Fredericksburg

Last updated June 14th, 2007 by Jenny

Hill was proud of his Light Division and the record it had put together. He issued the following order commending his men:

    SOLDIERS OF THE LIGHT DIVISION:

    You have done well and I am well pleased with you. You have fought in every battle from Mechanicsville to Shepherdstown, and no man can yet say that the Light Division was ever broken. You held the left at Manassas against overwhelming numbers and saved the army. You saved the day at Sharpsburg and at Shepherdstown. You were selected to face a storm of round shot, shell, and grape such as I have never before seen. I am proud to say to you that your services are appreciated by our general, and that you have a reputation in this army which it should be the object of every officer and private to sustain.

    A.P. Hill

Sharpsburg was followed by a period of relative quiet. McClellan seemed unwilling or unable to pursue Lee, and Lee was content to just watch the larger Union army after the bloodletting at Sharpsburg. With Hill's stellar performance at the battle, Jackson seemed ready to just let the whole matter of the arrest and Hill's behavior pass without further mention. Hill, however, could not let it go. Being forced to march behind his division was too much of a slight and too great a humiliation for his peculiarly sensitive nature to stomach. At the end of the month, he sent the following letter through channels. And, the feud, which had been simmering, now burst back into raging flames. There was certainly never a dull moment in the Army of Northern Virginia high command.

With the feud now opened back up, Jackson wrote a sharp endorsement of Hill's request for a court of inquiry into his actions, denying flat out that he had kept a "black list" against the red headed Culpeper general. One wonders, however, if Hill's charge of a black list had merit. Richard Garnett, the commander of the Stonewall Brigade that Jackson made his scapegoat for the defeat in the March 1862 Valley battle of Kernstown, seems to have gotten into trouble mainly because Jackson -- who didn't want Garnett to command the brigade -- was looking specifically for any little thing to call on Garnett for messing up. After Jackson's death, it was noted by Kyd Douglas that "Hill did not forgive or forget," but apparently Jackson was of a similar unforgiving nature when it came to his commanders. That is not to say that Hill was not to some extent being petty, but it would be unfair to say all of the troubles were just a result of Powell Hill being a hot-head.

We can only imagine Lee's reaction to this argument --as seemingly petty as it was-- between two of his best chief lieutenants.

On October 3rd Jackson sent forward his charges against Hill. The feud was quickly becoming uglier and uglier as the two stubborn men continued to trade insults and letters. It began to mirror, in some ways, Hill's feud with James Longstreet, though apparently neither Jackson nor Hill challenged each other to a duel.

Lee, it seems, just wanted the whole ugly matter dropped. When Hill pressed for a trial in the wake of the death of Gregg and Branch (two men he considered principal witnesses for his side of the story), Lee tried to step in as a diplomat. He tried to tactfully tell Hill to forget the whole matter and let by gones be by gones. The calm and cool letter from Lee, like Lee's letter to Jackson warning him about Hill's sensitivity, unfortunately did not have the desired effect. Hill was still very angry when he received it, and Lee's letter, rather than soothing his ruffled feathers, convinced him that what Lee was saying was that he was right and Jackson was wrong. The letter he wrote to Lee reflected both his anger and his sensitivity. Hill would not back down; he would stand up for himself.

Jed Hotchkiss, Jackson's famous mapmaker and no A.P. Hill fan, noted that "I hope all may blow by. Gen. Hill is a brave officer but perhaps too quick to resent seeming overstepping of authority. Gen. Jackson intends to do his whole duty. May good and not evil come out of this trouble."

While Jackson and Hill were feuding, changes were taking place. McClellan was finally replaced. The new commander of the Army of the Potomac was Ambrose Burnside. Hill's old friend objected he was not qualified. He would show just how unqualified he was in December at Fredericksburg with several bloody frontal assaults that accomplished nothing.

Lee managed to out-manuever Burnside and took up very strong defensive positions near the town of Fredericksburg. The battle opened at 8:30 on the morning of December 13th. There was a major problem for the Light Division, however. Hill had apparently left a gap between his brigades near some swampy ground. He must have believed that the Union troops would not be able to cross the marshy ground and wanted to spare his men from having to occupy such an unhealthy area. Gregg's brigade was positioned behind this gap and the swampy ground. The gap would turn out to account for part of the reason why Hill's division accounted for two-thirds of Jackson's total losses. While Hill certainly was at least somewhat responsible for the "interval," notably Jackson -- who surveyed his battle lines -- did nothing to correct it either.

