GENERAL A.P. HILL The Story of a Confederate Warrior By James I. Robertson Jr. Random House. 383 pp. $24.95 LEE'S TIGERS The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia By Terry L. Jones Louisiana State University Press 274 pp. $22.50 WITNESS TO GETTYSBURG By Richard Wheeler Harper & Row. 273 pp. $19.95
THE NEWEST volumes on the Civil War shelf include what indisputably ranks as the standard biography of a leading Confederate general, the first full history of one of the most famous (and infamous) Confederate fighting forces, and an addition to the vast literature on the Battle of Gettysburg.
The biography is James I. Robertson's General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior. Twenty-five years ago another biography described Ambrose Powell Hill as "Lee's forgotten general," a characterization I have always found dubious; anyone who had gotten as much space in Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants as did Hill could scarcely be regarded as forgotten. In any event, thanks to Robertson's superb research and skilled military analysis, he will now be remembered.
Robertson, who teaches history at Virginia Virginia Polytechnic Institute, is the author of The Stonewall Brigade and the former editor of the journal Civil War History; he has edited more books and written more articles on the war than I can count. He has applied his formidable talents to a worthy subject, for the life and death of Powell Hill strikingly reflects the life and death of one of the great armies of American history, the Army of Northern Virginia.
Hill went to war as colonel of the 13th Virginia regiment, and a year later he was appointed major general in command of the soon-to-be-famous Light Division. By the army's third campaign, Lee ranked him behind only Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet as a commander. "He fights his troops well, and takes good care of them," he told Jefferson Davis, succinctly defining the ideal combat general. Robertson calls Hill "a pivotal figure in every major Civil War battle in the eastern theater from 1862 to 1865." Why that was true may be glimpsed in the recollection of one of Hill's men, who wrote, "he impressed me with the conviction that he was a man whose spirit was rising as dangers gathered and thickened, that he meant business, and that he was going to win."
Powell Hill's best-known exploit was his swift march to the sound of the guns at Sharpsburg on Sept. 17, 1862, when he hurled his exhausted men into the flank of the attacking Federals and salvaged the battle for Lee. It perfectly exemplified what set him apart from many other commanders (or at least many Union commanders). While he relentlessly drove his Light Division toward the fighting, a few miles away a dullard Federal general heard the same guns as his division plodded toward the same goal. He reached the scene hours behind Hill with everyone rested and ready for action and too late to be of any use.
SUCH EPISODES caused people to speak of Hill's "impetuous courage" and his "impetuous ardor," and this fiery combative spirit brought him troubles as well as triumphs. His over-developed sense of honor led him to challenge Longstreet to a duel and then embroiled him in a famous controversy with Stonewall Jackson that Robertson handles with particular skill. He is equally good at depicting Hill as a corps commander, a position to which he was promoted following Jackson's death at Chancellorsville. There was no better divisional commander in either army, but corps command called for him to be a military executive. "Too often narrow and impetuous in his thinking," Robertson writes, "he did not have Jackson's deep confidence or Longstreet's unshakable calm. Unrivaled as a division commander, Hill simply did not -- or could not -- adjust as well to the next step up in the military ladder."
Although Robertson has discovered and used for the first time a collection of Hill's personal papers that helps especially to illuminate his prewar life, Hill's actions always spoke louder than his words and he seldom revealed himself in letters. It seems to me the letters and journals of men under Hill's command that are used here reveal more about him than anything he himself wrote. Robertson's medical detective work has also identified the disease -- prostatitis -- that so often incapacitated Hill during his fighting career and that was killing him even at the moment a Yankee bullet ended his life just a week before Appomattox.
It is part of Confederate legend that both Jackson and Lee died with Hill's name on their lips. After reading this absorbing biography it is no surprise that the South's two greatest soldiers should have had their hardest-fighting general in their final thoughts.
The Louisiana Tigers are part of Confederate legend as well, and Terry L. Jones, of the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches, has written the first comprehensive history of the contingent that was as well known for its villainies as for its fighting prowess. One of Jones' major accomplishments in Lee's Tigers is sorting fact from myth and fancy. His resourceful work in manuscript collections has turned up enough letters, diaries, muster rolls and other primary source material to present a coherent record of these 10 regiments and five battalions that served under Lee. The name "Tigers," originating with a company in Roberdeau Wheat's battalion called the Tiger Rifles, eventually spread to all the Louisiana troops in the Army of Northern Virginia.
Wheat's battalion was by itself enough to ensure the Tigers' notoriety. It had companies made up of convicted criminals and cut-throat gamblers and soldiers of fortune and (reportedly the tamest of the lot) the Catahoula Guerrillas, planters' sons described by a disgusted officer as freebooters and robbers. Yet according to Jones, the Tigers' real notoriety originated with the 14th Infantry and Gaston Coppens' battalion. Their train journeys north to Richmond in 1861 read like something from the annals of Attila the Hun. Six managed to kill themselves in drunken accidents en route. At a stopover in Tennessee there was a whiskey-fueled riot in which they tried to burn down a hotel filled with civilians, and seven more of them were killed and 19 wounded.
Battle attrition and desertion eliminated some of the worst offenders, and rough-and-ready discipline corraled others. Before he was killed in the Seven Days, Rob Wheat exerted reasonable control from the fact that he was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 275 pounds. A fellow officer gained the attention of his command by shooting a rebellious soldier in the face. Jones confirms that the Tigers did indeed include the "wharf rats from New Orleans" and the "lowest scrapings of the Mississippi," and he counts at least 24 nationalities speaking a babel of tongues in their ranks.
Yet they were forgiven their sins, which were substantial, because (along with the Texas Brigade) they were the best shock troops in the army. Their actions during Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862 were typical. The Louisiana Brigade under Richard Taylor first threw away the fruits of a victory by stopping to loot captured wagon trains, then, a few days later, made an assault of such gallantry that, Jones writes, it "was forever etched into the minds of those soldiers who witnessed it."
From their peak two-brigade strength, the Tigers' numbers dwindled battle by battle. Recruiting could not keep pace, especially as more and more of Louisiana came under Federal control. They were wrecked at Sharpsburg and Gettysburg and in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. They were consolidated into a single brigade, then a regiment, finally a battalion. From first to last some 13,000 Louisianans served in Lee's army. At Appomattox 373 remained with the colors to surrender. Yet their reputation and their fame survived undiminished, and Lee's Tigers gives them their due.
In such books as Voices of the Civil War, The Siege of Vicksburg and Sword Over Richmond, Richard Wheeler has woven a narrative of events made up largely of quotations from numerous eyewitnesses. He repeats this pattern in Witness to Gettysburg with his usual skill, and the result is a good introduction to that great battle.
What I think is missing here, however, is a sense of spontaneity and immediacy, of a battle taking place before our eyes. Nearly all these accounts are after-the-fact recollections, often long after the fact. Certainly such recollections are of value, but when they are quoted at length there is an impression of polished memories, of bravery heightened and triumphs enlarged and images embellished by time. Some of the enterprising research displayed by Robertson and Jones would have been welcome here to provide more accounts from letters and diaries that would suggest how it actually was at Gettysburg in July 1863, not how it was remembered. ::
Stephen W. Sears is the author of "Landscape Turned Red: the Battle of Antietam" and of a forthcoming biography of General George B. McClellan.