Up Came Hill…

Nathan Towne has posted two very interesting comments concerning my less than complimentary comments concerning Daniel Harvey Hill. Instead of replying in the comments section there, I thought I would offer up my position a little more clearly in a separate post.

I find Hill to be very problematic during his time with the AOT. I understand and am familiar with his work back in Virginia, and think, frankly, that under a man like Lee he might well have become a solid corps commander. I think he would have ultimately done much better than AP Hill managed, for example.

But the combination of unfamiliar circumstances and personality clashes that came about with his transfer to the already dysfunctional Army of Tennessee, however, meant that Hill was one of the worst possible candidates for that army. The AOT needed positive leadership, not pessimism.

Nor do I fault Hill overly much for the spectacular failure of the whole command apparatus on the night of September 19-20, either. I would concur that Polk is more at fault than Hill, though Hill is not entirely blameless. Hill’s failings in corps command are much larger than just the one incident, however.

In the first week of September, Hill wanted to cross the Tennessee River at Chattanooga and attack “Crittenden’s Corps” while Rosecrans was moving to the south. Hill not only mis-read the situation completely, mistaking two infantry brigades for a corps, but he advocated putting at least half of Bragg’s army on the wrong side of the river so that the AOT would have to fight with its back to the Tennessee, instead of the other way round. This is, IMO, a basic strategic blunder. While the obvious solution was to turn on one of Rosecrans’ isolated columns, crossing to the north bank of the Tennessee to do so was a very flawed idea of how to execute that basic strategy.

Hill’s performance at La Fayette in the second week of September is also quite poor. Not only was he unready to join in Bragg’s intended attack on Negley when ordered to; it seems clear that he invented excuses about why he could not do so. In fact, he didn’t want to attack Negley, and so invented reasons (blocked passes, Cleburne being sick) to not do so. Instead, Hill was overly fixated on McCook’s threat from the south.

This fixation continued up to at least the 13th. Hill’s panicky messages to Bragg while the AOT commander was trying to get Polk to attack at Lee & Gordon’s Mills completely mis-read what the Union XX Corps was doing at Alpine. In fact, Hill painted such an alarming picture of the threat that Bragg ordered the entire army back to La Fayette on the 14th, a move that delayed what ultimately became the battle of Chickamauga by three days and allowed McCook the time needed to re-join the Federal main body.

Hill struck a similar note on September 17th, when he reported a major Federal crossing at Owen’s Ford, aimed at Bragg’s supply line to La Fayette. This crossing was completely imaginary. It is a good thing that Bragg ignored it. If He had reacted, he would have again been marching south instead of north, exactly the wrong direction to cut Rosecrans off from Chattanooga, and dangerously weakening his main blow intended for the 18th.

I will say only this about Hill’s inability to find anyone’s HQ on the night of the 19th; I am bemused why he could not simply go back to Bragg that night, instead of riding around aimlessly. He knew where Bragg’s HQ was – after all, he’d been there at noon, when he reported in and got orders to shift Cleburne northward. No matter what Polk’s failings were that night, a trip to Bragg would have at least clarified what was supposed to happen on the morning of the 20th.

As to that attack on the 20th, I find fault both with Hill’s decision to array all six brigades in a single line instead of at least forming both divisions in a two-up-one-back deployment; or better yet, each division in columns of brigade. Each battle line was far too long to effectively control as deployed, and Hill made absolutely no provision for reserves. Hill later claimed that this was Bragg’s fault, but there is good evidence that Hill had considerable latitude in deciding how to deploy Breckinridge and Cleburne.

Hill compounded his formational problems by refusing to allow Walker to deploy effectively, and indulging in a completely bizarre argument on the morning of the 20th, effectively refusing all but one of Walker’s brigades when they were presented to him as supports for his attack that morning. Hill might be the only ACW general I know of who was incensed because he was given too many reinforcements.

Many of Adams’s and Stovall’s men paid for that bit of hubris with their lives. That sort of pique is unforgivable in a commander.

So yes, I am pretty hard on D.H. Hill.