The Union troops assaulted Hill's position. They funneled through the gap between the brigades. Gregg was apparently caught somewhat off-guard when the Union troops came barreling down upon him. Gregg was partial deaf; perhaps that had the most to do with it.

Whomever was at fault ultimately, the result was a near disaster for the Light Division and a fatal wound for Gregg. While bravely leading his South Carolinians forward, Gregg was shot through the spine in the small of his back, a terribly painful and mortal wound. A.P. Hill later visited the dying Gregg finding him lying mortally wounded on a couch at the Yerby House. Gregg by this time was "unconscious" and beyond all hope of medical help. His mind wandered and his speech was nearly incoherent. Hill placed a kiss upon Gregg's forehead, bidding him a final goodbye. Amongst Gregg's last acts before he died at 5 in the morning on December 15, 1862 was to send a dispatch to the Governor of South Carolina: "If I am to die at this time, I yield my life cheerfully, fighting for the independence of South Carolina."

Jackson and Gregg had had their differences. Angry over incidents on the march, Gregg had gone so far as to have preferred charges against Jackson for maladministration. Lee dismissed them by saying "Take these papers to General Gregg and tell him that at such a time as this the country cannot afford quarrels." Jackson and Gregg reconciled on Gregg's death bed after he was mortally wounded near the spine at the battle of Fredericksburg. A member of Jackson's staff recalled:

    When night came over the battlefield of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, we were in our saddles on the hill near Hamilton's Crossing. General Jackson, with his staff and some couriers, turned to leave the field and find our headquarters wagons, and he directed me to go to Mr. Yerby's house and present his regards and sympathy to General Maxcy Gregg, who was there seriously wounded. I found General Gregg on a bed in the center of a large room, surrounded by surgeons and other officers. I conveyed my message to him personally. He was much affected and desired me to thank General Jackson for his thoughtful remembrance.

    It was nearly daybreak when I returned to the headquarters camp, and wrapped myself again in my blankets. But I was not yet asleep, when again an orderly at my tent door said, "Captain, the general wants you." Struggling into my boots once more, I found the general making his toilet, with a tin basin of water and a rough towel.

    He said, "I have just had a message from General Gregg, who is nearing his end at the Yerby house, asking that I call to see him as I go to the front this morning. I wish you to ride with me, captain!"

    Dressing hurriedly, I got into the saddle and rode with General Jackson to the Yerby house.

    There was an affecting interview between Jackson and Gregg, a large man, who was suffering greatly and failing rapidly. Gregg wished to explain and express regret for an endorsement he had written on some paper which he feared was offensive to General Jackson. Jackson did not know to what Gregg referred, and soon interrupted the sufferer to say that it had given him no offense whatever, and then, with Gregg's hand in his, he added, "The doctors tell me that you have not long to live. Let me ask you to dismiss this matter from your mind and turn your thoughts to God and to the world to which you go." Both were much moved. General Gregg with tears said: "I thank you; I thank you very much." Silently we rode away, and as the sun rose, General Jackson was again on the hill near Hamilton's Crossing. And that day Burnside began his retreat to the north of the Rappahannock.

After the battle ended, Hill, in a gesture consistent with his personality, commended the valor of the Union troops who had gallantly assaulted his position.

The Battle of Fredericksburg

On the website, you will find the reports of Hill's Division as well as an account of the battle written by General Alfred Scales.

Fredericksburg was probably A.P. Hill's worst battle as a division commander. So inconspicious was he -- in contrast to his normal self -- that rumors circulated that he had even been captured. He wasn't, but Fredericksburg was not his finest or best hour.

That could have been for a number of reasons. Perhaps he was slightly ill. Or perhaps the months of feuding with Jackson had taken their toll on Hill. Early December had also brought a personal tragedy for the Hills -- during the second week of December, Hill's oldest daughter, "Netty," died of diphtheria. Perhaps Hill, in his grief, just was not on his A-game.

Both armies went into winter quarters following Fredericksburg. Although the battle had been bloody for the Light Division, it actually was a very lopsided Union defeat. Soon, Burnside would be replaced with another commander.

Home >> Narrative >> Fredericksburg | Related: Chancellorsville