Even a lowly corporal can make a decision that has major consequences.
Wars, campaigns and battles are all determined by decisions made under duress, and Confederate Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill certainly made his share in the course of the American Civil War. The rapid march of his Light Division from Harpers Ferry to Antietam on September 17, 1862, gained Hill renown for saving the Army of Northern Virginia from being cut off and captured. On the other hand, his conduct at Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, resulted in bloody defeat for elements of the Third Corps he then commanded.
All in all, A.P. Hill’s generalship had mixed fortunes, much of his decision-making process probably being affected by the bouts of gonorrhea that had plagued him on and off ever since his first serious error in judgment while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Still, on April 2, 1865, he remained an invaluable asset in the eyes of his commander, General Robert E. Lee.
That morning, amid the confusion of a Union breakthrough outside Petersburg, Hill and one of his staff encountered two enemy soldiers. As the antagonists faced off, the highest-ranking Yankee, Corporal John W. Mauk, faced the command decision of his life: a simple matter of surrender or fight. Among that decision’s consequences is the fact that posterity remembers John Mauk at all.
Born New Year’s Day 1840, John Watson Mauk spent his life in Cumberland Valley Township, between the towns of Bedford, Pa., and Cumberland, Md. His religious upbringing was Methodist, his education rudimentary, in a log schoolhouse, and his ambitions seem to have been limited to farming—until the summer of 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln appealed for 300,000 more soldiers for the Union cause. Organized at Camp Curtin near Harrisburg on August 16, the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment consisted of companies mustered from Montgomery, Adams and Bedford counties. Companies D, E and F were from Bedford, and on August 29, John Mauk joined Company F, commanded by Lieutenant Martin F. Bortz. The soldiers’ original nine-month terms of enlistment were subsequently extended to three years.
By the autumn of 1864, the 138th Pennsylvania was part of the VI Corps, now under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright and attached to Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. In December 1864, the VI Corps rejoined the Army of the Potomac outside Petersburg, with the 138th Pennsylvania based at Fort Dushane near the Weldon Railroad. Private Mauk’s service by that time had been commendable enough to earn him a promotion to corporal on March 1, 1865.
The Siege of Petersburg was in its 10th month on April 1, when Sheridan routed Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s Confederates at Five Forks, leaving the city’s defenses overstretched and undermanned. At 4 a.m. on April 2, Ulysses Grant hurled the Federal II, IX, VI and XXIV corps against the Rebel lines, with Wright’s VI Corps charging toward Hatcher’s Run, directly at A.P. Hill’s corps about three miles west of Petersburg. Amid the breakthrough at various points, skirmishers of the 138th Pennsylvania advanced on the South Side Railroad. Among them was Corporal Mauk, accompanied by Private Daniel Wolford, a farmer from Londonderry Township, adjacent to Mauk’s hometown but separated from it by mountains.
“A portion of the Second Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Army Corps, became separated from the main body and pushed forward to the railroad and a wagon road, running parallel to each other,”Mauk reported afterward.“Comrade Wolford and myself, of Company F, One-Hundred-and-Thirty-Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers, reached this point. We came to a saw-mill just across the railroad, and close to it, under a slab-pile near the track, we found some crow-bars, with which we tore up two rails of the track. Previous to this, however, we who were separated from the others saw a wagon-train passing along and advanced, firing on it, expecting to capture it. This accounts for our advancing in this direction.”
General A.P. Hill was with his wife and two children at a house on the western edge of Petersburg when he heard the preliminary Union artillery bombardment sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. In pain from his longstanding ailment and barely able to sit in the saddle, he nevertheless rode his horse Champ to his corps headquarters before sunrise, vainly inquiring on the situation of his divisions from his chief of staff, Colonel William H. Palmer. He then rode west to Lee’s headquarters at Edgehill, the William Turnbull House along the Cox Road, accompanied by three couriers, Sergeant George W. Tucker, Private William H. Jenkins and a Private Kirkpatrick. Upon arrival, Hill dispatched Kirkpatrick to order Colonel Palmer to follow him to the right of his line and rally the troops there. Shortly afterward, Hill learned that his right flank was giving way, and he rode toward Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division headquarters, accompanied by Tucker and Jenkins.
Tucker, a well-educated Baltimore resident with a distinguished career in the Confederate cavalry prior to his appointment to Hill’s staff, left behind the only documented account besides Mauk’s of what followed. “We went directly across the road into the opposite field,” he wrote, “and riding due south a short distance the General drew rein, and for a few moments used his field-glass, which, in my still profound ignorance of what had happened, struck me as exceedingly queer. We then rode on in the same direction down a declivity toward a small branch running eastward to Old Town Creek, and a quarter of a mile from General Lee’s. We had gone little more than half the distance, when we suddenly came upon two of the enemy’s armed infantrymen. Jenkins and myself, who up to this time, rode immediately behind the General, were instantly upon them, when at the demand, ‘surrender,’ they laid down their arms. Turning to the General, I asked what should be done with the prisoners? He said, ‘Jenkins, take them to General Lee.’ Jenkins started back with his men, and we rode on.
