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The Other Hill

July 2024
3min read

Back to Chickamauga again: this time to take a look at the Confederate side. One of the gifted soldiers there was a withdrawn, somewhat cantankerous man named Daniel Harvey Hill, who commanded an army corps under Braxton Bragg and who, like most of Bragg’s other top commanders, emerged from the battle feeling that the Confederacy had missed a great opportunity because of the failings of the man at the top.

Hill was “one of the two Hills” in Confederate memory. He and the Virginian A. P. Hill wrote their names large, on the record of the Army of Northern Virginia and in hot battle action. Perhaps A. P. Hill was the more fortunate: he died in action just before the war ended and was enshrined in the special legend that attached itself to the generals of the lost cause who did not outlive the cause itself. D. H. Hill survived the war by nearly a quarter of a century, and during all of the postwar years he spoke his mind vigorously. Since he had pronounced opinions about the merit of things done by himself and by others, and since he was frank beyond the bounds of prudence, he pulled controversy about himself like a blanket. Lee himself took a distaste to him, while the war was on and afterward, and this undoubtedly hurt Hill more than Grant’s dislike hurt Rosecrans and Thomas. Hill has come down in memory as a capable soldier who just did not quite fit in anywhere.

He too needs another look, and a perceptive study of him is available in Hal Bridges’ Lee’s Maverick General . Reading this book, one is likely to feel that the Confederacy never really made the best use of this man’s capacities. He was undeniably very difficult, in a way Rosecrans and Thomas were not, which is to say that he had a thorny personality and spoke his acidulous mind at times when he should have kept quiet. All the same, it is hard to escape the feeling that as a soldier he was an extremely good man to have on one’s side. Not a man, probably, for the top command anywhere, but an extremely good subordinate for anyone who knew just how to use him.

Hill was frail, racked all his life by poor health, dyspeptic, morose, contentious. He won his reputation in the Army of Northern Virginia, and even in that army, whose untrained soldiers insisted that their generals must show an instinctive contempt for personal peril, he was famous as a man who did not know what fear was. He fought well whenever there was fighting to be done, but he argued about it afterward; he finally tried the patience of Lee beyond Lee’s endurance, and after 1862 Lee concluded that the Confederacy would be just as well served if Hill did the rest of his fighting in someone else’s army. Thereafter the man was on the perimeter.

He was rescued from obscurity late in 1863 when Jefferson Davis correctly concluded that Bragg needed more competent assistants. Hill became, temporarily, a lieutenant general, and went west to command one of Bragg’s army corps. After the Battle of Chickamauga Bragg accused practically all of his subordinates of errors of one kind or another, and Hill was one of the ones he named; but from the record it appears that Hill, like the rest, did about as well as anyone could have done under the erratic leadership which was on display at general headquarters, and it is at least clear that Hill, when the battle ended, realized something which Bragg was unable to see—that the Confederacy had won a great victory which might have important consequences if it could be followed up. Bragg simply sat and thought about it.

Lee’s Maverick General, Daniel Harvey Hill, by Hal Bridges. McGraw-Hill Book Co. 323 pp. $7.50.

Along with others, Hill made outcry. The oddest feature of the Confederate victory at Chickamauga was the fact that a round dozen of Bragg’s generals presently sent a letter to Jefferson Davis complaining that “complete paralysis” had fallen upon the victorious army and urging that Bragg be relieved of his command. Davis, unaccountably, refused to take action; and not long afterward, Hill ceased to be a lieutenant general and ceased to command troops in action. Except for minor assignments in the final days, Hill was finished.

All of that is understandable. Hill was too outspoken, too critical of others, too ready to remind his fellows of their faults; it takes a rare army to keep such a man in high command and make full use of him. Yet the man was a good soldier, and it is hard to quarrel very much with Mr. Bridges’ summary—”a versatile and talented individualist, whose fighting career, marked by great achievement as well as great controversy, strongly suggests, when seen in full, that Harvey Hill was one of the ablest of Lee’s lieutenants.”

He was another man who did not quite make it. He missed making it, probably, by a wider margin than Rosecrans, certainly by a wider margin than Thomas. But he might have been placed higher than he was placed; he could have been used to better effect than the Richmond government did use him. And he compels a backward glance. He was alive, talented … and interesting.

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