By mid-afternoon on September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were locked in mortal combat on the rolling hills overlooking the sluggish waters of Antietam Creek in northwestern Maryland. The two sides had been fighting each other since daylight in what would turn out to be the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. As the sun began its slow descent in the sky, Confederate General Robert E. Lee feared that victory lay within his foe’s bloodied but emboldened grasp.
Throughout the day, Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Union forces had steadily bled Lee’s much smaller army of its reserves. Increasingly desperate, Lee had pulled one unit after another from his right flank to strengthen other sectors of his hard-pressed line, and now the Federals were massing for a final assault on his weakened flank. When they struck, Lee feared that there would not be sufficient numbers of Confederates to hold them back. The army’s last line of retreat would be severed, and the war in the East would be as good as over in one fell swoop.
Lee had one last card to play, however. His ace in the hole was Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill’s Light Division, which was somewhere on the road between nearby Harpers Ferry, Va., and Sharpsburg, the small Maryland town around which Lee’s line of battle was tightly wrapped. One of Lee’s last acts on the eve of battle had been to send Hill an urgent dispatch ordering him to rejoin the army immediately.
“Little Powell” and His Light Division
Hill received Lee’s dispatch at 6:30 am. Leaving one brigade behind to complete the parole of the last of the 11,000 Federal prisoners captured at Harpers Ferry, Hill quickly put his five other brigades on the road to Sharpsburg. As the Federals began their final advance on his lines, Lee had no idea where Hill was or, worse yet, when he would arrive. At his headquarters on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, the Confederate commander anxiously watched and waited for Hill’s appearance.
Hill and several members of his staff rode breathlessly into Lee’s headquarters at 2:30 pm. A man of slight build with a bright chestnut-red beard, Hill was affectionately known as “Little Powell” to the Confederate high command. At the time of the battle, he was the youngest major general in the Confederate Army. Having shed his jacket in the heat, Hill was easily identified by his troops on the march by his famous red “battle shirt,” which he wore whenever the day promised to produce a good fight. After a quick greeting, Hill informed Lee that his infantry was at that very moment fording the Potomac River three miles away and would soon be on hand. When it arrived on the battlefield, Lee instructed, the reinforcements should support the right flank. Having received his orders, Hill and his staff returned to the infantry column.
At 3 pm, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps began advancing on a broad front toward Sharpsburg. The Federals outnumbered the Confederates in that sector three-to-one. If Hill’s troops didn’t arrive soon, the Southern right flank would collapse and disintegrate. The battle would be lost.
Lee’s eyes were riveted on the Harpers Ferry Road south of Sharpsburg, where the battle was intensifying and the Light Division was expected to arrive any minute. When he spied a column moving from the southeast, Lee called to an artillery officer nearby.
“What troops are those?” Lee asked.
The officer offered Lee his spyglass. “Can’t use it,” Lee said, raising his bandaged hands. The general had been thrown from his horse at the start of the campaign and had broken one of his hands and sprained both wrists. The officer raised his glass and focused the lens on the column. “They are flying the United States flag,” he said.
Lee pointed to another column to the southwest and asked the same question. The officer trained his glass on the new column. “They are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags,” he said.
Lee sighed with relief. “It is A.P. Hill from Harpers Ferry.” If the Light Division could get into battle quickly enough, it might be able to save Lee’s army from what a few minutes before had seemed like certain destruction.
The Dependable A.P. Hill
Lee had little need to worry about whether Hill would arrive in time. In the half-dozen major engagements since the beginning of the war in which Hill had led troops, he had shown himself to be a prompt, dependable, and hard-hitting commander. He pushed his troops hard, followed orders well, and never lost his cool in battle. A fighter by nature, Hill had conducted only one major defensive action since the war began. If Lee could rely on any of his division commanders to launch a successful counterattack, it was A.P. Hill.
Hill was bred from the same colorful cavalier Virginia stock as such other well-known Confederate officers as Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Born in Culpeper on November 9, 1825, Hill entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842 at the age of 16. In the kind of ironic twist that typified the Civil War, he would become closely acquainted with the two individuals who would be his principal opponents at the Battle of Antietam. His first-year roommate was George McClellan. Although Hill should have graduated the same year as McClellan, he was held back a year because of a chronic illness. Thus, Hill and his close friend Ambrose Burnside graduated 15th and 18th, respectively, in the Class of 1847.
In August 1847, Hill received orders to report for service with the U.S. 1st Artillery Regiment in Mexico. He arrived at the port of Vera Cruz after the regional capital had fallen and participated in a limited fashion in two of the closing battles of the struggle. When the Americans sacked the town of Huamantla, Hill observed firsthand the great harm that volunteers were capable of doing if not properly disciplined. This experience deeply ingrained itself on the young lieutenant and afterwards would inform the authoritarian way in which he led those who served under him.
After the Mexican War, Hill served a year of garrison duty at Fort McHenry, Md., before shipping out with his unit to western Florida, where he participated in the ongoing suppression of the Seminoles. After five years of service in Florida, Hill transferred to the U.S. Coast Survey, in which post he was serving when the first seven southern states seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Despite being urged by his comrades to remain in the service, Hill resigned in February 1861 and returned to his home state, hoping to receive an appointment commensurate with his extensive military experience.
Much to his chagrin, Hill was passed over for a generalship by Virginia Governor John Letcher and instead was named colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry. The regiment comprised 10 companies, all drawn from Virginia with the exception of one company from Baltimore. Hill began training the regiment at Harpers Ferry, where it was part of General Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah. Little Powell drilled his men several times a day. His training was so effective that Johnston commended the 13th Virginia for its “veteran-like appearance.” When Johnston received orders from Richmond on July 17 to move his army to Manassas to support Brig. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard in a major battle then taking shape along the banks of Bull Run Creek, the 13th Virginia traveled by train to Manassas Junction, but saw no action at the ensuing Battle of First Manassas.
First Battle at Williamsburg
In February 1862, Hill was appointed brigadier general commanding the First Brigade of Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s Second Division. When McClellan, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, landed in April with 120,000 Federal troops at Fort Monroe at the tip of the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, Hill’s brigade marched to the aid of Maj. Gen. John Magruder, who had established a defensive line across the peninsula’s lower portion to thwart the Federal advance.
Hill’s first major action in the Civil War occurred on May 5 at Williamsburg. Longstreet ordered him to drive back Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Federal division. Hill led his men against a strong enemy position in thick woods on the outskirts of Williamsburg. The two sides fought at close range in the driving rain throughout the afternoon. Just before nightfall, Hill’s troops launched a successful charge that routed Hooker’s troops and resulted in the capture of 160 prisoners, seven flags, and eight artillery pieces.
On May 27, in recognition of his role at Williamsburg, Hill was promoted to major general. He had risen from colonel to major general in just 90 days.
Hill called his new command the Light Division, a name that stuck with it throughout the war. The division, which comprised six brigades, was actually the largest in the Confederate Army, and Hill gave no explanation for the name he had chosen. In the absence of such an explanation, the nickname came to be associated with his troops’ ability to march fast and take little more than their rifles, cartridge boxes, and haversacks into battle. Division Private Wayland F. Dunaway recalled later that “the name was applicable, for we often marched without coats, blankets, knapsacks, or any other burdens except our arms and haversacks, which were never heavy and sometimes empty.”