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Welcome to And Then A.P. Hill Came Up

the internet home and headquarters for Ambrose Powell Hill

While Hill was finishing his education at West Point, War broke out between the United States and Mexico. Hill particularly chafed at having to remain at West Point when his former classmates in the 1846 class were sent to Mexico to fight. For young army officers, the prospect of war meant excitement and glory and -- perhaps most of all -- the potential for the sort of quick advancement that was otherwise very difficult (if not impossible) to achieve in the tiny antebellum army.

To his mother, obviously concerned about her son going to war, Hill wrote:

It would make you laugh to see how eager the embryo heros in grey coats are to flash their maiden swords, and calculating the chances of the old officers being knocked in the head, and their promotion. For my part I have a lucky bone from an old Virginia ham, and with that with me, shall feel as safe as by your side.

Hill turned out to be the only member of his West Point class to actually see action in Mexico. Graduating on June 19, 1847, Hill went home to await orders. They came on August 11 - report to duty in Mexico.

James Robertson, a biographer, describes Hill thusly in Mexico,

As the only member of his West Point class to be seeing action in Mexico, and filled with exuberance over the prospects of battle, Hill adopted a flamboyant uniform. He wore a flaming red flannel shirt and blue soldiers trousers stuffed into red-topped boots, to which were attached an immense pair of Mexican spurs. On his head at a jaunty angle, rested a huge sombrero. His weapons, hardly less conspicuous, were a long artillery saber, a pair of horse pistols in enormous leather holsters, plus a pair of revolvers and a butcher knife, all stuck in a wide black belt. By his own admission, Hill resembled something between a strutting bandito and a mobile arsenal.

Perhaps this is where Hill picked up his like for bright red battle shirts and somewhat flamboyant dress.

Hill had his first exposure to volunteer soldiers in Mexico. The young West Pointer was not at all impressed by the behavior of the citizen soldiers.

The soldiers rendered furious by the resistance rushed through the town, breaking open the stores, houses, and shops, loading themselves with the mostly costly articles, rendering themselves brutish by the drinking of aguardiente. The women screaming and running about the streets, imploring protection, was a sight to melt a heart of stone. Twas then I saw and felt how perfectly unmanageable were volunteers and how much harm they did.

The Mexican men also did not impress A.P. Hill. Disgusted with the local population, he noted in a letter home:

The men ... are the most expert robbers and assassins in Mexico, and though the city contains upwards of seventy churches, the wonder of sanctity does not seem much of pervade them. Beggars I believe compose half the population of Mexico, and it has got to be a common saying that now we've whipped the people, we have got to support them. The night spent here will ever be memorable in my history, from the terrible attack made on me by an army of fleas and the great danger of my utter annihilation.

But Mexican women impressed the young soldier. "They have more beautiful feet, small almost to deformity, and the sweetest eyes in the world, but they have not the pure rosy complexion of ours, the lily vieing with the carnation for the rivalry and lips on which 'kisses pout to leave,'" he noted in another letter home. Writing to his father, he half-teased. "The ladies of Mexico are beautiful, oh, how beautiful. However, very few of them ever read Wayland's 'Moral Science.' How would you relish a Mexican daughter-in-law? Tis Sunday again, and the bells (belles) called me to my devotion."

Typhoid in Mexico

Hill contracted typhoid fever in Mexico in November of 1847. He was very ill for six weeks. Typhoid fever, which was quite common in Mexico at this time, is a bacterial infection characterized by diarrhea, systemic disease, and a rash. Typhoid is marked by early, generalized symptoms including fever, malaise and abdominal pain. As the disease progresses, the fever becomes higher than 103 degrees, and diarrhea becomes much more prominent. Weakness, profound fatigue, delirium, and an acutely ill appearance develop. Hill was so ill with typhoid that he wrote his father that it was a "matter of toss up" as to whether he would "shuffle off this mortal coil." He recovered, however.

But the charms Mexican women held for Powell seem to lessen over time. By the end of his period in Mexico, he wrote home:

I went to see a bullfight last evening, and came away thoroughly disgusted with this great national amusement of the Mexicans. Tis a cruel, most cruel sport, and how the ladies defame those feelings given them by Nature, as to look on with the utmost delight, cry "bravo" and clap their pretty little hands, is a mystery to me. I have seen human blood flow in streams, but this turned me sick at heart.

