Confederate General D.H. Hill was his own worst enemy.
EARLY IN THE WAR, Daniel Harvey Hill was known as one of the Confederate Army’s most fearless and successful officers, a key contributor in the fighting at Big Bethel, on the Virginia Peninsula, and at Antietam’s “Bloody Lane.” But by the summer of 1863, Hill found himself relegated mostly to staid supplementary roles. He was not with the Army of Northern Virginia at Chancellorsville in May 1863, having been reassigned to the Department of North Carolina, and when Robert E. Lee reorganized his army following Stonewall Jackson’s death on May 10, Hill was not promoted but sent home to South Carolina on a recruiting mission. He spent the Gettysburg Campaign well away from the fighting, leading reserve troops in the defense of Richmond.
On July 13—10 days after Lee’s crushing defeat at Gettysburg—Hill stood outside his headquarters east of Richmond and watched pensively as a group of riders galloped in his direction from the Capitol. Leading the entourage was President Jefferson Davis, dressed in a plain gray suit. Davis dismounted, congratulated Hill on his recent defense of Richmond and then quickly explained the reason for his visit. “[William] Rosecrans is about to advance upon Bragg [in Tennessee]” the president declared. “I have found it necessary to detail [William] Hardee to defend Mississippi and Alabama. His corps is without a commander. I wish you to command it.”
At first Hill, who had just turned 42 the day before, hesitated at the offer. For one thing, he knew Maj. Gen. Alexander Stewart ranked him in the Army of Tennessee command structure. To counter Hill’s tepid response, Davis offered to promote him to lieutenant general. “When can you start?” he then asked. “In 24 hours,” replied the anxious Hill.
The South Carolinian probably wasn’t particularly surprised when on July 14 the CSA War Department canceled his Mississippi assignment and ordered him to report instead to Chattanooga to serve as a corps commander in General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Hill had earned his reputation as a strong and courageous warrior, and was not known to back down from a challenge, but he certainly would have reconsidered before accepting Davis’ proposal that day if he could have foreseen all the ramifications of serving under Bragg.
Born in York District, S.C., in 1821, Hill graduated from West Point in 1842 and served with distinction in the Mexican War before resigning from the Army in 1849 to teach mathematics at Washington College in Lexington, Va. Joining the Confederate Army at the onset of the Civil War, Hill led the Rebel triumph at Big Bethel in June 1861 as colonel of the 1st North Carolina Infantry. He was promoted to major general in March 1862 and fought under General Joseph E. Johnston and then Lee on the Virginia Peninsula. Despite his reputation for valor under fire, Hill suffered from chronic spinal pain and dyspepsia, two conditions that likely did not mitigate his vituperative and acerbic nature. Though Hill was integral to the Confederates’ clash in the Bloody Lane at Antietam, in the course of which he had three horses shot out from under him, Lee had by that time begun to express reservations about the South Carolinian. The following February, he recommended Hill’s transfer from the Army of Northern Virginia to the Department of North Carolina. Even when Lee began his Gettysburg Campaign and could have used someone with Hill’s fighting spirit, he made it clear by his actions that he was not interested in having him join his army.
As time would tell, Hill also would not get along with his new commander in the Western Theater, Bragg. An 1838 graduate of West Point, Bragg had endured discordant relationships with his senior officers after taking command of the Confederacy’s Western army following the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh. The failure of Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky in the fall of 1862 and his subsequent retreat after the Battle of Stones River on January 2, 1863, only deepened the dissatisfaction Bragg’s subordinates felt for him. But despite the serious rift that had clearly taken place in the command structure, Bragg remained in charge.
Hill reached Bragg near Chattanooga only a few days after the loss at Gettysburg and Lt. Gen. John Pemberton’s surrender of Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4. Bragg had ceded control of Middle Tennessee to the Federals when he pulled back to Chattanooga at the same time, ending the Tullahoma Campaign. With those setbacks, the authorities in Richmond began to refocus on Confederate prospects in Tennessee. Hill’s transfer to corps command in Bragg’s army was not the only change; the War Department also approved sending additional troops to the beleaguered Rebels in the Gateway City.
Although Davis’ decision to reinforce Bragg seemed logical, his choice of replacements suggests he was truly naive about the Army of Tennessee’s condition. Without any apparent regard to the prevailing discord between Bragg and his commanders, Davis opted to transfer men to Tennessee who would only ensure continued conflict. Despite Davis’ best intentions, his restructuring of Bragg’s army would fail to unify its volatile command structure. As historian Steven E. Woodworth has noted, the army’s senior officers were comprised of “misfits and malcontents” who had been thrust upon Bragg for a number of reasons, ranging from politics to cronyism.
Once he arrived in the West, Hill quickly fell under the influence of Bragg’s dissatisfied lieutenants. The South Carolinian’s fatalism and his uninhibited criticism of his new commanding officer soon made him conspicuous among the Army of Tennessee’s senior officers.
