Born on his family’s Culpeper, Virginia plantation November 9, 1825, Ambrose Powell Hill was the seventh and final child of prominent politician Thomas Hill and Frances (Fannie) Russell. Known by his family as “Powell”, he was named for his uncle, Ambrose Powell Hill, who was a close friend of President James Madison and served in both houses of the Virginia legislature. His father’s political connections played a major role in Powell securing an appointment in 1842 to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At the Academy, Powell made friends with a number of prominent future generals; among them: Darius N. Couch, George E. Pickett and Hill’s roommate, George B. McClellan. There were also classmates who held little regard for Hill; among them his future commander, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. Hill’s social status in Virginia ranked higher than Jackson’s and he enjoyed the opportunity to have a good time in his off-hours. Jackson, on the other hand, scorned Hill’s flippancy and chose to embrace religion; doing so in a more fervent manner than Hill.
During 1844, the middling student was involved in a night of youthful indiscretion while in New York City; exposing himself to a situation which would plague him the rest of his life. Returning from furlough with a case of gonorrhea, medical complications now set in which required Hill to be sent home to recover. Due to the large amount of time he missed in class, Hill was held back a year in his studies. Rather than graduating in 1846 with his original classmates, Powell was reassigned to the class of 1847 and acquired new friendships with Henry Heth and Ambrose E. Burnside. Hill completed his studies and graduated on June 19, 1847, ranking 15th in a class of 38.
While at the Academy, Hill and roommate McClellan set their sites on the same young woman, Ellen B. Marcy. Engaged to Hill for a time, Ellen’s parents put pressure on her to end the relationship. She later married McClellan. Though Hill was said to have felt no ill will towards McClellan afterwards; it was rumored that during the Civil War, whenever Hill and McClellan faced off across the battle field, Hill’s level of effort against the opposing army was much greater.
In the closing stages of the Mexican-American War, Hill had been commissioned and was serving with the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was sent to Mexico for a short time, then became a quartermaster on garrison duty in the Deep South. Stationed in Florida during 1855, he saw action against the Seminole Indians. While there, Hill contracted yellow fever. Following his recovery, he was transferred to the U.S. Coastal Survey and stationed in Washington, D.C.
Hill married a young widow, Kitty Morgan McClung, on July 18, 1859. Their marriage made him the brother-in-law to two future Confederate cavalry generals; John Hunt Morgan, who served as Hill’s best man, and Basil W. Duke.
The opening months of 1861 witnessed the storm clouds of civil war beginning to blanket the country. On March 1st, Hill resigned from the U.S. Military. Following Virginia’s secession, he accepted a commission in the Confederate Army at the rank of colonel. Assigned to the 13th Virginia Infantry, under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah, Hill’s regiment lent support during the Confederate victory in the First Battle of Bull Run. The 13th was then involved in the Romney Campaign, after which Hill was promoted to brigadier general on February 26, 1862 and placed in command of a brigade in the Army of the Potomac.
Following the Battle of Williamsburg, Hill’s next assignment was the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862. This would be the first of several encounters he would have with his former college roommate. During the conflict, McClellan endeavored to land his army on the Virginia coast, with sites set on reaching Richmond. In the early stages of McClellan’s invasion, Hill’s performance went well. This won him his next promotion, the second in three months, to the rank of major general on May 26, 1862.
Hill christened his group the “Light Division”, despite the fact Virginia’s 13th infantry was one of the largest within the rankings of the Confederate Army. It is thought the main reason for the title was due to the rapid pace at which his troops moved; developing a reputation for agility and speed. One of the soldiers who served with Hill later commented after the war, “The name was applicable, for we often marched without coats, blankets, knapsacks or other burdens except our arms and haversacks, which were never heavy and sometimes empty.”
When Hill was not doing battle with the enemy, he was doing so with his commander, in this case, General James Longstreet. An argument ensued from a series of articles the Richmond Examiner published about Hill regarding the Battle of Glendale in which they inflated the role he played. Relations between the two men quickly deteriorated with Longstreet’s accusation of insubordination on the part of Hill and sent the feud to the boiling point. This was followed by Hill being placed under arrest by Longstreet. When Hill challenged Longstreet to a duel, General Robert E. Lee stepped in and transferred Hill’s Light Division to the command of General Jackson’s Army of the Shenandoah.