After seeing little battle action in Mexico and suffering from a severe bout of typhoid fever, Powell particpated in the "clean-up" actions and occupations. Hill's daily routine consisted of waking up at 6 AM, drinking a cup of hot chocolate, drilling his battery, having breakfast at 11, and then dinner at 5. He went to bed each night at nine after smoking cigars.

In his last letter home before departing the country, he noted "I have not had an opportunity to try maxim -- "Dulce et decorum est pro partia mori" -- and hope the trial may be long spared me."

After returning from Mexico, Hill was posted from 1848-1849 on garrison duty at Fort McHenry, Maryland, the principal fort protecting the city of Baltimore. It was an easy assignment and Hill found ample time to fall in love. Because he was posted so close to the city, Powell found it easy to spend time with his favorite sister, Lucy, who he called "Lute." Lucy soon fixed up her dashing older brother with a classmate, Emma Wilson. The affair, however, was broken off because Wilson's parents considered themselves of higher social status and thus disapproved of Powell. He wrote philosophically, "Love which will not keep, you know, is not worth having."

In the fall of 1849, Hill was sent to Florida for what would be a six year stint of duty there. The US Army was dealing with the Seminole Indians in Florida during the 1850s and Hill was assigned to be part of the effort. He was posted to duty at Fort Clinch, northeast of Tampa Bay, and became the regimental quartermaster of the First US Artillery.

Although the US Army had been at War with the Seminoles since 1835, life for Hill was dull. He noted, "A soldier's life is always gay -- What an infernal lie. Tis sometimes most confoundedly not, and rain always throws a damper upon my spirits." Like many officers, Hill began to drink to escape the boredom. He wrote home that "The brandy bottle, a quart out, was full when I started, but being so cold, wet, and thoroughly chilled, I drank all of it and I came into camp and they tell me rolled right off my horse."

The heat and humidity in Florida and the swarms of mosquitoes made for an extremely unhealthy climate. Hill complained in a letter home: "My God, will these mosquitoes never satiate their vamperian appetite for blood? Buggy, Buggy, Buggy. There is no peace for the wicked, saith the good book. Mosquitoes were especially sent on earth as a torment to the wicked. Wonder if Noah had any in the ark with him!" He also expressed fear for his health, noting "I do not wish to remain here another summer. I have thus far weathered it safely though it has been nip and tuck, but I do not like to tempt fate much. She might give me the slip next time and leave me to be carried out feet foremost."

Not surprisingly given his large consumption of alcohol, the unhealthy climate, and prevelant disease-carrying insects, Hill became seriously ill for several months in 1850. The Army eventually transfered him to a remote outpost in Key West, where he hunted, fished, and submitted his monthly quartermaster reports. On September 4, 1851, Hill recieved his promotion to first lieutenant. But he was bored alone at Key West and thus asked the War Department to transfer him. The Department responded by sending him to Camp Ricketts for frontieer duty in the extreme southern end of Texas.

While Texas seemed to agree more with Hill's health than Florida had, Hill was still bored, lonely, and unhappy on the Texas frontieer. Probably pining for life in his beloved genteel Culpeper, he wrote home that:

One who has not been here, and daily mixed with the people living on this frontier can have no conception on the state of society, the quintessence of ruffianism and scoundrelism that has been squeezed out from the states and sprinkled along the Rio Grande. Human life is but held as a feather in the list of possessions. I was in Brownsville but some ten days and four men were shot down in the streets. Two gentlemen, they call them down here, whacked out their six shooters not ten steps from our camp the other day, and blazed away at each other until one got a bullet in the bead basket which has forever stopped all desire on his part to fill it. And this is the country to annex which both blood and treasure has been poured out freely as the rains from Heaven. My regret is that do not destroy each other fast enough and finally shoot out the entire race. The world would be no loser, and certainly Heaven no gainer.

Hill also was concerned about his mother, who was never well. In July 1852, he wrote her a sweet note:

And how is my dear, good old mother? How progressed the demon of the imagination in magnifying her ailments. They all write me from home that your health is good. Now say, is it so? Or are they mistaken as usual, and only fooling me? Will you long as affectionately to throw your arms around me, once more, as I have longed, oh so much, to be again an inmate of the old yellow room? Good bye. God bless you. Your afft. Son, Powell.

In late 1852, Hill was again sent to Florida, this time being stationed at Fort Barrancas in Pensacola Harbor. Hill was as disgusted with Florida and a war against "a few poor, lazy harmless devils from country that no white man could, or would live in" as he was with life on the Texas frontieer.

** Powell finds love **

 

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