I will also say that Dr. Glenn Robertson is if anything, harder on Hill. My first exposure to some of these ideas came from Dr. Robertson while auditing one of his CGSC courses back in 2004. It was Glenn who had his officer-students examine and analyze that inexplicable morning conference between Walker, Hill, and Polk; which resulted in a fair amount of incredulity among those same officers.

Thank you, Nathan, for a very thought-provoking couple of posts.

11 Responses to “Up Came Hill…”

  1. Don H. Says:

    Hi Dave
    I’ve enjoyed your posts on D.H. Hill and Nathan’s reply. I’m really looking forward to your book and I’m genuinely very pleased to see an uptick in the number of books being published on the western theater. I’m very interested in the relationships in the command structure. I agree with you that Hill would have likely been ok as a corps commander under a strong leader and in an army like the ANV. However, he had neither during his time in the western army.

    This army was so dysfunctional that it is almost impossible to imagine that West Point educated generals could not function together to try to achieve their goals. History has been hard on Bragg and Polk, but I think generally this is deserved. I do think along with these two, Jefferson Davis also needs to take on much of the blame.

    I realize that in the summer of 1863, his options for command were very limited. As Nathan has pointed out, perhaps Hardee could have been an option? I’m not really sure why he was never considered, but with his whole career being spent with that army, he may have been a possibility. I have never been able to understand how Davis could stick with generals like Bragg and Polk when it seems very obvious that something was wrong with the relationships within the army.

    I really enjoyed Steven Woodworth’s study on Davis and the western command. What is too bad is that the army itself was made of up of very good soldiers who likely could have done much better with better leadership. I think it is also very obvious that much of what Davis saw as important was influenced by what was going on outside his doorstep with the ANV and the union army.

    Having recently read some histories of Forts Henry & Donelson, I was surprised to see how A.S. Johnston fared while in command of that department. He was asked to do the impossible with almost nothing, but you would have thought he would have made better military decisions regarding the placing of troops, decisions on command, etc.

    With this being said, I do think they he may have had the potential of growing into the position? Perhaps this is just more of the “What If” line of thought? Considering how commanding generals and the AOT did after Shiloh, it doesn’t take much of a leap to wonder if A.S. Johnston might have made a difference. Certainly couldn’t have been any worse.

    I’m really looking forward to you book(s) on Chickamauga. This is certainly the most interesting battle in the western theater. Jefferson Davis is forced to cobble together an army to try to defend the heartland and actually sees what could be considered a successful result. However, once the battle is over, the battle inside the AOT continues to rage. Looking forward to your analysis.

    Don H.

    • Nathan Towne Says:

      Very interesting comment Don. I agree that Hardee was a great soldier and he would have led the army well, but he was offered permanent command at the beginning of December 1863 as he was put in temporary command of the army. He turned down Davis’ offer which forced Davis hand into giving the position to Johnston. I think all the time about how Hardee would have roperated during the ensuing campaign to Atlanta and to what decisions and changes he would have made at Dalton.

  2. Chase Newman Says:

    Interesting and well written. I always wondered how conversations between D.H. Hill, a deadpan snarker, and the irritable Bragg played out.

    When it comes to the topics of blamed Confederate generals and the missed opportunities before Chickamauga, I am surprised not to see a lot blame placed on Simon Buckner for McLemore’s Cove. I know Hindman was blamed, but by the noon, wasn’t Buckner, by virtue of being both a senior officer and a corps commander then responsible for the attack or the lack their of?

  3. Robert Says:

    Gentlemen, it is true that D.H. Hill had a lot of short comings that is obvious. But also we can not over look the person in command in that battle. Bragg was only there because he was a friend to Davis. If looking at Braggs records he was a good division commander, but was not in anyway ready to lead a corp.
    I think id Davis would have sent Beauregard to leed that army then the results would have been different. Look at Davis’s decision to appoint Poke head of the missippi army. Poke had now battlefield expierance. I think Lee should have lead the Army of Northan Virgina and Beauregard to lead The army of Tennessee and maybe Longstreet to the west and replace Poke.

  4. Robert Says:

    Misstake (anyway ready to lead a corp.) meant Army

  5. Nathan Towne Says:

    Of course and I am sorry that it took so long for me to respond to you. I am glad that you saw value in my comments and I value your insights and interpretations tremendously.

