Lee the “Schoolmaster” and A. P. Hill

ECW welcomes guest author Dan Walker

Zion Methodist Church: Where Hill and Lee met, likely on 18 May, 1864. Photo by author.

It was mid-May in 1864, two weeks into General Robert E. Lee’s efforts to repel Union General Grant’s Overland Campaign, and Lee’s Third Corps commander, Lieutenant General A. P. Hill was unhappy. He was sick, too, though well enough to follow his troops in an ambulance. He was unhappy because one of his brigadiers, General A. R. (“Rans”) Wright, had blundered, and Hill was upset enough that he told Lee—at Zion Methodist Church, just south of Spotsylvania Court House near a place called Myer’s Hill[i]—that he wanted a court of inquiry.

What is of interest is that Lee saw this, not as a matter for military justice, but as a teachable moment.

Luckily for us, a young aide, Lt. Colonel William Palmer, was near enough to the conversation with Hill to hear Lee concisely describe his own leadership style. The talk made such an impression on Palmer that—according to one of Lee’s biographers, D. S. Freeman—he recounted them to a friend, who made detailed notes. Palmer eventually shared Lee’s words with Freeman in a 1920 letter:

These men are not an army. They are citizens defending their country. General Wright is not a soldier; he’s a lawyer. I cannot do many things that I could do with a trained army. The soldiers know their duties better than the general officers do, and they have fought magnificently. Sometimes I would like to mask troops and then deploy them, but if I were to give the proper order, the general officers would not understand it; so I have to make the best of what I have and lose much time in making dispositions.

You understand all this, but if you humiliated General Wright, the people of Georgia would not understand. Besides, whom would you put in his place? You’ll have to do what I do: When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.[ii]

Lee’s words are a concise lesson on handling a well-motivated but erring subordinate—a key element of leadership, especially in education—and Lee was an educator, both before and after the war.

Here Lee took the first of three important educational stances:

(1) The instructor:

It’s not clear what bothered Hill about Wright’s performance—or even where it was.[iii] Of interest is that in the talk with Hill, Lee did several things a good trainer should do:

First, he identified the issue: not whether Wright had blundered, which Lee did not dispute, but what to do about it.

Second, he conveyed an understanding and respect for his subordinate: “You know all this,” he said. Lee knew his people well—Hill was proud and a bit touchy—knew them so well, in fact, that in reorganizing due to losses at Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Lee had known how to switch brigades among divisions in order to avoid seniority issues in making promotions.[iv]

Third, Lee modeled the problem, using his own experience, in this case a sort of “blackboard” example: He might like to give a certain kind of order, but if he did, his citizen-generals might not understand it. So he had to go around and check—and, by implication, so should Hill. And when handling “a mistake,” Hill must “do what I do.” In modeling, in fact, Lee could go so far as appearing about to lead counter-attacks himself, as in the well known “Lee to the rear!” episodes. Here, though, the hypothetical example was enough.

Fourth, Lee showed Hill that, like school leaders, military commanders must face political realities: Embarrassing the leader of a Georgia brigade might be more trouble than it was worth. And after all, “Whom would you put in his place?”

(2) The in-game coach:

But the effective teacher does more than just instruct—by diagraming “plays,” as it were, beforehand. A good head coach has to lead during the game, where it’s important both to guide and to motivate. An example is Lee’s famous “cracker-box” conference with Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson in the woods near Chancellorsville on the evening of May 1, 1863. There the two sat down and planned Jackson’s crushing flank attack delivered the next evening.

Lee-Jackson bivouac May 1, 1863.

The planning, which took several hours, was interactive, with Lee as the overall commander and Jackson as executive officer. From the two best eye-witness accounts, one by Major Jed Hotchkiss of Jackson’s staff[v] and the other by major T. M. R. Talcott of Lee’s,[vi] it seems the general decision was Lee’s: to attack the Union force on its vulnerable right as soon as possible. Jackson was assigned the task, and once his plan was approved, according to both accounts, his face lit up. Being charged with a crucial and risky mission can be thrilling. It can also be intimidating, but in this case Lee knew his man. And, as a leader should, he credited success to his subordinate’s “skill and energy”.[vii]

The following episode with Hill shows what can happen to a subordinate with less careful direction.

