Lee created a new corps, the command of it would go to Hill.
But though Hill was a brilliant divisional commander for the most part, he was nowhere near perfect as clearly demonstrated at the Battle of Fredericksburg where his negligence left a large gap in his line through which Meade’s division advanced. To make matters worse, at this crucial moment of the battle, Hill was nowhere to be found. He left his brigade commanders without any direction to work out a solution on their own as best they could. However, this battle served as an exception to Hill’s typical brilliance.
Hill’s next opportunity to redeem his damaged reputation came in April 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Here, he led his division in Jackson’s daring sweep around the Union lines to strike into the Federal right. When Jackson was wounded by friendly fire, Hill briefly took command of the Second Corps until he too was wounded. He had been taken out of this fight, but returned to command just two days later, ready, as always, for another fight.