A.P. Hill's Antebellum Years (1)

Last updated June 10th, 2007 by Jenny

The summer of 1844 had been a pleasant time for young A.P. Hill. Furloughed home from West Point, he enjoyed spending the summer at his Virginia home. Friends noted his "lithe figure and manly bearing" and he was the envy of the children of the town in his gray cadet uniform.

But then Hill made a huge mistake. On his way back to West Point, Hill stopped in New York City and gave in to the temptations of the red-light district. As a result, Powell caught gonorrhea. On September 9, 1844, he was admitted to the Academy Hospital. Even without antibiotics, gonorrehea usually simply runs its course. Hill was not so lucky. He developed severe pelvic pain and a fever and had to be sent home on November 19. His health did not rapidly improve and he remained home under the care of the family doctor who noted in March that the "disease of the prostate glands &c under which he labored prior to leaving the Military Academy still continutes" and left him "incapable of military and academic duties."

Hill would pay for his youthful mistake for the rest of his life.

A.P. Hill's Sickness at the Point

On September 9, 1844, Cadet Hill was admitted to the West Point hospital with "gonorrhea contracted on furlough." Gonorrhea is caused by neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria. Males become aware of a gonorrheal infection by painful urination and the discharge of pus-continuing material from the urethra and symptoms generally appear a few days to a week or so after contraction. Today, people generally recover from the illness with few bad effects because of the use of antibiotics, and even in the 1840s most people suffered no lasting effects. In the 1840s, treatment consisted of regular doses of copaiba, a yellowish spicy smelling liquid that was used for a variety of different ailments (apparently, it is still used to treat STDs in parts of the Amazon today as well). In antebellum America copaiba was especially used for its diuretic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, disinfectant, and stimulant effect. Hill was not so lucky and began to suffer from severe complications. Complications from gonorrhea can be very serious. The urethra can become partially blocked, or sterility can result from blockage of reproductive ducts with scar tissue and in some cases, other organ systems such as the heart, meninges of the brain, or joints may also become infected. Hill suffered severe pelvic pain, fever, and difficulty in urination. The urethral strictures produced by the gonococcus led to painful prostatitis. On November 19, Hill was sent home to Virginia. He did not improve there either, because his family doctor wrote in March that his leave should be extended because "the disease of the prostate gland &c under which he labored prior to his leaving" were continuing. Hill's condition eventually improved enough that he was able to return to the Military Academy in the late spring. By this time, Hill was hopelessly behind in philosophy and chemistry, and he was therefore left back to repeat his third year.

The most immediate consequence was Hill's long absence from the Point led the faculty to conclude that he was deficient. Therefore, he had to repeat his third year. This certainly was extremely disapppointing for Hill as it meant leaving his classmates in the Class of 1846 behind.

(The West Point rolls for 1845 show Hill as deficient in philosophy and chemistry; he did not take the drawing exam. That year he was ranked 80th in conduct with 45 demerits.)

Possessed of his father's genial nature, however, Hill quickly made friends with his new classmates in the Class of 1847. Among his closest friends would be Henry Heth and Ambrose Burnside. Hill roomed with a cadet named Julian McAllister, and Heth recalled that as "they had a room over the commandant's office, it was never inspected." McAllister, Hill, Heth, and Burnside became the class leaders, engaging in pranks of all kinds. And he even found time for love. During his time at West Point, Hill carried on a romance with a local girl. He apparentely did not take the romance seriously, however, as he wrote her a tongue-in-cheek letter that is quite humorous:

Dear Georgia, Now do not draw up and put on a dignified reserve at the "Dear" for you know you have given yourself to me for better, for worser, richer for poorer and I say the Lord save you from the bargain you've made: but the banns have been published and with the blessing of "Uncle Sam" we'll be married some time before the millennium. Now I am going to give you some little insight into my "cranium" so that your leap into matrimony may not be made entirely in the dark. First of all, I am a terribly jealous fellow. and now that you are summoned by so many handsome young beaux, the green eyed devil allows me no peace at all ... I am also remarkably fond of a good dinner, so buy one of Mrs. Randolph's Cookery books and set yourself to studying. Also take a few lessons from Jim Clay in making sherry cobblers, as I should like one always immediately before dinner. Also buy a drum and be taught the art of making music on a sheepskin, for I can never retire or rise without the sound of the drum. And a good many alsos which it is not necessary for you to know yet awhile.

In his repeated junior year (1846), Hill ranked 18th overall among his new 40 member class. He ranked 26th in Philosophy, 17th in Chemistry, and 6th in Drawing. Future Union generals John Gibbon and Charles Griffen were ranked immediately below Hill academically. Hill was ranked 96 of 213 cadets, with 46 demerits.

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.

Hill graduated 15th of 38 in the class of 1847. His roommate Julian McAllister was ranked 4th. Hill ranked 21st in the class in Engineering, 16th in Ethics, 20th in Artillery, 16th in Infantry Tactics, and 21st in Geology. Reflecting his pranks with Heth and Burnside, Hill tumbled to 184th of 218 on the Conduct Roll with 145 demerits (Heth managed to accrue 165, while Burnside racked up 190 -- close to the expulsion number of 200. McAllister somehow managed to stay out of trouble, ranking 27th in Conduct with only 9 demerits).

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 of Hill, painted this word picture of the young officer:

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 later penchant during the Civil War for bright red battle shirts. Hill also had his first exposure to volunteer soldiers in Mexico. Although he would become much beloved by his men in the Confederate army, the young West Pointer was not at all impressed by the behavior of the citizen soldiers in Mexico. His feelings are reflected well in a letter home:

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.

Not afraid to speak his mind, Hill wrote of the Mexican population:

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 enchanted 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 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." But over time, even the ladies lost some of their charms. Hill would later write home that "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."

Typhoid Fever

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.

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.

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