The Many Deaths of A.P. Hill

I hope to share more about the story of A.P. Hill’s death at this year’s Symposium. Previous historians and two of the participants themselves have ironed out the well-known event, so I am basing my presentation on the sequence through which the clear details of his final ride have emerged. Hill’s monument (and third grave), which Frank Jastrzembski wrote about recently, figured prominently into how the true story of Hill’s death became well-known. In the process of piecing together additional information about that fatal morning, I have found quite a few remarkably incorrect sources about his death.

Most of these are from the National Tribune postwar veteran newspaper, a source that I frequently cite and will continue to do so. Some caution is needed when digging into this, and every, source. Just because it was fit to print does not necessarily mean it is true. The editors published letters with dubious claims, trusting that the truth would emerge through additional correspondence. Let the veterans sort it out on the pages. That said, the litany of errors you find not only in the Tribune, but other newspapers, published regimentals, and unpublished family histories, mean that you can find a soldier quote to back up almost any opinion on the Civil War.

The variances in each account mean that, outside of A.P. Hill getting shot, there is only one common thread among them—if one of these tales is true, then many of the others cannot be. These are not different versions of the same story but entirely new stories altogether.

The actual details, written by John W. Mauk (who shot Hill) and George W. Tucker (who escorted the general), are confirmed by all reliable reports, correspondence, and trusted sources. Hill left his headquarters in the early morning, rode to Lee’s headquarters west of Petersburg where he was alerted that his lines were broken, and then took off for Henry Heth’s headquarters along the Boydton Plank Road. He followed Cattail Run to avoid detection before riding across an open meadow opposite the John W. Harman house to reach the vacated Pickrell house division headquarters. At the end of the meadow, Hill and Tucker encountered Corporal John W. Mauk and Private Daniel Wolford of the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry, who had ventured all the way to the South Side Railroad after breaking through the Confederate lines near the Hart house that morning. After a short standoff, Mauk and Wolford fired, killing Hill.

Mauk’s shot immediately killed the general, but plenty of others claimed credit. In chronological order, a sampling as they appeared:

Sergeant Frederick L. Wheelock, 37th Massachusetts Infantry, Sixth Corps, wrote he “ordered the men in his charge to file the volley that killed Gen. A.P. Hill, at Petersburg.”[1]

Private William H. Howard, 39th Illinois Infantry, Twenty-fourth Corps, served as a sharpshooter during the attack on Fort Gregg later in the day. His recollections are quoted in the 39th’s regimental history:

“I advanced about half way to the fort to a good sheltered position, and made several pretty fair shots at the rebel gunners. When the command to ‘charge’ was given, I started to the left oblique for a trench that ran out from the fort, but before I reached it there was some terribly hot work going on. I could see our ‘boys’ falling thick and fast. After reaching the trench I noticed a rebel officer with his hat in one hand and sword in the other, advancing from the rear to get into Fort Gregg. Two of Company D’s boys who were with me fired at him, but missed. I then jumped out of the ditch near the stockade and took aim at the officer’s belt plate, fired, and the officer fell dead. As I rose up to get back to the ditch I was struck in the neck by a rifle-ball and knocked down, but it was a nearly-spent ball and did no great damage. After the fort had been taken I went out where the dead officer lay and took his spurs and a pair of sleeve-buttons, also some Confederate money. Some soldier from another regiment took his sword, which was a beauty. This officer, I have a good reason to believe, was General A.P. Hill.”[2]

John A. MacDonald, 7th New Jersey Infantry, Second Corps, wrote in 1903 that Hill was killed in the same location as Howard claimed, two miles away from the actual spot of the general’s death. “While near Fort Gregg I saw a group of officers, among whom were one or two in Confederate uniform, standing near a body which was about to be interred. Being convinced that the dead soldier was an officer of high rank, and being inquisitive, I approached near enough to ask one of the burial detail who it was, and was told that the body was that of Gen. A.P. Hill, the Confederate leader who was killed that morning.”[3]

