A.P. Hill's Early Years

Last updated June 10th, 2007 by Jenny

Ambrose Powell Hill, Jr. was born at eight in the morning on November 9, 1825 ten miles west of Culpeper at the family estate, Greenland. His parents were Thomas and Frances Hill. He was the last of four sons; his birth was followed eventually by that of three sisters. Thomas and Frances chose to name their new son after an uncle, Ambrose Powell Hill (1785-1858) who had served as a justice of the peace, sheriff and legislator for Culpeper County. Although when the youngster reached adulthood was forever known by his initials in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia, his mother took to calling him Powell and that was the name that he was called by his friends and other family.

From his father, young Powell learned to be a perfect horseman, mastering horsemanship as quickly as he learned walking. Certainly he must have also enjoyed hunting and fishing with his fathers and older brothers. But Powell was particularly close to his mother as the youngest son. He was peculiarly sensitve to her apparent hypochondria (other members of the family noted she suffered from ills "real or imaginary") and enjoyed reading with her. An avid reader, Powell devoured everything from Shakespeare to the Bible to books on the exploits of Napolean.

A.P. Hill was a product of two very different parents, although both were of the Virginia landed gentry (Hill's family would probably be considered upper-middle class to upper class today). His father Thomas was a highly esteemed merchant, farmer, and local politician. He was handsome, tall and tactiurn, but also famous for his hospitality and courage. From him, Hill must have inherited his bravery and gentlemanly manners. Whereas Thomas Hill was outgoing, however, Powell's mother was small, frail, and introverted. She wore glasses, tended to keep to herself, and often brooded by the window passing the time knitting or gazing out the window. She apparently had some difficulty controlling her emotions and, as mentioned, at least some of the family believed that her various ills were all in her head. From his mother, Hill probably inherited his extreme sensitivity to slights and small frame. He also probably picked up on her tendencies to brood.

When Powell was still just a boy, his father moved the family from Greenland into the town of Culpeper Court House. The family took up residence in a large brick home that still stands at the corner of Main and Davis streets.

Powelll was educated in a variety of local schools. Among his boyhood friends were James Kemper, future Confederate general and governor of Virginia, who noted that Powell was "self reliant, forceful, and bright." In addition to nearby schools, Powell also attended a boarding school, Black Hills Seminary. Fellow classmates there noted his devotion to studying exceeded that of all the other students.

A.P. Hill's Ancestry


A.P. Hill's father was Major THOMAS HILL. He was born October 3, 1789 and died on January 5, 1857. He was a politician and merchant in Culpeper County. He was a respected man for his courage, hospitality, and intelligence. He taught Powell to fish, ride, and hunt. They shared many a discussion over the validity of the concept of Southern states rights.

A.P. Hill's mother was FRANCES (Fannie) RUSSELL BAPTIST. Thomas Hill married her in November of 1811. She was born in Mecklenburg, Virginia, and died before the outbreak of the Civil War. Hill's mother nicknamed him Powell; he was always close to his mother; they formed a strong bond over their shared fondness for books. Hill kept the ham bone his mother gave him before he went away to West Point always close. His letters reflect that he was well-read -- he enjoyed Shakespeare, the Bible, current poets and novelists, and reading about the exploits of Napoleon.

Powell had three older brothers: John Henry, Edwin Baptist, and Thomas Theophilius. He had four younger sisters, Evelyn, Ann, Margret Ann, and Lucy.

Despite being eight years apart, Powell was closest to Lucy, who he sometimes called "Lute." Hill even pursued a classmate of Lucy's, Emma Wilson.

When Powell turned fifteen, his mother became enthralled with a "New Light" Baptist revival movement that swept across central Virginia. Plunging into her new religious faith with the unabashed zeal many new religious converts show, she banished card-playing and dancing from the Hill home. This resulted in young Powell becoming rebellious towards religion. In later life he exhibited somewhat irreligious tendencies that were a little unusual among many of the overtly religious commanders in the Confederate Army. For example, in a letter home, Jed Hotchkiss (an aide to Stonewall Jackson) noted that "Gen. A.P. Hill is in command of our Corps, he is an able General & will fill well the place of Gen J. in a purely military point of view, but he is not a 'man of God,' like & wears not 'the sword of the Lord and of Gideon,' but still we have Gen. Lee, a good man & true, faithful in all things & we trust Gen. Jackson 'still lives' to plead our cause." Similarly, J. William Jones, a chaplin often in close contact with Hill and a noted post-war author (a great source of information on Hill), did not include Hill in his book of Christian officers. Nevertheless, as a general, Hill often was seen in church with his wife Dolly or occasionally in the company of other Confederate officers; he was an Episcopalian as an adult. Rather than being "irreligious," Hill probably was simply much more restrained in outward manifestations of his religion and faith.