    In Maps of Chickamauga, the engagement at Chickamauga is covered in great detail, but the campaign as a whole is covered only in summary fashion so I wasn’t familiar with your views of D.H. Hill throughout the campaign or during his tenure with the Army of Tennessee aside from your points about him at Chickamauga. I don’t disagree that he ultimately caused as many problems with the army as he solved, my points were about his performance at Chickamauga alone and Davis’ decision to send Hill and Hindman to the army. I don’t understand your criticism of Davis’ decision at all. Hill knew Bragg well from U.S. service and Hill served under Bragg in 1845. Furthermore, Hill and Bragg shared similar political beliefs, which in combination with Hill’s extensive military experience and training made him an opportune candidate. No other officer not occupying an absolutely vital post, had Hill’s experience or ability in field duty. With Hill’s reputation for pessimism and snide sarcasm, no other command could be more suitable for utilizing his abilities as serving under an officer he was familiar with, had had a working professional relationship with in the U.S. Army and whom he had a high opinion of. Davis’ position is absolutely desperate with the Army of Tennessee, made even more so by the sudden departure of William Hardee and the loss of Jones Withers to illness and subsequently to the North Alabama sub-department. So with every problem that Davis’ is confronted with in the Army of Tennessee, he now also has to replace Bragg’s subordinate of highest caliber and one of the Army’s senior Division commanders at a time when the Army is already demoralized, in desperate condition due to desertion, malnutrition and fatigue and is in critical need of immediate reinforcement. Not only do Hill and Hindman offer Davis’ with two experienced officers but they also offer him with two impartial officers (and in Hill’s case an even favorable one to Bragg) at a time when the Anti-Bragg movement has immense sway and determination in the High command as well as in the ranks. Even though Hill ends up becoming an intensely Anti-Bragg officer, he went to the army with the best intentions, and his presence allowed Bragg to break up and divide the Anti-Bragg officers amongst other commands. Bragg moves A.P. Stewart and his division into Simon Buckner’s third Corps’ to serve along with William Preston which puts at least one sympathetic General in a Corps’ with two well known Anti-Bragg officers. Bragg assigns Hill to command of Second Corps’ which with Patrick Cleburne’s command and ultimately John C. Breckenridge’s returning division has a potentially Pro-Bragg general over two of the devotedly Anti-Braggers in the Army. So with all due respect I can’t agree with your critical assessment of Davis’ decision.

    As for Hill’s performance in the Chickamauga campaign, we could go on for a long time. From August 21st to September 22nd there is an immense amount of material to dissect and analyze, but I will briefly touch on some of your criticisms. The principle problem at Chattanooga is woefully inadequate up to date intelligence of Federal dispositions, movements, troop strengths and intentions. I have no military experience, only military interest and I am only 18 years old, so I am hesitant to be excessively critical of any officer who served the cause so faithfully for the duration of the war and was a professional soldier and West Point graduate as Joseph Wheeler was, but his complacency and disinterest in carrying out direct orders from Bragg is frightening and unforgivable. I honestly don’t know how a professional soldier could display such laxity. It should also be said that I don’t consider myself in the Anti-Bragg cabal as some historians are, but Bragg bears guilt here as well. He needed to be more proactive in making sure that his orders were carried out and in demanding reports on Federal activity. He also needed to know what Joseph Wheeler’s dispositions were. Having the infantry cover the Tennessee river from Shellmound to the Hiwassee isn’t in itself faulty, but when Wheeler isn’t operating on Rosecrans right flank (despite having two divisions of 7,000 men) during a Federal offensive operation it becomes disastrous. With no solid information about Federal movements on the Army’s left and armed with Forrest’s reports of Federal cavalry and mounted infantry blocking the approaches to the Sequatchie valley, Bragg is completely blind as what Rosecrans is doing. With no good information, the infantry is required to operate and probe on the other side of the Tennessee and should be ultimately expecting to find Federal infantry. In combination with this Bragg had explicitly asked for his subordinates advice. As Major Terrence W. Maki Jr. notes in his Thesis paper at the U.S. army staff college (presumably submitted to Mr. Glenn Robertson) concerning Hill’s performance in the Chickamauga campaign, Bragg sent this letter to HIll on the 22nd of August that said (written by Mackell I assume) “General plan is to await developments of the enemy and when his point of attack is ascertained, to neglect all smaller affairs and fall on him with our whole force. He further instructs me to say that he hopes you will at all times, in person or by letter, give him any suggestion that may occur to you in furtherance of this great and common cause. You cannot, general offend by importunity…” Hill got as good a feel of the situation as he could, using Henry DeLamar Clayton’s brigade of Stewarts division ambitiously at Chattanooga prior to sending Stewart’s division to Buckner and having his units replaced with Breckenridge’s command. Also, by the beginning of September, even after the emergency council of war on the night of the 2nd and knowledge of Federal movements South and West of Chattanooga, Bragg returned to this idea as late as the 4th. “Dear General: There is no doubt of the enemy’s position now; one corps opposite you, and two this side of the river from Shellmound by Bridgeport to Caperton’s the point of first crossing…If you can cross the river, now is our time to crush the Corps’ opposite. What say you?…” So working on the dreadful intel that Bragg had, he did think the operation was feasible. It wasn’t until he had Cleburne’s discretions and Federal penetrations put his line in danger via Rome that he abandoned the possibility and began ordering the army back to Lafayette.

