The Last Campaign

Last updated June 18th, 2007 by Jenny
A.P. Hill

During the long siege of Petersburg it had been Hill who was the chief guardian of the city; Lee trusted A.P. Hill to command probably the most important part of the Petersburg defenses. While illness had prevented him from rising to great heights as a corps commander, he had still fought well and with distinction at Petersburg.

On April 1, the Federals attacked at the crossroads of Five Forks. Here, one of General Hill's favorite young officers, William Pegram, had been mortally wounded. Willie Pegram certainly did not look like a warrior; with his glasses he looked more like a student or professor. Yet, he was a superb gunner and Heth remarked that he was "one of the few men supremely happy in battle." Hill had written an endorsement to Heth's recommendation that Pegram be promoted that simply read: "No officer in the Army of Northern Virginia has done more to deserve this promotion than Lieutenant-Colonel Pegram." Pegram rose from private to colonel, fighting in almost all of the major battles with the Third Corps. His brother, John, was a Confederate general, and was killed only a few weeks before Willie was at the battle of Hatcher's Run. Before the first blush of dawn on Sunday, April 2, 1865, Willie Pegram died from his wounds received at Five Forks.

That same Sunday morning, Federal troops of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Horatio G. Wright launched an all out attack on Petersburg. Lee's lines were stretched too thin. The lines at Petersburg were broken.

Worried about his lines, Hill had painfully rode them during the night of April 1. He then tried to settle down to get some sleep at his headquarters at the Venable cottage. The sound of fire from Petersburg prevented him from obtaining any rest and at about three am, wearing a white shirt his wife had made him, he left the house he shared with his wife and daughters and walked a short distance to his headquarters tent at Widow Knight's.

The sentiments of a Confederate soldier, Captain W.O. Dodd, in the Nashville-Franklin campaign back in November of 1864 could be applied to Confederate fortunes now as well. He noted, "It seemed then, as it seems now, that a hand stronger than armies had decreed our overthrow." The South was now bleeding to death -- literally.

When he arrived at headquarters, Hill met his chief of staff, the ever faithful Col. William H. Palmer. Palmer had nothing to report, and Hill had him remain at headquarters to ready the staff, despite the fact Palmer badly wanted to accompany Hill. Hill told Palmer that when he was finished seeing Lee he would return. Mounted on his favorite steel gray mount Champ, Hill rode away. Palmer never saw him again.

At the Trumbull House along the Cox Road, Hill met with an equally tired but sleepless Robert E. Lee. Around 4 in the morning, the commander of Lee's first corps, James Longstreet, joined them.

A.P. Hill's Last Ride

Hill's path took him along the Cox Road (which runs parallel to the Southside Railroad and the Appomattox River) to Edge Hill, headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had his headquarters in the Turnbull House.

Hill arrived at Lee's headquarters at about 5:35. Hill conferred briefly with Lee who had not slept well either and was only half dressed. At about 5:45, Charles Venable of Lee's staff burst in with news that the worst had happened: the lines were broken. Hill jumped up and rushed out to see what could be done.

Hill rode south across Cattail Run and then west, his path following roughly the Long Ordinary Road.*

Hill's destination was Heth's headquarters at the Pickrell House (across the street from the present day entrance to Pamplin Park).

Less than half a mile from his destination, Hill was killed. The time was probably sometime between 6:30 and 6:45 am on April 2, 1865.

It was not long before the informal conference between Lee, Hill, and James Longstreet was interrupted. Colonel Charles Venable, an aide on Lee's staff, rushed into the room with very bad news: enemy troops had been spotted in the rear the lines were breaking. Before Lee could even say a word, Hill mounted his horse, and with two couriers George Tucker and William Jenkins, and galloped toward the breach in his line. A worried Lee sent Col. Venable after him with a message for Hill to be careful and not to expose himself.

Hill told Venable to thank Lee for his words and told him he was simply attempting to get into communication with his right flank.

Coming upon two Federal soldiers, they were ordered to surrender. The soldiers laid down the weapons and Hill ordered Jenkins to take them to General Lee. Moving along the lines, Hill came upon Lt. Col. William Poague's battalion of artillery. Hill had Venable place the guns and ordered them opened up on the enemy. With only Tucker now as his escort, Hill continued southwest towards his right, trying to get in touch with General Heth.

They rode on quietly, and then Hill said to Tucker, "Sergeant, should anything happen to me, you must go back to General Lee and report it."

