1861Last updated June 10th, 2007 by Jenny
A.P. Hill settled in quickly in command of the 13th Virginia. One of his men noted later that "Our colonel was A.P. Hill, who had won a fine reputation in the old army, and was one of the most accomplished soldiers with whom I ever came in contact, who was the idol of his men, and who, by his gallantry and skill, steadily rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, and fell, mourned by the whole South, on that ill fated day, at Petersburg, which witnessed the breaking of his lines and the virtual fall of the Confederacy." In a letter during this period, Hill observed that his men were "fine condition, and better still are confident of success, and mean to fight for it." In the same letter, Hill became a little carried away with his sentiments:
What change, my God what changes since last we met. Even though we looked forward to this rupture, yet how little idea we had of the reality of things as they are now, and how many of our old friends, upon whom we would have staked our last dime, have shown the cloven foot, and now are most bitter in this war of subjugation. Yet, nonetheless, by the blessing of God, and hearts that will never grow faint, we will whip the damned hounds yet -- and then God grant that a gulf as deep and as wide as Hell may interpose between us. We all are persecuted, and for what? Nothing but to get politicians out of a damn bad scrape that they have talked themselves into.
Turning to domestic matters, Hill noted that "Dolly is now in Culpeper, and though within 20 miles of me, I have seen her but once since April. She has another little girl, so we will have a good supply of sweethearts for you." The little girl was his new daughter "Russie." Born on August 1, 1861, Frances Russell would grow into "a society belle, popular throughout the South" who was "gifted with much charm and manner and possessed intellect of extraordinary brilliance." She was one of only two of Hill's four daughters to live until adulthood.
In July 1861, the first major land battle of the Civil War was fought outside of Manassas, Virginia. Hill spent the fighting guarding river fords. He and the 13th Virginia would see no action until moving into Western Virginia. The subsquent campaign there was known as the Romeny Campaign.
The period following Romeny and First Manassas was fairly quiet for Hill. On February 26, 1862, he bid the 13th farewell when he was promoted to brigadeir general and the command of a brigade of Virginians that had belonged first to General James James Longstreet (and was later commanded by Hill's boyhood friend and future Virginia governor, James L. Kemper, who would be horribly wounded in "Pickett's Charge" at Gettysburg).
The quiet period continued as neither the Confederate commander, Joseph Johnston, nor the Union commander, Hill's old friend George B. McClellan, showed much inclination towards fighting each other. Although a good organizer, McClellan seemed reluctant to use his great Army to chase Johnston, desiring more planning time. Johnston, with a smaller force, was equally content to wait for McClellan to do something. A frustrated Lincoln administration finally convinced McClellan to make a move in the spring of 1862. The Union battle plan called for taking the Confederate capital at Richmond by advancing up the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Finally in the early spring of 1861, McClellan reluctantly set off and slowly crawled towards Richmond while Johnston obliged "Little Mac" by slowly retreating back towards the Southern capital.
Of course, Johnston could not keep retreating forever. Eventually fighting would have to break out; the armies would have to run into each other sooner or later. On May 5, 1862, Hill -- still in command of a brigade under Longstreet -- was involved in a battle near the famous colonial town of Williamsburg. By all accounts, Hill and his command seemed to have performed well. Longstreet, who would show himself later to be no fan of A.P. Hill, noted that Hill's brigade was "perfect throughout the battle, and it was marched off the field in as good order as it entered it." A soldier, Salem Dutcher, later wrote that:
In the midst of the renewed uproar General Hill came down the line. He stood bolt upright between the contending fires, looked around awhile, then went off to the left, returned, looked once more intently into the timber as if to say this nest must be cleaned out, and finally went off up the line. Years afterwards I stood by the grave of this valiant soldier in the cemetery at Richmond. Naught marked the spot but a slab with "A. P. Hill," and nothing but the twitter of little birds broke the solemn stillness; but as I stood there I saw him as he stood that day--erect, magnificent, the god of war himself, amid the smoke and the thunder.
The Confederate high command must have noted Hill's conduct and good performance because after the battle he was rapidly promoted to the rank of major general and given the command of a division of troops. He remained under General Longstreet's command. Hill had thus made the jump from commanding a regiment as a colonel to a division as a major general in exactly 90 days. It was a meteoric rise to the glory and notoriety Hill had of course thirsted for since the war began.
The Battle of Williamsburg
From the National Park Service:
In the first pitched battle of the Peninsula Campaign, nearly 41,000 Federals and 32,000 Confederates were engaged. Following up the Confederate retreat from Yorktown, Hooker’s division encountered the Confederate rearguard near Williamsburg. Hooker assaulted Fort Magruder, an earthen fortification alongside the Williamsburg Road, but was repulsed. Confederate counterattacks, directed by Maj. Gen. James James Longstreet, threatened to overwhelm the Union left flank, until Kearny’s division arrived to stabilize the Federal position. Hancock’s brigade then moved to threaten the Confederate left flank, occupying two abandoned redoubts. The Confederates counterattacked unsuccessfully. Hancock’s localized success was not exploited. The Confederate army continued its withdrawal during the night.
