Ken Burns Classroom

Ambrose Powell Hill

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Image of Ambrose Powell Hill
Image of Ambrose Powell Hill


Known as a ferocious fighter, A.P. Hill was promoted to lieutenant general shortly before his death in 1865. Like many Virginians, he followed his state onto the battlefield, helping Robert E. Lee defend Richmond against McClellan in 1862. The veteran of a dozen battles was killed at Petersburg, just before the war’s end.

Born on his family’s estate west of Culpeper, VA, Ambrose Powell Hill received an appointment to West Point in 1842. His roommate was future Union army leader George B. McClellan, and the two became life-long friends. While a young Army officer, Hill fell in love—several times. The most celebrated was a love triangle with McClellan and Ellen Marcy. When Marcy’s parents objected to a union with Hill, she married McClellan, though she was reportedly more in love with Hill, who served as a groomsman in the wedding.

During the Civil War, Hill was among the highest regarded generals on either side. He often donned a bright red shirt just before battle, prompting his men to remark, “Little Powell’s got on his battle shirt!” and begin readying their weapons. He had a reputation for arriving on the battlefield at the perfect time. At Antietam, he reached the army on September 17, just in time to save the Confederate right flank. Likewise, his men were last to arrive at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, but were able to push the Union forces back decisively. At the Second Battle of Bull Run, Hill and his Light Division defeated the Federal army, in a fierce and bloody contest where Hill’s determination made the difference. At these engagements, Hill was at his best, commanding a small, responsive corps.

At the Third Battle of Petersburg, just seven days before Lee’s surrender, Hill proclaimed that he had no desire to see the end of the Confederacy. He rode to the front lines and was shot dead. His uncanny ability to turn the tide, even in the most desperate moments, led a delirious Stonewall Jackson, on his own deathbed, to call for Hill to “prepare for action.” Some historians have asserted that General Lee also cried out for the fearless Hill in his last moments, saying “Tell Hill he must come up.”

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