In the end, it was perhaps his mother's religious zealousness that finally spurred young Powell towards a military career. But escape from a stern household was not Hill's main reason for choosing the military. From his early youth, Hill had been enthralled with the exploits of military leaders. His father pushed his youngest son towards the field of arms. And when Hill made the decision that he would be a soldier, the family put its efforts into securing him a place at West Point. Located on the Hudson River in West Point, New York, the United States Military Academy was the nation's preeminent military school. To enter West Point, a prospective cadet needed to obtain an appointment from a Congressman. Family members and friends wrote to their congressmen and the Secretary of War, John Spencer, on Hill's behalf. On April 26, 1842, sixteen year old Powell accepted his conditional appointment to West Point as a member of the Class of 1846.

A Letter Home from West Point

In the spring of his plebe year at West Point, Hill wrote the following home to his parents in Culpeper, complaining about a lack of letters from home and asking his parents to visit:

April 3, 1843

. . . though if you never wrote to me, that should not deter me from expressing my tender and filial respect for such kind parents . . . . I expected, at least, to be remembered with a feeling of some sort for one short year, but alas! for the frality of human hopes . . . . I have been living on vain expectancy, which they say like love, is rather a poor sustenance . . . Letters from home are somewhat like an Angel's visits, few and far between . . . . Spring has just begun to put forth its budding beauties. Old heavy winter has taken his departure at last, though he has prolonged his visit to a greater length than was agreeable. The cheerful singing of the birds, the cloudless days and cool bracing air causes the blood to leap through the veins with exhilarating warmth. . . . . Our surgeon hardly ever has his services put in requisition, except when some poor fellow has studied himself in a headache and then the invariable remedy is a bread pill. Thank God! that so far I have kept clear of his skirt. . . . . It might be the healthiest insituton in the world; there is generally about one death in two or three years, and even proceeding from the bursting of a cannon, false stroke of a sword or some other casualty. A great many die away at the examiniations, but revive again in some distant corner of the union where they live ex-cadets, something like ex-presidents. Do you intend visiting the Point this spring? Let me beg of you to muster up courage enough to undertake a two days journey. You cannot tell how happy I would be to see you. Do come! Tell Pa I shall consider this letter for him also, as he has not answered.

Your affectionate son,

A.P. Hill.

In June, Powell prepared to leave Culpeper to embark upon his journey to becoming a professional soldier and officer. His parents each presented him with a going-away gift. His father presented him with a Bible in which he inscribed: "Ambrose Powell Hill: Peruse this every day" while his mother gave him a small ham bone that would become the good luck charm Hill carried for the rest of his life. One of his former teachers sent him away with the a motto: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori -- which Hill translated to mean "it is pleasant and fitting to die for one's country." At the tender age of just 16, A.P. Hill began the profession in which he would spend the rest of his life. It was a good choice. Edward Pollard would later write, "He had made arms not only his profession, but an enthusiastic study, to which he was prompted by the natural tastes and dispositions of his mind. "

Upon his arrival at West Point, Hill was assigned to room with a bright young Philadelphian, George B. McClellan. Son of a prominent Pennsylvania doctor, McClellan had recieved special dispensation to attend the Point because he was technically under-age. During their time together in Room 36, McClellan and Hill became extremely close friends and certainly the highly intelligent McClellan (destined to finish at the top of the class of 1846) helped Hill in his studies.

The class that entered West Point in the summer of 1842 was one of the Academy's finest -- among Hill's classmates would be future Civil War generals such as George Pickett, David Jones, George McClellan, Cadmus Wilcox, Darius Couch, George Stoneman, and Thomas Jackson, to name just a few.

West Point was, as it is now, a difficult, challenging school. The West Point curriculum was consituted of mathematics, engineering, natural philosophy, drawing, astronomy, military tactics, geology, rhetoric, mineralogy, chemistry, French, geography, history, ethics, and law. In addition to rigorous and difficult coursework, the academy discplince was extremely strict and the living quarters spartan. Plebes, or new cadets (the freshman), were called "things" by the upperclassmen. And the food was dreadful. Somehow, Hill endured.

At the end of his first year at West Point (the 1842-1843 school year), Hill (although much younger than many of his classmates) was positioned 39th of 83 cadets in his class. He was ranked 38th in French and 39th in Mathematics. On the Conduct Roll, "compiled from a record of all the irregularities, and violations ofthe Code of Discipline, established for the government of the Cadet," he was ranked 142 (of 223 cadets in all classes) in conduct, with 53 demerits.

By the end of his second year (1843-1844), Hill had improved his overall class rank to 23rd of 78. He stood 30th in Mathematics, 19th in French, and 18th in English grammar. He had some apparent talent for drawing, standing 13th in the class in that discplince. On the conduct roll, Hill stood 129th of 211 cadets, with 70 demerits.

Without doubt, Hill looked forward to being allowed to go home on furlough during the summer of 1844. Now almost 19, this would be his first trip away from the Academy in two years. He journeyed home to Culpeper and enjoyed going about the town in his trim cadet uniform. But on the way back to the academy, Hill made a mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

He caught a venereal disease.

Home >> Narrative | Related: Antebellum Years (1)