“Though not invited, I was at the General’s side,” Tucker continued, “and my attention having been aroused and looking carefully ahead and around I saw a lot of people in and about the old log hut winter quarters of [Maj. Gen. William] Mahone’s division, situated at the right of Whitworth House and on top of the hill beyond the branch we were approaching. Now as I knew that those quarters had been vacant since about March 15th by the transfer of Mahone to north of the Appomattox, and feeling that it was the enemy’s troops in possession, with nothing looking like a Confederate anywhere, I remarked, pointing to the old camp:‘General, what troops are those?’ He quickly replied: ‘The enemy’s.’ Proceeding still further and General Hill making no further remark, I became so impressed with the great risk he was running that I made bold to say: ‘Excuse me, General, but where are you going?’ He answered: ‘Sergeant, I must go to the right as quickly as possible.’ Then, pointing south, he said: ‘We will go up this side of the branch to the woods, which will cover us until reaching the field in the rear of General Heth’s quarters, I hope to find the road clear at General Heth’s.’”
As they rode across the Boydton Plank Road and through the woods, Hill gave Tucker a direct order: “Sergeant, should anything happen to me you must go back to General Lee and report it.” Spotting a group of Union troops through his field glass, Hill pointed to the side of the woods parallel to the road about 100 yards downhill.“We must keep on the right,” he said.
“I spurred ahead,” Tucker wrote, “and we had made two-thirds of the distance, and, coming to a walk, looked intently into the woods, at the immediate edge of which were several large trees. I saw what appeared to be six or eight Federals, two of whom, at the immediate edge of advance of the rest, who halted some forty or fifty yards from the field, ran quickly forward to the cover of one of the large trees, and, one above the other on the same side, leveled their guns.”
The two nearest Federals were Mauk and Wolford. “After tearing up the track we went obliquely to the left from which we had passed to the right when firing on the train, and going in the direction of the rail-road,”Mauk recalled.“Here we attempted to cross back on the Corduroy road, which led through the swamp toward a body of our men on the hill near the former line of the rebel works. These men were stragglers who had been lost from their commands, and were making coffee and eating breakfast. Just as we entered the swamp we saw two men on horseback coming from the direction of Petersburg, who had the appearance of officers. They advanced until they came to the men on the hill; then they turned and rode toward us. We had just entered the swamp, when they advanced with cocked revolvers in their hands, which were leveled at us. Seeing a large oak tree close on the road, we took it for protection against any movement they would be likely to make.”
“I looked around to General Hill,” Tucker remembered.“He said:‘We must take them,’ at the same time drawing, for the first time that day, his Colt’s Navy pistol. I said: ‘Stay there, I’ll take them.’ By this time we were within twenty yards of the two behind the tree and getting closer every moment. I shouted: ‘If you fire, you’ll be swept to hell! Our men are here—surrender!’ When General Hill was at my side calling ‘surrender,’ now within ten yards of the men covering us with our muskets (the upper one the General, the lower one myself), the lower soldier let the stock of his gun from his shoulder, but recovering quickly as his comrade spoke to him (I only saw his lips move) and both fired.”
“Seemingly by the direction of his superior one of the rebel officers remained behind,” Mauk reported.“The other advanced with his revolver pointed at us, and demanded our surrender, saying,‘Surrender, or I will shoot you. A body of our troops are advancing on our left (i.e. from the direction of Petersburg), and you will have to surrender anyway!’ The officer still advanced and peremptorily demanded, ‘Surrender your arms.’”
Limited to single shots from their rifles and with two revolvers leveled at them at close range, the Pennsylvanians were at a disadvantage. But unlike the two Federals who had surrendered earlier, they faced two opponents, not three. What happened next hinged on Mauk’s decision.
“I said,‘I could not see it,’ and said to Comrade Wolford,‘Let us shoot them.’ We immediately raised our guns and fired, I bringing my man from his saddle. The other officer, throwing himself forward on the horse’s neck, rode off in the direction from which they had come, while the horse of the other followed. We knowing not what was on our flank, and not being able to see in that direction, backed out and went further down the swamp, and crossed to the men on the hill.”
In later years, Wolford reportedly claimed he was the one who struck Hill and that Mauk got credit because of his rank. But Tucker’s testimony suggests that Mauk, the standing soldier with his rifle constantly trained, would be less likely to have missed than Wolford, who had lowered and then quickly reshouldered his arm to fire.
“Throwing out my right hand (he was on that side) toward the General,” Tucker continued,“I caught the bridle of his horse and, wheeling to the left, turned in the saddle and saw my General on the ground with his limbs extended, motionless.