Hill and Tucker rode through a stretch of woods and upon coming out of them, Hill noted through his field glasses the troops of the enemy. "We must keep to the right" he told Tucker.

Along the Boydton Plank Road, Hill and Tucker came upon two soldiers from the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry, Pvt. Daniel Wolford and Cpl. William Mauk -- the same soldier who had been present at the death of General Sedgwick nearly one year ago. The two soldiers, seeing the approaching riders, ducked behind a large tree and leveled their guns. Concerned for his chief's safety, Tucker replied, "Stay there, I will take them." The pair was less than 20 yards away from the two Union soldiers. Tucker, riding forward, yelled, "If you fire you will be swept to hell... our men are here --surrender!" Hill, now at Tucker's side, echoed, "Surrender!"

With the two riders just 10 yards away now, Mauk and Wolford needed to do some quick thinking. "I can't see it," Mauk said to the private, "Let us shoot them."

The end was quick and painless. Wolford's shot went wide and missed Tucker. Mauk's aim rang true: a .58 caliber bullet struck Hill. It passed through his gauntlet and cut off his left thumb, then continued it's way into his chest, through his heart, and tore through his back. Hill fell to the ground, motionless. Tucker caught Champ's bridle, and raced for cover. Mauk and Wolford did not linger long, they soon after hurried southward to join their command. The time was between 6:55 and 6:45 am. Tucker, remembering Hill's words that he should tell General Lee if anything should happen, started back to headquarters riding Champ. Tucker met James Longstreet on his way and blurted out what had happened, and he also told Hill's chief of staff, Colonel Palmer. Palmer attempted to explain what had happened to Lee, but broke down in tears. Tucker finished the account. Lee, with tears in his eyes and with great emotion, said, "He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer." He turned to Palmer and told him to inform Hill's wife Dolly who lived in a cottage nearby (as was her custom in keeping near Powell even on campaign and even though she was pregnant). Sadly, Lee added, "Colonel, break the news to her as gently as possible."

Resources on Hill's Death

On-site resources related to A.P. Hill's death on April 2, 1865 include Freeman's account taken from his classic R.E. Lee, Sgt. Tucker's account (the only Confederate account), Cpl. Mauk's account (the soldier who shot Hill), and a May 1892 account written by James Matthews who attempted to reconcile the accounts of Tucker and Mauk. It also contains some biographical information about the two men.

Dolly, who was seven months pregnant at the fatal time, was busy doing small tasks and was singing. Hearing boots, she spotted Palmer. She threw up her hands in anguish and cried, "The General is dead! You would not be here if he had not been killed!" Palmer tried to temper his news that he didn't know if Hill was indeed dead or not only that he had been shot, but a few minutes later soldiers came back carrying his lifeless body. Members of his 5th Alabama Regiment had gone out and recovered Hill's body. When his gauntlets were removed, Dolly noted how conspicuous his wedding ring looked on his mangled left hand.

Walter Taylor, a young aide to Lee, would later write:

    Thus terminated the career of one of the most brilliant and successful leaders in the Southern Army. From the day he crossed the Chickahominy at Mechanicsville, in June, 1862, and opened the attack on the army under General McClellan, to the day of his death, he was a constant and reliable support to General Lee in the operations of his army.

    Every chapter in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia is illumined with the story of the gallant and successful conduct of the troops under his command and the record of the series of brilliant operations on our right in the siege of the city of Petersburg in the spring of 1865, in resisting the extension of the lines of the army under General Grant, may be said to be a diary of the command of A.P. Hill.

    It is a singular fact, worthy of record, that in the last moments of both General Jackson and General Lee, when the mind wandered, in the very shadow of death, each should have uttered a command to A.P. Hill, the beloved and trusted lieutenant -- ever ready, ever sure and reliable, always prompt to obey and give the desired support. When the strife was fiercest they were wont to call on Hill.

Dolly wanted to bury Powell in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery. This was the burial place of Richmond's famous and elite; already many Confederate generals, including Archer and Stuart, were buried here. But in the confusion of the collapse of Petersburg -- and therefore Richmond -- no permission could be obtained. The family then decided to take Hill's body home to his beloved Culpeper. But the body had not been embalmed and the early April heat made that impractical. At 2 o'clock on the 4th of April, A.P. Hill was buried in the old Winston Family Cemetery in Chesterfield without fanfare or any religious ceremony.

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