As the Rebel army reorganized in early September, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland advanced toward Chattanooga using the same series of flanking movements that had succeeded in maneuvering Bragg out of Middle Tennessee a few weeks earlier. On September 8, unsure of the Federals’ exact intentions, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga and retreated toward La Fayette, Ga., 20 miles south of the city.
But then, after months of retreating, Bragg decided he would stand and fight. He was confident he had a plan that would work in defeating the Federals, realizing that part of Rosecrans’ army, Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ XIV Corps, was isolated in McLemore’s Cove, south of Chattanooga, as the Federals were maneuvering toward Bragg. If Thomas could be trapped in the cove, a natural cul-de-sac, it would put Rosecrans at a severe, perhaps fatal, disadvantage.
Yet it was not to be. Bragg ordered his commanders to move quickly, only to have them hesitate. By the time they did move, the opportunity had passed. Two days later, Bragg devised another plan to strike Rosecrans’ still-divided army, but once more the Federals escaped unscathed. This time they were able to retreat to the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, near Lee and Gordon’s Mill. Remarkably, Bragg’s strategy was a sound one, but apparently his imprecise orders—due to a lack of reliable information on the enemy’s whereabouts and intentions— and the overall maligned culture of the Army of Tennessee’s command hierarchy had made his plans untenable.
As the two armies groped their way toward each other in northern Georgia’s thick woods over the next several days, Bragg finally decided to strike his opponent’s left, ordering his army to cross the creek and advance on the Federals on the 19th. The Battle of Chickamauga had begun. Throughout the day Hill’s troops stood idle, though they had advanced half a mile by nighttime. That evening, as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet arrived from Virginia with additional troops, Bragg reorganized his command, dividing his army into two wings. The right wing would be commanded by Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, the left by Longstreet. Hill, under Polk’s direction, would lead a daybreak assault on the 20th, with attacks launched in echelon, from right to left. If successful, the Confederates would drive the Federals south and away from Chattanooga. The daylight assault never came, however.
Incensed, Bragg set out to find Hill. A comedy of errors and misunderstandings involving Hill and Polk had apparently delayed the attack’s launch until about 10:30 a.m. Dissatisfied with the army’s tardiness, Bragg then ordered a general advance across his lines. Repeated attacks on Rosecrans’ left inadvertently created a gap on his line that allowed Longstreet’s troops to pour through, causing the Union right flank to collapse. After multiple assaults from Polk’s and Longstreet’s wings, the Union force retreated toward Chattanooga, where the Federals set up a formidable defense inside the city.
Although the Battle of Chickamauga cost the Army of Tennessee more than 18,000 casualties, it had ended a string of disheartening losses for Bragg’s army. He seemed reluctant to aggressively follow through on his success, however, failing to order a vigorous pursuit of the routed Federals. Bragg’s reluctance to do so quickly earned the scorn of his lieutenants, Hill included. “The corps” Hill later wrote, “was ready to march or fight at dawn in the morning, with thinned ranks, it is true, but with buoyant spirits.”
Bragg sought to pin the blame for Chickamauga’s assorted lost opportunities on his lieutenants, but they quickly banded together against him. Addressing previous campaign failures by Polk and Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, Bragg suspended the two on September 25 and ordered them to Atlanta to await further orders. The following day Hill, along with Generals Longstreet, John C. Breckinridge and Simon Bolivar Buckner, met to discuss the “mismanagement manifested in the conduct of military operations in this army.” At the meeting, Hill and others urged Longstreet to write the War Department and request that Bragg be removed from command.
On October 4, Hill, Longstreet, Buckner and Breckinridge met a second time. Displeased with conditions in the army and their fellow corps commanders’ removal, Hill began circulating a petition drafted by the unhappy generals requesting Bragg’s removal. The petition prompted a visit to Bragg’s headquarters by Jefferson Davis on the 9th, with Davis calling for a tribunal with Bragg and his corps commanders. Certainly they would support their commanding general in his presence, he believed.
Assembling with Bragg in his office, the four corps leaders—Hill, Longstreet, Buckner and Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham (Polk’s replacement)—sat nervously. The Confederate president spoke first, addressing the conduct of the Chickamauga Campaign. When he asked Longstreet for his opinion, “Old Pete” at first hesitated, and then delivered an unflattering portrait of Bragg as a commanding officer. But Longstreet’s criticism paled in comparison with Hill’s scathing assessment.
“Hill had carefully taken a seat off in a corner of the room, apparently trying to be overlooked,” Longstreet later wrote. “But when forced to speak, took his chair up and moved out almost to the centre [sic] of the circle” and offered his candid opinion of Bragg. Hill spoke freely, as was his custom, in criticizing his superior. Although he admitted to admiring Bragg while serving under him in the Mexican War, Hill now confessed he “was never so mistaken in his estimate of a man’s character as a soldier.”
The criticism that Davis witnessed firsthand that day proved to be too much for him to stomach. On October 11 he gave Bragg the authority to rid his army of any dissident generals. Encouraged that he had the president’s steadfast support, Bragg reorganized his army, immediately relieving Hill of command in the process. Explaining his decision to remove Hill, Bragg wrote: “Possessing some high qualifications as a commander, he still fails to such an extent in others more essential that he weakens the morale and military tone of his command. A want of prompt conformity to orders of great importance is the immediate cause of this application.”