    Maki’s thesis is also very critical of Hill’s performance at LaFayette and it certainly wasn’t flawless, but I think much of the criticism Hill receives at Lafayette is unfair as well. Lets cover it briefly. I see the entire McLemore’s cove operation as problematic. On the 9th, Will Martin gives Bragg and Wheeler definitive evidence that a lone Federal division under the command of James Negley about 4 to 5 thousand strong has pushed in his pickets at Stevens and Coopers gaps and has driven his cavalry into McLemore’s cove. Finally operating on reliable intelligence rather than the misleading, vague and speculative information he has been receiving for the past few weeks, Bragg lashes out at what his intelligence deems to be an isolated Federal division. Even though Bragg sends his order from his headquarters at Lee and Gordon’s Mill at 11.45 that night, Hill doesn’t receive it until 4.30 A.M. on the morning of the 10th, almost 5 hours after Hindman’s division is supposed to have begun his movement to Davis Cross Roads. I agree that Hill should have known that Cleburne wasn’t sick and Hill shouldn’t have reminded his commanding General about the lack of knowledge of McCook and Thomas whereabouts and the reported threats from the south (although this is defendable because Bragg had explicitly asked for his High command and Hill in particular to give him advice at any time for “…the great and common cause…”), but all of Hill’s other problems with the operation are completely justified. Cleburne’s command isn’t at Dug Gap but instead is back at LaFayette, S.A.M. Wood’s brigade is parceled out from Blue Bird to Catlett’s gap, the gaps have been sealed by Will Martin’s cavalry and that it would take hours to open the gap which makes both communication and the intended junction impossible. Hill deserves criticism for his actions immediately after sending his dispatch to Bragg. I think that he assumed that Bragg would call off the operation armed with all of these problems. He should have begun moving Deshler and Polk’s brigades toward Dug Gap, although he still has no way to communicate with Hindman except via Bragg or Worthen’s Gap, which he did do later that morning. Bragg takes this information and elects to send Buckner’s Third Corps’ via Worthen’s Gap to augment Hindman. Hindman that afternoon is justifiably spooked for the safety of his command. He and his command elect to temporarily suspend the operation and he sends Nocquet to Bragg to act as an emissary. Bragg hears all of Hindman’s fears about the dangers of exposing his flank to Steven’s and Cooper’s Gaps, the possibility of this being a ruse to lure attention from the south, the possibility of more Federals being in the cove by this time e.t.c. and Bragg gives him orders to go ahead at daylight with his orders and tells Hill that night to open the Gaps and be ready to act in conjunction with the operation. Hill brings up Cleburne’s command, Cleburne’s men toil for much of the night, open Dug and Catlett’s gap, set a courier system up to Catlett’s gap to await Hindman’s guns and is ready to go. So Hill made some errors on the morning of the 10th, principally in thinking Cleburne was sick and not acting immediately to assemble his force after getting the order, but by the failure of the operation by no means lies at his feet. It was troublesome operation from the start and by the morning of the 11th Hill is ready to go, awaiting Hindman’s attack to open and it never comes. Yet again the principal problem is horrendous intelligence.