(3) The stern, but fair after-action assessor:

American Battlefield Trust

It’s ironic that when Lee spoke to Hill about what to do “when a man makes a mistake,” he had already had to do that with Hill himself at Bristoe Station the previous fall (and would do it again at the North Anna River in less than a week). Most such moments, no doubt, occurred in Lee’s “tent,” as he said to Hill, but occasionally we get a first-hand report.

On the evening of October 14, 1863, Hill had rushed troops into action without adequate preparation. The result was a bloody fiasco wrecking two veteran brigades. In accounts spread widely in the army, Lee looked at the hundreds of casualties still on the field next day, listened stoically to Hill’s explanations, sadly told him to bury his dead, and said something like “Let us say nothing further of the matter.”[viii]

But Lee may have said more than that. According to a nearby officer, who recorded it in a contemporaneous journal, Lee took one look at the field and delivered the “bury your unfortunate dead” order “sharply.” According to the officer, Hill understood the “rebuke” right away and took the blame:

‘This is all my fault, General.’ ‘Yes,’ said Lee, ‘it is your fault; you committed a great blunder yesterday; your line of battle was too short, too thin, and your reserves were too far behind.’ [ix]

Lee liked to give his corps commanders general guidance, with allowance for initiative, but even with Jackson, he preserved operational direction where possible. The planning to repel Hooker, after all, had begun at Fredericksburg well before the “cracker-box” meeting. But at Bristoe the planning—first in a conference on the 3rd with Generals Ewell and Hill at Clark’s Mountain, then in camp at Orange Courthouse on the 8th with the same two officers— seems to have conveyed only a general idea: forcing General Meade’s Army of the Potomac back toward Washington by getting around his right. Apparently, what was said there was not enough. On the day of the action, Lee was riding with Ewell[x]. Had he been up with Hill, things might have gone differently.

To Lee’s credit, he handled the assessment part briskly and effectively: Hill got quick, specific feedback, at least on the attack itself, if not on the inadequate reconnaissance, though that may have been discussed elsewhere, maybe at his tent. But even here Hill got a chance to explain himself, and some indication that the “matter” was over. Hill also passed another test: self-assessment. He took responsibility, both in person and in his report, which Lee passed on without amendment. Whom, after all, would he put in his place? Many school leaders have wondered the same.

Lee was once called “the schoolmaster of the army”[xi] for good reason. He had already led one college at West Point before the war and would lead another, Washington College, after it, but his wartime career itself often shows him in the role of educator. He needed to be one: Many of his officers were not professional soldiers, but prominent citizens learning military command the hard way, and many of the most promising were being lost. Whatever his flaws as a commander (acknowledged even by Freeman, who tended to lionize him), Lee is widely judged to have been a capable educator. Looking at his work through that lens thus helps us understand his strengths and shortcomings. At West Point, Lee had led a team already built, with a winning tradition, but Washington College would require re-building, even re-imagining. The Army of Northern Virginia, when Lee took command, was a work in progress, and its commander, as he told General Hill, had to make the best of what he had.

Dan has been an educator for more than fifty years, teaching English, creative writing, and interdisciplinary humanities in high school, and professional education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, first at the University of Mary Washington, then in the Virginia Community College System’s career-switcher program. He has a B.A. in History (1969) from William and Mary, an M.A. in English from U. Va., and an Ed. D. in English Education, Educational Supervision, and Research. He worked as a seasonal NPS Ranger for several years. Dan has published prizewinning poetry and short fiction, plus one book and several articles in professional education. He has also published three novels. 

[i] Dunkerly, Robert M.; Pfanz, Donald C.; Ruth, David R.. (2014). No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May 4 – June 13, 1864 (Emerging Civil War Series) (pp. 61-64). Savas Beatie. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Freeman, D. S. (1936) R.E. Lee. V. III (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), p. 331.

