A.P. Hill's Antebellum Years (2)

Last updated June 10th, 2007 by Jenny
A.P. Hill, Eve of his wedding in 1859

A.P. Hill had probably hoped when he was transferred away from the swamps of Florida that he would be sent to a more agreeable place. The Army sent him to instead to Texas -- which at least boasted a drier climate. While Texas seemed to agree more with Hill's health than Florida had, Hill was still bored, lonely, and unhappy on the Texas frontieer.

Probably pining for life in his beloved genteel Culpeper, Powell wrote a sweet and doting note to his mother: "And how is my dear, good old mother? How progressed the demon of the imagination in magnifying her ailments. They all write me from home that your health is good. Now say, is it so? Or are they mistaken as usual, and only fooling me? Will you long as affectionately to throw your arms around me, once more, as I have longed, oh so much, to be again an inmate of the old yellow room? Good bye. God bless you." He signed it "Your afft. Son, Powell."

In another letter home, Hill railed against the conditions in Texas:

One who has not been here, and daily mixed with the people living on this frontier can have no conception on the state of society, the quintessence of ruffianism and scoundrelism that has been squeezed out from the states and sprinkled along the Rio Grande. Human life is but held as a feather in the list of possessions. I was in Brownsville but some ten days and four men were shot down in the streets. Two gentlemen, they call them down here, whacked out their six shooters not ten steps from our camp the other day, and blazed away at each other until one got a bullet in the bead basket which has forever stopped all desire on his part to fill it. And this is the country to annex which both blood and treasure has been poured out freely as the rains from Heaven. My regret is that do not destroy each other fast enough and finally shoot out the entire race. The world would be no loser, and certainly Heaven no gainer.

In late 1852, Hill was again sent by the Army to Florida, this time being stationed at Fort Barrancas in Pensacola Harbor. Hill was as disgusted with Florida and a war against "a few poor, lazy harmless devils from country that no white man could, or would live in" as he was with life on the Texas frontieer.

Powell's mother, always of questionable and fragile health, passed away in 1853. Soon after Battery D, to which Hill was attached, was sent to Fort Capron at the mouth of the Indian River. Hill continued to find routine garrison life boring and, dissatisfied with the slow promotion system in the tiny antebellum army, was "ambitious of the title Captain." The conditions in Florida continued to be extremely unhealthy; Hill noted that he spent much time "grubbing roots and fighting mosquitoes" in addition to "building bridges and cutting roads." In the early spring of 1855, Hill fell extremely sick from yellow fever. With the help of Lieutenant John Scholfield's nursing, Hill at length recovered. Hill was able to repay Scholfield's favor when Scholfield fell sick with typhoid; Powell "cared for me [Scholfield] tenderly" and brought his new friend home with him to Culpeper where under the "benign influence" of Hill's father's brandy and mint julep regimen, Scohlfield recovered.

Hill's Florida Illnesses

While in service in Florida he supposedly contracted what was diagnosed as yellow fever in 1850 and again in 1855 (however, only one case could have been yellow fever; one case provides immunity). The second case in 1855 took Hill quite a bit of time to recover from. Yellow fever is a serious viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes and is characterized by fever, jaundice, kidney failure, and bleeding. Yellow fever causes headache, muscle aches, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, and jaundice. If it does not resolve, yellow fever progresses into multi-organ dysfunction -- liver and kidney failure, bleeding disorders/hemorrhage, brain dysfunction including delirium, seizures, coma, shock, and in up to 30% individuals, death. Yellow fever killed the famous General John Bell Hood in New Orleans after the Civil War.

During Hill's time home in Culpeper after the 1855 bout, John Schofield, a future general of the army, stayed with the Hill family while Scholfield recovered from a case of typhoid. Schofield noted that Hill "cared for me tenderly." Hill's father insisted that Schofield drink a mint julep to begin each day and Schofield noted that its "benign influence" resulted in "very rapid" recovery.

Although he recovered his health this time, it was clear that Hill would not be able to withstand much more of Florida duty. Through the kindness of the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, Hill was given a desk job in Washington D.C. with the Coast Survey Office. Hill was the only army officer posted to the Coast Survey which was actually considered part of the Naval Department.

Hill spent the next several years in the Coast Survey Office. The work was agreeable to him; clearly, Hill enjoyed the pleasures of Washington society more than he enjoyed the rough life in the swamps of Florida or on the Texas plains.

Hill even found time to fall in love. Several times.

By far the most celebrated of his affairs was with Miss Ellen Marcy. The story of the "triangle" between Hill, Miss Nelly (as she was called), and Hill's old classmate and friend George McClellan was the stuff of legends and clearly illustrates that this truly was a "brother's war" fought between friends. It deserves to be retold in detail.