Many soldiers from the Ninth Corps, who fought around Fort Mahone, 3.5 miles further east from Fort Gregg, also claimed responsibility for shooting Hill. “What does memory say?” Julius E. Henderson, 60th Ohio Infantry, opined in 1905. “We who were on the right of Parke’s line between Fort McGilvery and the City Point Railroad, two miles from Fort Sedgwick, which is directly east of Fort Mahone, were informed about 2 p.m. that Gen. Hill had been killed in a charge and attempted recapture of the works taken by Parke’s men. We heard six or seven distinct charges for that purpose.”[4]

Benjamin Samuel Philbrick, 27th Michigan Infantry, responded to Henderson’s article and likewise claimed that Hill was killed in the vicinity of Fort Mahone “while leading in person the third desperate assault in an attempt to recapture the work.” An entire regiment and battery fired at Hill, according to Philbrick’s article.

“The General was in plain view from where many of us stood, and several comrades called attention to his desperate bravery and fine soldierly appearance. A hundred Spencer repeating rifles were discharged at him when not 300 yards from the fort; also several of the captured cannon just manned by a detachment of the 6th Conn. H.A., who came into the fort shortly after its capture and gallantly assisted us to retain possession of the fort.”[5]

Several veterans wrote to the National Tribune to dispute Philbrick’s claim, to which the Michigander responded, “This I saw, and while I could not swear it was Gen. Hill, the report of rebel prisoners and subsequent history strongly confirms the belief that it was.”[6]

Jacob H. Linck, 207th Pennsylvania Infantry, Ninth Corps, corrected Philbrick, though he still had the location wrong. “I also beg leave to differ with the Michigan comrade about the time of day A.P. Hill fell,” he wrote. “I was not called to dinner that day, but believe it was in the afternoon between 1 and 3 o’clock, at which time a number of us boys observed a staff maneuvering in the rear of Fort Mahone, and noticed an officer mounted on a white horse in the bunch which brought a volley from our boys, and I always believed the rebel General fell at that time and tumbled from his white horse.”[7]

Hurlburt L. Farnsworth, also of the 207th Pennsylvania, relayed a story he heard on the day of Hill’s death:

“Later in the afternoon Comrade Farnsworth found three rebels hid in a bombproof and ordered them out. One was badly wounded. They said that A.P. Hill was their General, and that he fell a little after noon down toward Fort Steadman. Several other Johnnies at different times told Comrade Farnsworth the same story. They said that Hill with his glass was standing on the work looking across the ravine to where the Indian sharpshooters were and Tidball’s Battery. His wife was with him and stood in the work for about 30 minutes, when she became scared and sat down behind the work. She begged Hill to do the same, but he would not, and she finally pulled him down into her lap, telling him that the Indian sharpshooters were firing directly at him. In spite of her he got up on the work again, and was shot in the head, falling back dead in his wife’s lap.”[8]

William Wilkins, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, also wrote, “Gen. Hill was not killed in the early morning, but later in the day, while leading reinforcements to recapture Fort Mahone. No one can tell who shot Hill, as thousands of men were then firing in that direction. There was no need of reconnoitering, for everyone knew just where the Johnnies were.”[9]

Finally, Thomas L. Lowden, 61st Massachusetts, Ninth Corps, wrote an account in 1909 that stated Hill was killed on the other side of the Appomattox River at “a house with a large front yard in which beautiful green grass was growing and heavily shaded with maples.

“The regiment halted there for a rest, and Comrade Lowden had a talk with a middle-aged lady of the house. She said that A.P. Hill was killed in the yard in front of her house. He was sure that someone was killed there, for there were large clots of blood around the yard, especially around the trees, which were shattered with shell and bullets, so that they looked like old-fashioned beehives. A little south of the house was an old-fashioned building of rock, in which the poor woman hid during the battle. The battle came on so suddenly that she had only time to reach the rock work, which was higher than she.