[iii] Gallagher (1998), “I Have to Make the Best of What I Have.” In The Spotsylvania Campaign, 5-28, Ed. Gary Gallagher. Kindle Edition. (UNC Press, Chapel Hill.)

Tim Talbott, Central Virginia Battlefield Trust (and ECW contributor!), at Myer’s Hill.

There was indeed a fight at Myer’s Hill, but according to Gallagher, what had bothered Hill was probably not there, but a later engagement nearby along Massaponax Church Road. The Central Virginia Battlefield Trust has recently acquired key land at the Myer’s Hill site itself. Tim Talbott, Chief Administrative Officer of the Trust, kindly showed the writer around the Myer’s Hill property, which is now wooded. The photograph shows Tim with some of the Myer house’s barely visible foundations.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Hotchkiss, Jedediah (1899, 2021). Confederate Military History, Volume III: Virginia. Jazzybee Verlag. Kindle Edition

[vi] Talcott, T. M. R. (1906) “General Lee’s Strategy at the battle of Chancellorsville.” A paper read by request before R. E. Lee Camp, no. 1, C. V., May 20th, 1906. Accessed from: https://archive.org/stream/CompositePocahontasObits/Papers_djvu.txt

[vii] Henderson, G. F. R. (1897, 2015) Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War. Kindle edition. (Diversion Books, NY.)

[viii] Robertson, James I. (2010) General A. P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior. (New York: Vintage Books).

[ix] Jones, Terry L. (1997, 2020) The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour: Reminiscences of a Louisiana Tiger. (Savas Beatie, Baton Rouge), p.65.

[x] Robertson, James I., Op. cit.

[xi] Freeman, D. S. (1944) Lee’s Lieutenants, V.3. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), p. 449.

11 Responses to Lee the “Schoolmaster” and A. P. Hill

  1. Thank you for this article and its perspective. One other thing to be noted is that both sides had to be exhausted at that time of the campaign and mistakes were mounting.

  2. Very good article.. I would not have been as gracious with Hill….showing the greatness of Lee. I probably would have reminded him of the first day at Gettysburg, or ask him where he Anderson, and Mahone were on Day 2…

  3. “Citizen soldiers” reminds me of artillery General Wainwright’s diary entry on new recruits at the end of the war, when one comes up to him at Petersburg and says, “You be’ant an officer, ain’t ya?” Thanks for a great article.

    “He might like to give a certain kind of order, but if he did, his citizen-generals might not understand it. So he had to go around and check…”

    Ewell was not a citizen soldier, but maybe Lee thought about what he did wrong at Gettysburg and it made him better at checking up on things. After sending the order with wiggle room to take that hill, maybe he regretted afterwards not personally scouting his generals on the left.

    I don’t think had Lee given the benefit of his experience to General Bragg, despite the source, that Bragg would have changed.

    If Hood had checked on his troops and dispositions instead of going to sleep, Spring Hill’s outcome may have been a little bit different.

    1. All good points, and it does help to remember that Hill like Ewell was indeed a trained soldier, unlike Wright, so Lee had higher expectations and was less likely to worry about their sensitivities. But he still had to work with what he had and at times may have been too tolerant.
      What Lee tended to do was transfer “square pegs” out his army (something—for what it’s worth— school leaders often do since teachers are hard to fire).

  4. This was a great post Dan! It’s easy to forget just how much Civil War generals were learning on the job.

  5. Thank you for the insight. When was AP Hill NOT sick? He was “AWOL” at Gettysburg, and sick during the Overland Campaign!

    1. Good point. There’s no evidence he was a hypochondriac, but it’s been suggested he suffered from recurring bouts with an infection like syphilis. I can’t cite a good source for that. Lee, by the way, also had occasional bouts of sickness, which not only made him short-tempered, but kept him out of action for a crucial time at the North Anna. He may have suffered from dysentery on a couple of occasions, and he likely had heart disease which caused bouts of angina. I’ve wondered if the ANV paid enough attention to sanitation, at least for their commander’s drinking water

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