It did not take long for Hill to prove his worth with his new command when he successfully participated in a counterattack during the Battle of Cedar Mountains in August 1862. This was followed by the Second Battle of Bull Run where his troops successfully thwarted repetitious Union attacks. Unfortunately, history would repeat itself regarding disagreements with his commanding officer. Clashing with General Jackson regarding marching orders during the Maryland Campaign, Hill found himself under arrest with eight counts of dereliction of duty.
Reinstated a short time later, Hill saw action during the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. At the time processing Union prisoners at Harpers Ferry, the Light Division set off at a rapid pace to shore up Lee’s army. Their timely arrival on September 17th allowed the Light Division to play a key role in saving the Confederate’s right flank by providing General Lee’s troops the support needed to repel General Ambrose Burnside’s forces. Despite the fact Lee’s army was battered, it remained undefeated. As the troops began to move southward, the relationship between Hill and Jackson continued to deteriorate.
On December 13, 1862, Hill and his troops were involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg. A 600-yard gap developed in his front line while positioned along a ridge due to the swampy terrain. Coupled with the fact dense vegetation served to camouflaged Union troops advancing on his position and Hill’s line became the only one to be breached by a Union charge during the clash. Thankfully an emergency counterattack by General Jubal Early’s troops managed to save the day and produced a major victory for the Confederates.
Despite the victory, the conflicted resulted in Hill's division experiencing over 2,000 casualties; two of which were brigade commanders. That amounted to almost two-thirds of the casualties suffered by Jackson's corps. After the battle, another brigade commander, Brig. Gen. James J. Archer, criticized Hill regarding the gap created in the division's front line. He stated Hill had been warned about the gap prior to the battle, yet did nothing to correct the situation. Add to that the fact Hill was absent from his division, with no record as to his whereabouts during the battle. This resulted in a rumor being spread through the lines that Hill had been captured during the initial Union assault.
Hill received his next promotion in May 1863. He now served with Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorville. During the event, Jackson was wounded and Hill took over command. Not long afterwards, Hill suffered wounds in both legs and was forced to cede command to Major General J.E.B. Stuart. Jackson died from pneumonia on May 10th, requiring Lee to reorganize the Army of Northern Virginia. In the process, he promoted Hill to the rank of lieutenant general on May 24th and placed him in command of the Third Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, a newly organized unit. This made Hill the unit’s fourth highest-ranking general.
Lee headed north to Pennsylvania while Hill’s men saw their first action during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 in a clash with the Union cavalry under the command of Brigadier General John Buford. Of the three units involved at Gettysburg, Hill's group suffered the highest number of casualties. The battle’s outcome prompted Lee to order them to lead the retreat back into Virginia.
One of Hill’s worst defeats occurred at the Battle of Bristoe Station in October when the Confederate troops were ambushed by Union forces situated behind a railroad embankment. In the end, Hill lost more than 1,300 of his troops.
Despite the fact his health continually worsened, Hill pressed on and continued to lead his troops. Forced to spend March 1865 on sick leave, he returned to action in April. On April 2nd, he took to the field during the Third Battle of Petersburg. Having said he did not want to live to see the collapse of the Confederacy, Hill’s request was fulfilled. He was riding near the front of the Petersburg lines when he was he was shot in the chest by Union Corporal John W. Mauck. At the age of 39, Hill died one week prior to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
After the recovery of Hill’s body, his family’s desire was to bury him in Richmond. The city's capture by Union forces, however, forced his burial to take place in Chesterfield County. In February 1867, Hill’s remains were finally moved to Richmond and buried in Hollywood Cemetery. During the late 1880s, survivors of Hill’s famous Light Division raised funds for the monument which was set in place on May 30, 1892.
Amongst his lieutenants, General Lee considered Hill to be alongside both Jackson and Longstreet and stated of him: "He fights his troops well and takes care of them." Hill was one of the war's most highly regarded generals on either side and had a reputation for arriving on a battlefield in the nick of time to prove decisive and achieve victory. Hill was also friendly with the rank-and-file soldiers. One officer who served with him referred to Hill as "the most lovable of all Lee's generals." With their dying breaths, both Generals Lee and Jackson called out to A.P. Hill.
Located in Caroline County, Virginia, approximately half-way between Richmond and Washington, D.C., Fort A. P. Hill is named in his honor.