“Instantly retracing the ground, leading his horse, which gave me no trouble, I entered the woods again where we had left them, and realizing the importance, and of all things most desirous of obeying my General’s last order ‘to report to General Lee,’ I changed to his horse, a very superior one and quite fresh, and letting mine free kept on as fast as the nature of the ground would permit. But after sighting and avoiding several more parties of Federal stragglers and skirmishers, I felt it would be best to take to the open country and run for it. After some distance of this I made for the Mahone division log-hut winter quarters, which were still full of the enemy, upon the principle of greater safety in running through its narrow streets than taking their leisurely fire in the open.”
Retracing his steps toward Lee’s headquarters, Tucker encountered the First Corps commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, just arrived from north of the Appomattox, as well as Palmer and Major R.J. Wingate, Hill’s assistant adjutant general. Riding on, he found Lee at the Cox Road and told him of Hill’s demise. “He is now at rest, and we who are left are the ones to suffer,” the general remarked, then sent Tucker and Palmer to Mrs. Hill, adding, “Colonel, break the news to her as gently as possible.”
“The Fifth Alabama battalion, provost guard to General Hill’s skirmishing, found the General’s body, which was still slightly warm, with nothing about it disturbed,” Tucker added. “The Federal party were doubtless disarmed of what had been done and must have instantly fled.”
That was not exactly so.“Shortly afterwards I told Comrade Wolford that I would go and see what the officer had with him,” Mauk remembered. “I went a short distance, and saw what I took to be a skirmish line advancing. I went back and got part of the men on the hill—perhaps ten or fifteen—and deployed them as skirmishers for self defence. The advancing line came within hailing distance. I ordered them to halt, which they did. Then I said,‘Throw up your arms, advance, and give an account of yourselves.’
“On being questioned they said they had captured some rebel prisoners, and were taking them to the rear. Six or eight were carrying guns and were dressed in our uniform. About that many were without guns, and wore rebel uniforms. I took their word and let them go. Turning round they asked me if a man had been killed near there. I told them I had killed an officer in the swamp. They went off in that direction. I had no suspicions at the time, but afterward thought this was a Confederate ruse to get the body of the man I had just killed.” In fact, Hill’s body was quickly recovered by the 5th Alabama Battalion—so Mauk’s suspicions might have been correct.
“Comrade Wolford and myself shortly after this joined our regiment,” Mauk concluded, “and nothing more was thought of the affair until summoned to brigade and corps headquarters to answer questions. After I had given a statement of the affair General Wright asked me if I knew whom I had killed. I told him that I did not. He said:‘You have killed General A.P. Hill, of the Confederate army.’”
Mauk’s bullet had gone through Hill’s gloved thumb and entered his chest just above the heart. Hill was temporarily buried on the field, but was later re-interred in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Still later, in 1891, Hill’s remains were ultimately laid to rest nearby under a monument to his memory at the junction of Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road.
The 138th Pennsylvania had more fighting to do as Lee retreated west. Finally, on April 9, Lee surrendered. On May 1, Mauk was promoted to sergeant and Wolford to corporal for their actions a month earlier. The 138th Pennsylvania’s troops were mustered out of service June 23.
With nearly three years of war behind him, Mauk returned to his more prosaic life in Centerville, Pa. In 1866, however, his wife Sophie died; his two children would not reach adulthood. He remarried later in 1866, and had a daughter and son with his second wife, Catherine. Supplementing his income with an Army pension of $12 a month, Mauk spent most of the postwar years as a carpenter, but worked for a time for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He is said to have never boasted about his encounter with A.P. Hill, but described it in detail whenever asked.
Daniel Wolford returned to Londonderry Township, where in 1866 he married Sarah Bender, who bore him nine children. Working at a tannery in Mann’s Choice, he saved enough to buy a farm in Harrison Township, Pa. Although he resided just to the west of Mauk, they never had a reunion and Wolford never wrote an account of the A.P. Hill incident. Wolford died in Milligans Cove in 1908, at age 67, and was buried at Lybarger Lutheran Cemetery, near Madley. His gravestone bears the legend“Rock of Ages” and proudly bore his affiliation to“Co. F, 138 Reg. Pa.Vol.,” along with the now-worn passage:“Behold I stand at the door and knocked. He answered and entered.”
John Mauk was 58 when he died on August 19, 1898, the result of a stroke. Catherine died on June 20, 1899. She was 71. Their gravestones at Bethel Church Cemetery in Centerville bear only the dates of their births and deaths, John’s Civil War association indicated only by the adjacent metal star of the Grand Army of the Republic.
In a bittersweet postscript, on July 5, 1899, Lulu Mauk married Walter F. Bortz, youngest son of Martin Bortz—her father’s former company commander.
Jon Guttman is research director for Weider History publications. He thanks Debra E. Topinka, historian for the Cumberland Valley Township Historical Society, for her research help.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.