Accompanied by his adjutant general, a despondent Hill went to Bragg’s headquarters to demand an explanation for his removal. In reality, Bragg had no specific charges against Hill such as he had placed on Polk and Hindman. Instead, Bragg’s “request to relieve Genl Hill was based upon the idea that a commander could not successfully conduct operations, if he was not sustained by the cordial co-operation of his Subordinates,” a factor Hill made evidently clear in Davis’ military tribunal. Hill was unwilling to accept Bragg’s allegations at face value. Figuring his removal had something to do with the petition requesting Bragg’s removal, Hill claimed that he signed “that paper with great reluctance.”
As their discussion grew heated, Hill demanded that the reasons for his removal be put in writing so he could defend himself in a court of inquiry. Bragg declined. His duplicitous responses during the confrontation reflected his antagonism toward Hill. Though Bragg had no specific charges against Hill’s conduct during the Chickamauga Campaign, he admitted after the war that he was removing the person he believed had initiated the October 4 petition, a key member of the army’s “mutinous assemblage.” At the time, Bragg could justify Hill’s removal by laying blame for the campaign’s failures at his feet.
Hill would languish for months without a command while trying to ascertain specifics as to why he had lost his command without a trial. Southern newspapers meanwhile blamed Hill for the missteps that had made Chickamauga an incomplete victory. Even though Hill obtained an interview with Davis, he could not salvage his reputation. In November 1863, Adj. Gen. Samuel Cooper informed Hill that there would be no command to offer him. Then, to add insult to injury, in February 1864 the War Department failed to confirm Hill’s provisional promotion to lieutenant general as Davis had promised in their July meeting. Despite those setbacks, Hill sought to obtain duty in Charleston, S.C.—as long as Davis would provide a statement of “undiminished confidence” to offset his demotion in rank. Davis refused, an action Hill interpreted as an endorsement of the notion that he was responsible for the Chickamauga debacle. With Davis still silent on the matter, Hill chose to return to North Carolina—“humiliated,” in the words of Hill’s biographer.
Hill did falter at Chickamauga. On two occasions—at McLemore’s Cove on the 18th and before the second day of the battle on September 20—he could not be found when Bragg sent him critical messages. When Hill eventually did receive those directives, he responded with a litany of complaints on their impracticality before moving his troops as instructed. Though Hill was almost always an effective leader once he was on the battlefield, his constant grousing and vituperative nature led him to side with Bragg’s disgruntled officers. That is what ultimately made him the target of the Confederate government’s wrath, and also led to his removal from active field command and his demotion to the rank of major general.
Despite the fact that he wrote extensive reports as well as a postwar essay explaining his role at Chickamauga, he failed to fully address the fact that he had erred by flirting with insubordination and conspiring with his peers to sign a petition urging the removal of their commanding general. Simply put, he had performed poorly. But Hill’s failings can be traced to the fact that he and the other members of the anti-Bragg cabal allowed their pride to override their sense of duty.
Hill found himself in a maelstrom of criticism and dissension in the summer of 1863. The opinions he formulated on meeting his new commander were reinforced by the carping and condemnation of Bragg’s previous critics. As a result, Hill was likely convinced that anything Bragg ordered or proposed was wrong. What’s more, Hill cherished those notions, failing to offer his commanding general the benefit of the doubt and his unequivocal cooperation. In sum, Hill failed to take seriously his responsibility as a corps commander in Bragg’s army; he put personal bias and animosity ahead of his duties.
Yet Hill did not deserve to be made the primary scapegoat of the Confederacy’s lost opportunities at Chickamauga. When he was relieved of duty from the Army of Tennessee, despite his protests to the contrary, Hill was shelved while his co-conspirators and fellow Bragg critics remained in active field commands. Polk, in particular, despite being the focus of Bragg’s anger following Chickamauga, escaped the harsh castigation meted out to Hill. Instead, Polk received a transfer. Even Longstreet, despite his prominent role in attempting to oust Bragg from command, avoided censure at the time.
Hill ultimately became the object of the War Department’s ire because he was so outspoken and had few political connections. Unlike Polk and Longstreet, who maintained close friendships with Richmond authorities, Hill did not have any support to give Davis or Bragg pause. As a result, Davis and Bragg conspired to shift the responsibility of the Army of Tennessee’s failures to Hill. And with Hill kept inactive for nearly a year without a vote of confidence, Southerners gained the impression that the charges against him were true.
When Hill finally did return to active duty near the end of the war, his commanders recognized his strengths and weaknesses. And while Chickamauga likely haunted him during the conflict’s final months, he remained a capable officer who could serve effectively with proper direction. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, that was not the case with the Army of Tennessee.
Alexander Mendoza, who teaches at the University of North Texas, is the author of General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West and Chickamauga 1863: Rebel Breakthrough.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.