    At Chickamauga the blame that rests with Hill I have already covered but it is Chickamauga, at night, in a fog and it easily could have been avoided by calling a council of war which would have required Bragg to have sentries and fires out. Nevermind Polk. I exonerate Hill of further guilt at Chickamauga. I have no idea why you think Hill’s deployments were faulty? Polk’s whole Corps’ could have gone headlong into that position and made no headway. Hill, having knowledge from Cleburne that Federal infantry had been cutting all night and preparing works tried to put his men in the best situation to succeed. He coordinated with Breckenridge and Forrest and found the Federal left. Hill knew that going frontally into prepared works was going to be trouble so he extended his division as far left as could in the short time allocated to him and as a result Stovall and Adams brigades penetrated into the Kelly field. Let’s look at the two-one alignment against that position because we have an example of it. As you so beautifully show in Maps of Chickamauga, James Deshler’s brigade is overlapping Stewarts command and S.A.M. Woods brigade splinters during the attack, so Cleburne moves Deshler behind where Woods brigade had moved forward and sends his command into the space that has been created by Wood’s fractured brigade. Deshler’s men are promptly repulsed with heavy casualties and the loss of Deshler’s life. Hill gets no support and rides back to W.H.T. Walker. He wants Walker to send his lone fresh brigade into the gap that has opened because of the shattering of Helm’s brigade. He wants to wait for Gist’s brigade so the command can reinforcement him with some power (had Polk oversaw Cheatham and coordinated his wing properly this wouldn’t have happened). Wilson and Ector’s commands are shredded and Govan and Walthall were heavily engaged on the first day. Govan and Walthall’s brigades alone wouldn’t have had the power. Unfortunately, by the time Gist is up, Lucius Polk’s brigade has been repulsed as well along with Stovall and Adams. So Hill has to parcel out the three brigades to fill Polk’s spot and Helm’s which leaves only Govan’s brigade to hit the flank. It is unfortunate and Walker had the right to be mad at having his command parceled out, but it is Polk’s fault, not Hill’s.

    I love your work, you are a great writer and historian, but I see Hill’s performance somewhat differently. He made mistakes in his first Corps’ command, but Bragg rightfully didn’t move on him after the campaign. He moved on Polk and Hindman and didn’t accept Polk’s shifting of blame to Hill in his defense of the 19th/20th. Bragg made it very clear that he moved on Hill as a primary instigator of the petition in October, not for conduct in the Chickamauga campaign and gave the government a written statement that that was the case.

    P.S. I don’t know exactly when Clayton’s brigade was formed? If you get a chance can you tell me when the 36th and 38th regiments got to the army and were formed with the 18th into a brigade. Thanks. 🙂

  6. Nathan Towne Says:

    It should also be noted that I am not trying to be argumentative. I am just not sure that I can agree with some of your perceptions of Harvey Hill.

    However his tenure did leave some to be desired and his pivotal involvement in the Anti-Bragg faction of the army was a terrible and unforeseen problem.

  7. Chris Evans Says:

    Excellent and interesting posts by everyone.

    There is a fascinating chapter in the very good book ‘Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast’ by William Trotter entitled ‘D,H, Hill Comes…and Goes’ about Hill’s activities in North Carolina in early 1863 that seems to portend some of the problems Hill would encounter in the Chickamauga campaign. Especially, the ‘playing well with others’ theme.

    It really is helpful for putting Hill’s behavior in further context.


  8. j. carter watts Says:

    I am working on a book and one of the men involved was Capt. A.W. Clarkson who had commanded the Confederate Miners and Sappers. I desperately need to know what the A.W. stood for and where he was from originally. Though he joined the Helena Artillery here in Arkansas, there are no records that he was a resident of the state. Anyone who can help I would appreciate very much. Thanks.

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