The affair with "Miss Nelly" (the nickname for Miss Ellen Marcy) began when young George McClellan (who had of course been Hill's room-mate at West Point as well as a personal friend), then a captain of engineers, tried to win her hand. While he completely and totally won over Major Marcy and Mrs. Marcy, Nelly was less enthusiastic about Mac as a suitor. When he proposed marriage to her, she turned him down. McClellan had little time to nurse his broken heart, for soon after he was sent as an observer to the Crimean War taking place in Russia.

McClellan and Ms. Nelly

In the meantime, young and dashing Lieutenant A.P. Hill of the artillery stepped in to the picture. Nelly took a liking to Hill and it was soon apparent to a shocked and appalled Major and Mrs. Marcy that their daughter was going to marry a line officer of little financial worth.

When Hill asked for his daughter's hand, Marcy told his daughter she would be unhappy. When that didn't deter her, he asked her to at least wait and think about it for six months.

McClellan had since returned to the States. Finding his friend and former room-mate in love with Miss Nelly he of course did the honorable thing and withdrew from any further competition. Mrs. Marcy, however, was determined to have McClellan as her son-in-law. She now undertook to ruin Hill's name and Hill's honor --she spread the word about his serious bout of venereal illness while a cadet at West Point. Where she obtained this senstive information is still a mystery. When confronted she tried to pass the buck to McClellan but he insisted that it was a complete lie and there seems little reason to doubt his word for Hill himself apparently did not as the two stayed friends.

Hill was of course outraged and hurt. He wrote a long, 4 page letter to the Major explaining his feelings of hurt and helplessness about the whole matter...

Warren and A.P. Hill

Interestingly, another Union general, Gouvernoor K. Warren, also married a former sweetheart of A.P. Hill. The "Hero of Little Round Top," Warren felt a sense of rivalry with the Confederate officer who had courted his wife. He liked fighting against the Culpeper cavalier for this reason. After Warren's 2nd Corps gave Hill's corps a great thrashing after Bristoe Station, he wrote Hill a note in which he bragged, "I have not only whipped you, but married your old sweetheart." After actions in the North Anna Campaign of 1864 where Warren's command (this time the 5th Corps) bested Hill again at Jericho Mills, Warren, not one for modesty, wrote his wife that, "It was your old beau Hill that I fought yesterday -- same as it was at Bristoe. I think he must begin to feel unkindly toward me." (1)

No one had the last laugh in this case. Warren was fired from his position as head of the V Corps by General Sheridan after his arguably subpar performance at Five Forks on April 1, 1865. Warren spent the rest of his life laboring to clear his name of Sheridan's charges. As for Hill, on April 2, 1865, he was killed as the lines collapsed around Petersburg.

My Dear Sir: I have been most deeply injured but the peculiar nature and unknown source of the calumny prevents my seeking redress which would be most pleasing and most satisfactory. You know that last Spring I asked that you would consent to my marriage to your daughter, to which you postponed giving a decided reply. This was made by me in all honor and good faith, and I suppose then and now your opposition touched not my personal character. Mrs. Marcy has evidenced a decided hostility to my suit, which though it pained me much, yet was conceded to her as her right, and I was silent as long as I conceived the grounds of her opposition to be such neither you nor I should blush to hear. I now find that I have been in grievous error.

I have heard from truthful lips and with delicacy, that Mrs. Marcy objections... are that from certain early imprudences (youthful indiscretions I suppose), my health and constitution had become so impaired, so weakened, that no mother could yield her daughter to me, unless to certain unhappiness. This is the substance. The ornaments may be imagined. Nor do I do Mrs. Marcy the justice to believe that this has been told her, and that she without weighing the matter calmly has believed it, for I have ever thought her a woman of good feeling though somewhat warped against me... The charge is simply indicative, yet fatally blighting.

True or untrue the mere rumor is sufficient to make a man bow his head in shame. Hence I cannot meet and refute it, as in any other case, and as my inclination would lead me to do in this, for this would give it the publicity I desire to avoid. At present, I hope it has reached but few, and these I wish to scotch it, if not kill it. I can trace no farther back than your wife, and to you as the proper person I address myself. If this charge were true, and knowing it to be so, I had asked your daughter's hand, my honor indeed be but a name, and my simple denial would be unnecessary....

I ask it of you as one gentleman from another, as one officer who has been wronged, from a brother officer, that your wife correct this false impression with whoever she may have had any agency in hearing it. I think too that in justice both to herself and myself she should make it known the name of her informant to be used by me as I see fit.

When the Major found out that his wife had been spreading ugly rumors about Hill, he now stepped in on Hill's behalf. By this time, though, the damage had been already done. Miss Nelly returned Powell's ring. Hill gave the ring to his sister Lucy, who he called Lute. The ring was inscribed "Je t'aime".

Poor A.P. Hill. For a man who wrote his sister that to "be in love is as necessary as dinner," losing Miss Nelly had to sting. But Hill did not have long to nurse his bruised heart.

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