Bristoe Station

Last updated June 17th, 2007 by Jenny

A period of relative quiet settled on the Virginia theater after Gettysburg. Both armies had been badly mangled and had lost heavily in officers. In the early fall of 1863, Meade planned a new offensive in Virginia when he learned that James Longstreet's corps had been detached for service in Tennessee. After a few preliminary moves, the War Department sent the XI and XII Corps to Chattanooga, Tennessee and weakened Meade. Now Lee attempted to seize the opportunity and he began an offensive sweep around Cedar Mountain with his remaining two corps in an attempt to turn Meade's right flank. This became known as the Bristoe Campaign.

Meade retreated towards a line near the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The Confederates pursued him. On October 14, Hill's corps stumbled upon two corps of the retreating Union army at Bristoe Station. Hill decided to attack even though a proper reconnaissance had not yet been made. The result was disaster. Union soldiers of the crack II Corps, posted behind a railroad embankment, rose up and badly mauled two of Heth's brigades (under Kirkland and Cooke) and badly wounded their commanders. Hill then threw in more troops, but could not dislodge the Union forces from their strong positions. Carnot Posey fell with a wound in his ankle that would cost him his life. The total loss for the sad affair was around 1,900 men. Hill was sharply criticized. Davis endorsed his report with the rebuke "there was a lack of vigilance." To his credit, Hill accepted all blame. Lee simply said surveying the battlefield and it's carnage: "Let us say no more about it and bury these poor dead men." The battle of Bristoe effectively ended Lee's Campaign and sent him back towards his original positions.

Bristoe Station

A description of the battle:

On October 14, 1863, A.P. Hill’s corps stumbled upon two corps of the retreating Union army at Bristoe Station and attacked without proper reconnaissance. Union soldiers of the II Corps, posted behind the Orange & Alexandria Railroad embankment, mauled two brigades of Henry Heth’s division and captured a battery of artillery. Hill reinforced his line but could make little headway against the determined defenders. After this victory, the Federals continued their withdrawal to Centreville unmolested. Lee’s Bristoe offensive sputtered to a premature halt. After minor skirmishing near Manassas and Centreville, the Confederates retired slowly to Rappahannock River destroying the Orange & Alexandria Railroad as they went. At Bristoe Station, Hill lost standing in the eyes of Lee, who angrily ordered him to bury his dead and say no more about it.

On-site you will find the reports for A.P. Hill's reports for the Third Corps.

Hill, to his credit, fully accepted the blame for the Bristoe disaster. In stark contrast to most Civil War generals, he would not try and place the blame on any of his subortinates, including Harry Heth. In fact, Hill wrote Heth a letter that absolved Heth of blame:

Having been informed that it was probable some misapprehension existed in regard to your management of your division at Gettysburg, Falling Waters, and Bristoe, it is but simple justice to you that I say your conduct on all those occasions met with my approbation. At Gettysburg the first day's fight, mainly fought by your division, was a brilliant victory. You were wounded that day, and not again in command of your division until the retreat commenced. At Falling Waters the enemy were kept at bay until the army had crossed the Potomac, and the prisoners taken by the enemy were stragglers, and not due to any fault of yours. At Bristoe the attack was ordered by me, and most gallantly made by your division; another corps of the enemy coming up on your right was unforeseen, as I had supposed that other troops were taking care of them. I write you this letter that you may make such use of it as may be deemed advisable by you.

Hill and Heth had been friends since their youth. Heth's uncle had owned a fine home near Brandy Station, and as such Powell and Henry had had the chance to strike up a boyhood friendship. When Heth was married in 1857, Powell Hill, along with future Confederate General John Pegram -- who's brother Willie was a crack gunner in the Third Corps, served as groomsman. Perhaps that had something to do with Hill's loyalty towards Heth.

On November 1, word reached Hill that he had another new daughter -- his third child. Dolly and Powell would name her Lucy. The men of his Third Corps built the child a rough hewn cradle. Together with the pipe he had been carved by a soldier, Hill must have cherished these items greatly. Dolly particularly prized the cradle. It was still in use in the family long after the War.

What was wrong with A.P. Hill?

Douglas Southall Freeman in his three volumes on Lee's Lieutenants noted that Hill's deterioration resembled almost something like tuberculosis. However, it was Freeman's opinion that Hill suffered from a psychosomatic illness. In other words, Freeman felt that the promotion to command of a corps was too much for Hill to handle. Therefore, he would suffer anxiety and become physically ill on the eve of or during battles. Freeman wrote: "Chance or a psychosomatic malady left Powell Hill unable, after the first day's fighting [at the Wilderness], to exercise field command. He did not recover until the most serious fighting was over at Spotsylvania, but he did his utmost to keep in touch with his troops."

Following in the tradition of Freeman was Southern historian Clifford Dowdey. Dowdey, while he did not write a Hill biography, was like Freeman, interested in the Army of Northern Virginia and its generals. He wrote several articles on Hill and described him in detail in his books on the Army of Northern Virginia's campaigns. Dowdey thought Hill's illnesses was suggestive of "ulcer or some gastrointestional disturbance." Dowdey noted that Hill's illnesses often coincided with crises of high command. Dowdey noted that when ill, "He turned pale, looked, as they said, 'sick as a dog,' and his complaint was generalized as 'bilousness.'"

Hill's first modern biographer, William Woods Hassler, discounted Freeman's theory that Hill suffered from something psychosomatic. Hassler instead suggested that Hill's illness was caused by chronic malaria. Hassler noted that chronic malaria caused fatigue, lowered resistance, and noted that the same things that would trigger the psychosomatic illness might also trigger chronic clinical malaria. Malaria was common during the War and would well account for Hill's marked physical deterioration from the illness. Hassler wrote that:.