“After the fight was over at Petersburg our army on the left rushed around, and met Lee at this place, and the Confederates took their stand in front of her house and in the yard among the shade trees. The lady mentioned several other officers besides Hill who were killed or wounded in the fight.”[10]

All these veterans who fought on April 2, 1865 around Petersburg experienced horrific close-quarters combat around Forts Gregg and Mahone, so I certainly am not aiming to diminish their experience. I share their stories as evidence of the conviction displayed in asserting what turned out to be an incorrect argument. Credit for shooting Hill or witnessing his death were the stakes at play in their articles, but what if we were to take what they wrote at face value and apply it to all Civil War recollections? If we can see a wide array of misstatements on what happened in a battle, what can we expect to find when Civil War veterans wrote about the causes of the war, slavery, reconciliation, blame, and their opinions on certain generals and politicians?

My selection of ten erroneous recollections about A.P. Hill’s death all came from Union soldier accounts. Confederate misinformation about the event meanwhile followed a more calculated, intentional approach to skew the narrative of that morning. I’ll be discussing that more in August.

 

Sources:

[1] “Condensed Letters,” National Tribune, March 19, 1885.

[2] Charles M. Clark, The History of the Thirty-ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Veteran Infantry (Yates Phalanx) in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Chicago: Published under the Auspices of the Veteran Association of the Regiment, 1889), 339-340.

[3] John A. MacDonald, “The Last Campaign: From Hatcher’s Run to Appomattox with the White Diamonds,” National Tribune, April 23, 1903.

[4] Julius E. Henderson, “Death of Gen. A.P. Hill,” National Tribune, November 30, 1905.

[5] B.S. Philbrick, “Death of Gen. Hill,” National Tribune, January 4, 1906.

[6] B.S. Philbrick, “Death of Gen. Hill,” National Tribune, March 15, 1906.

[7] J.H. Linck, “Death of Gen. Hill,” National Tribune, April 5, 1906.

[8] H.L. Farnsworth, “Death of A.P. Hill,” National Tribune, June 21, 1906.

[9] W. Wilkins, “Killing of Gen. A.P. Hill,” National Tribune, February 27, 1908.

[10] T.L. Lowden, “Death of A.P. Hill,” National Tribune, October 14, 1909.

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6 Responses to The Many Deaths of A.P. Hill

  1. Larry De Maar says:

    It must have been very confusing during the breakthrough. Thanks for sharing some of these accounts. I was surprised that although Tucker was unable to save General A. P. Hill, he was able to to bring back the general’s horse and even used it according to Bud Robertson.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      From both Mauk and Tucker’s accounts it seems that immediately after the two Federals fired it was no longer a showdown between combatants. Mauk and Wolford now had empty rifles and with a group of breakfasting Union soldiers nearby Tucker was not about to continue the attempt to capture the pair.

  2. Joe Lafleur says:

    Is there an AP Hill bio you recommend? One that covers his death accurately? Which is your favorite?

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      I mean Robertson’s is the best, but every Hill bio or even anecdote suffers from a lack of the general’s own perspective. Until new manuscript material is found, perhaps never, I don’t think we’ll have a good glimpse into Hill’s mind as a general. Outside of my own chapter in Dawn of Victory, of course, I think Will Greene’s The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign devotes ample attention to the best description of his death and began to doubt some of the popular misconceptions of his final ride.

  3. steve32ndil says:

    I ventured down to the (accepted) site of his death a few weeks ago. Only thing that’s not clear with me is which direction he and his companion were headed when the encounter occurred–and from where the Union shots came.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      Using the map here as reference: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2018/03/16/ecw-weekender-spot-where-a-p-hill-was-killed/.

      Hill and Tucker came from the very top of the map, riding from Cattail Run toward the Pickrell House.

      Mauk and Wolford were returning from the South Side Railroad (off map to the north) but would have entered near the top left corner and traveled southeast for the Boydton Plank Road.

      So as you look toward the small marker in the woods, Hill and Tucker would have come from the right, the Federals would be to your left.

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