The Division Hill took command of would later become known as the "Light Division." It was the largest division in the Army at its inception, containing six brigades. The First Brigade was made up of Virginia troops under the command of Charles Field, a Kentuckian and a West Pointer. The Second Brigade was consituted of troops from the Palmetto state under the command of an accomplished citizen soldier, Maxcy Gregg. Georgians under the command of Virginian Joseph R. Anderson, the former commandant at the Richmond Tredgar Ironworks, made up the Division's Third Brigade. The Fourth Brigade, like the Sixth, was made up of Tarheel troops. The Fourth Brigade's commander was Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, a former U.S. Congressman. The Division's Fifth Brigade contained a mixture of troops from Tennessee and Alabama under the command of Princeton-educated and former soldier James Jay Archer. Finally, the North Carolinians of the Sixth Brigade were under the command of an extremely promising young West Point educated officer, William Dorsey Pender. This Division would earn such a reputation that afterwards men commented that it was "made of steel, rather than flesh and blood."
While Hill was distinguishing himself in smaller commands, his old friend McClellan, in command of the massive Army of the Potomac, was still pushing back the outnumbered Confederates slowly towards Richmond. McClellan was convinced by questionable intelligence reports that the Confederates actually outnumbered him, when he in fact held quite the advantage. Johnston was cut from something of the same cautious cloth and he continued to oblige McClellan by retreating until the point that the Union army was close enough to see Richmond's church steeples and hear the church bells toll. Then, suddenly as a lightning bolt tearing across the sky, the turning point for the tenor of the War in the east came and Confederate fortunes took a quick change for the far better. Johnston finally determined to make a stand at a place called Seven Pines or Fair Oaks on May 30, 1862. The massive Federal army was only seven miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond. In the battle, which Hill took little part in, Johnston was badly wounded in the chest. Although Johnston would recover, he was forever out of the War in the East. His second in command, G.W. Smith, did not seem to want command of the Confederate forces; he showed serious signs of indecision. Jefferson Davis thus picked his military consultant, the up until then utterly undistingushed Robert E. Lee, as Johnston's replacement.
McClellan was pleased. He was happy with the change because he did not think much of Lee. In this feeling he was not alone. Despite having been offered the command of all of the Union armies at the beginning of the War, Lee had elected to resign and fight for his home state of Virginia. He had failed to distinguish himself at all in the beginning months of the War, and the troops derisively referred to him as "Old Granny" or the "King of Spades" because he set them to digging to strengthen the earthworks around the city. It would not be long before nicknames like "Old Granny" were put to rest forever, for, as Henry Heth put it later, "Lee was audacity personified." McClellan would soon have his hands very full.
As for A.P. Hill, from this point on he would serve exclusively in what became known as the "Eastern Theater" under Lee. Hill's distingushed career would place him on nearly every major battlefield of the Civil War fought in the East. Stretching roughly between Washington DC and Richmond (the two national capitals), the Eastern theater during the Civil War was basically a 100 mile corridor of Virginia ground that would be soaked with blood as both sides wrested for control; oft-wounded Maine General Joshua Chamberlain spoke for many when he would darkly pun that "I am not of Virginia's blood; she is of mine." Marked almost exclusively by conflict between the North's premier army, the Army of the Potomac, and the Confederacy's premier force, the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee, battles would be fought from Pennsylvania to Petersburg. The Army of Northern Virginia would in a short time become the the Confederacy's superstar Army; while the Confederacy suffered reverse after reverse in the West, the Army of Northern Virginia for the first two years of the War seemed virtually unbeatable.
At this point in the War, however, things were not going well in the East for the Southerners. Lee was determined, though, that Richmond not be given up without a fight. When the issue of evacuating the Confederate capital was discussed, Lee, exclaimed with unusual emotion that Richmond "can not be given up." Unlike Johnston, who had been content to simply continue withdrawing, Lee wanted to seize the initiative away from McClellan and send him back up the Penisula the way he came. Therefore, Lee devised a bold, audacious, and daring plan. Although he was quite outnumbered, Lee decided the best way to save Richmond was to attack.
At about the same time Lee took command, Hill named his division. On June 1, 1862 he named it simply by heading a dispatch as "Headquarters, Light Division." Possible reasons could be Hill wished to differentiate his division from that of D.H. Hill and, as a student of military history his whole life, he was inspired by the British "Light Brigade." Or, perhaps Hill meant it to epitomize his troops as fast, nimble, and hard hitting. The men felt they were known as the Light Division because "we are lightly armed, lightly fed, but march rapidly, fight frequently." Hill also did have a good sense of humor, and it is entirely possible that he gave the name in jest over the Division's large size of six brigades which made it larger than any of the Army's other divisions. However it got its name, the Light Division quickly established itself with a reputation as hard-hitting shock troops on the offensive and stubborn on the defensive.