    Evidence strongly suggests that Hill suffered from chronic malaria. Bouts of this disease in an individual chronically infected with the parasite are induced by undue fatigue, exposure, climatic changes, dampness, and lower body resistance -- all factors that were present in Hill's case. Interestingly, the pattern of his illness which shows evidence of symptoms that might border on psycho-neurosis or psycho-somatic disease is also rather true with chronic clinical malaria. In fact, the added responsibilities of corps command conceivably could stimulate the trigger mechanism for these malarial attacks.

Hassler also speculated that Hill could have suffered from hepatitis, nephritis, or some sort of chronic yellow fever.

Hill's most recent biographer, James I. Robertson, suggested that Hill's "youthful indiscretion" at West Point had led to chronic prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate). Robertson suggested that the illness would account for the marked deterioration that Hill experienced and would lead to chronic, painful infections, impaired renal function, and quite possibly fatal uremia, all of which would of course be worsened by the rigors of corps command. Robertson also notes that Hill was so sick at Reams Station that "the pain in his kidneys and prostate became so severe that he had to lie down on the ground." Uremia is a particularly severe disorder caused by the kidneys not working correctly that results in urea and other nitrogen-containing wastes accumulating in the blood. Some of the early signs of uremia are lethargy, mental depression, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and edema; later symptoms include diarrhea, anemia, convulsions, coma, and a gray-brown coloration. Untreated, uremia is fatal. Robertson's theory generally gets the most credit for being correct today amongst Civil War buffs and historians.

Dr. Russell P. Green, M.D. suggested in a Civil War Quarterly article that Hill suffered quite possibly from a manic depression. He felt Hill's problems were simply a matter of his mood. Hill's mother was a hypochondriac, Dr. Green points out, and the illnesses is often inherited. This would explain why, as James Longstreet put it, Hill was capable at times of performing brilliant prodigies. When Hill performed well, he was on an upward swing; when he performed poorly, he was in a low swing. Green goes on to suggest Hill had a death wish, a sort of form of survival guilt, that led him to be reckless with his life and basically commit suicide on April 2, 1865.

Another theory, posed by Martin Schenck in the book about the Light Division (Up Came Hill), suggested that perhaps Hill's abdominal pains were from a liver ailment like hepatitis. Hepatitis can be caused by infections from parasites, bacteria, or viruses, as well as from an auto immune disorder or from severe over-drinking. Symptoms of hepatitis include loss of appetite, fatigue, jaundice, nausea and vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, and itching. Schenck cited a surgeon's report that explained Hill's symptoms as biliousness which would infer a sever liver problem that probably worsened as the War continued and the stresses mounted. I can't find the surgeon's report Schenck mentions, but it is quite possible he is correct as to the nature of Hill's malady as well. Hepatitis could lead to very serious and chronic illness as well. Schenck also suggests that Hill probably did not often seek out medical treatment for his problem, knowing that the doctors could do little and not wanting to take them away from treating his soldiers who he felt needed their services more than he did.

We don't really know what was wrong with him. Records are too sparse and spotty to be absolutely certain and each of his major biographers has reached a different conclusion. What is certain is Hill's health would have a negative impact on his continued performance in the Army of Northern Virginia high command. It was an unforunate time for Hill to be sick. The bloodshed of the previous three years would be almost tame in comparison to what would become near constant battling until the end of the War. Soon, Lee would lose James Longstreet for months, Stuart forever, and Ewell would be sent away as a victim of illness and wounds and Lee's lack of confidence.

In late November, Meade attempted to steal a march on Lee through the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Meade's plan was to strike the right flank of the Confederate army south of the Rapidan River and it depended upon speed. However, problems coordinating units on the march developed and Lee had time to react. Scattered fighting broke out between units of the Confederate II Corps and the Union III Corps. Then Lee withdrew to prepared field fortifications at Mine Run. Meade concluded that the Confederate line was too strong to attack and the Campaign ended.

Mine Run was the last campaign of 1863. Both armies then settled in to their winter quarters to await the spring. During the winter, Hill was given a large set of spurs from a group of Columbia, South Carolina women who also vowed never to marry except to a Southern soldier. Hill graciously wrote their spokeswoman:

 My Dear Miss Mary:

    The very handsome pair of spurs so kindly presented to me by yourself and young friends have been received, and I thank you most heartily for the token of good will and of the esteem in which you hold services incident to my position. If I have done aught to win these spurs, the gallant soldiers of your own native State are entitled partly to the credit. They have never faltered when the charge was sounded. The noble, steadfast devotion of the few in the field should cull a blush of shame to the cheeks of those fattening at home upon the distress of their country. At all events, mete out to them the punishment you threaten and never let them know the cheer of the domestic fireside, or be smiled upon by "Heaven's last, best gift" -- women.

    When these cruel wars are over, Miss Mary, I shall be reminded of Columbia, and I hope spurred to visit in that direction to meet my kind friends. Please remember me affectionately to your young friends, and give to each a kiss for me, which I will repay to you with interest when we meet.

    Very affectionately, your friend, A.P. Hill.

Although happily married, Hill could obviously enjoy a bit of harmless banter with the ladies.

Dolly joined Powell during the winter of 1863-1864 at his headquarters with his two daughters. It was a quiet period, but Hill was starting to show the signs of strain. For much of the winter he was ill off and on and from this point in the War onwards, he would often show signs of sickness, particularly during times of high stress.



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