Another Courier’s Perspective: William Henry Jenkins and the Death of A.P. Hill

Earlier this week I shared some new information discovered about William Bennett Kirkpatrick, a previously unidentified courier who relayed A.P. Hill’s last message to his Third Corps headquarters on April 2, 1865. Within the hour, Corporal John Watson Mauk shot Hill as he was attempting to reach Henry Heth’s division headquarters. Sergeant George Washington Tucker, Hill’s chief of couriers, was the only Confederate who accompanied the general at the time he was killed. Two decades later, Tucker and Mauk wrote their recollections of the event. Widely available through the Southern Historical Society Papers, these have formed the basis for the narrative of Hill’s death.

Digging deeper, I’m finding a wide variety of other sources. Most are in postwar correspondence and newspapers. Some confirm the seemingly accurate accounts provided by Mauk and Tucker, others dispute minor details, and an amusing few are wildly incorrect. I recently found an account by the other courier who followed Hill that morning to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters at the Turnbull house. Unlike Kirkpatrick, this courier continued to ride with Hill for a few more minutes of the general’s life. Forty-three years later he wrote about his experience. Comparing his account with the rest, I believe he misremembered many of the details. Nevertheless, it is important to attempt to reconcile his story with the popular interpretation.

William Henry Jenkins was born in Page County, Virginia, on June 30, 1843. He enlisted into an artillery company in early January 1863 but was transferred on the 21st into Company C, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. On September 12, 1864, he received an assignment as a courier on A.P. Hill’s headquarters staff. At that time the Third Corps had responsibility for protecting the Confederate supply lines west of Petersburg. They battled Union offensives to a standstill at the end of September and late October 1864, as well as in early February 1865, but each time the Confederates yielded additional ground to George Meade’s army. By late March 1865, Union forces used these positions seized from the Third Corps to launch an offensive against the supply lines past the Confederate right flank. For the first four days of the campaign, March 29-April 1, combat occurred southwest of the Third Corps’ lines, but Lee had to send reinforcements from Hill’s corps to bolster his right.

Hill took a medical leave of absence before the Union offensive began. He returned on April 1st to find only five-and-a-half brigades under his immediate command to oppose the entire VI Corps and three divisions from the Army of the James. Hill inspected his lines during the day and spent a sleepless night listening to the Union bombardment preliminary to their attacks the next morning, April 2, at multiple points, including the Third Corps position. Concerned, Hill crossed the street from his personal quarters, shared with his pregnant wife and two young daughters, and entered corps headquarters at Isabella Knight’s residence.

There, Hill learned that the Confederate Second Corps had been attacked southeast of Petersburg by the Union IX Corps and had lost portions of their entrenchments near the Jerusalem Plank Road. He immediately mounted to meet with Lee at the Turnbull house to the west and called for Tucker, but the chief of couriers had unsaddled his horse for grooming. Tucker afterward recalled:

“He directed me to follow him with two couriers immediately to General Lee’s headquarters. He then rode off rapidly. It was our custom, in critical times, to have, during the night, two of the couriers’ horses always saddled. I called to Kirkpatrick and Jenkins, the couriers next in turn, to follow the General as quickly as possible. I saddled up at once and followed them. Kirkpatrick and Jenkins arrived at General Lee’s headquarters together, only a few minutes after General Hill.”[1]

Somehow Hill had become aware of the break in his own lines during the line and directed Private William Kirkpatrick to return to the Knight house with instructions for his chief of staff. Colonel William Henry Palmer was to assist in rallying the men whose lines the VI Corps had shattered. Hill then briefly conversed with Lee and Lieutenant General James Longstreet inside the Turnbull house before Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott Venable, a member of Lee’s staff, burst into the house to report that armed Union infantrymen lurked within sight of the headquarters.

A.P. Hill’s Ride to Lee’s Headquarters (click on map for full size, created by Edward Alexander)

Hill immediately rushed out, followed by Venable. Jenkins had waited outside and joined the pair to investigate just how badly the lines had been broken. Tucker arrived at that time and also accompanied the trio. “We went directly across the road into the opposite field, and riding due south a short distance the General drew rein, a for a few moments used his field-glass,” Tucker recalled. “We then rode on in the same direction down a declivity toward a small branch running eastward to Old Town Creek, and a quarter mile from General Lee’s.” This stream was Cattail Run, which originated west of Heth’s headquarters and flowed northwest into Rohoic Creek (also known as Old Town Creek and Indian Town Creek).

“We had gone little more than half this 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 guns. 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.”[2]

Despite the scare, Hill, Tucker, and Venable continued toward Heth’s. An artillery courier named George Percy Hawes meanwhile began the morning at the Whitworth house, south of Lee’s headquarters and on the other side of Cattail Run. He was forced to evacuate by the approach of Union skirmishers and attached himself to Hill’s party. He warned them of the danger directly to the south and the riders took a circuitous route up Cattail Run to reach their destination at the Pickrell house. Hill soon dispatched Venable and Hawes to position artillery around the Turnbull house to protect army headquarters. Only Tucker escorted the general for the last mile of his ride and he returned within a short time with news of the general’s death by Mauk’s bullet.

The Death of A.P. Hill (click on map for full size, created by Edward Alexander)

Tucker published his account in 1883 and Hawes sent a copy to Venable, who responded with his own recollections. “I remember Tucker’s presence but not that of Jenkins at the [Cattail Run] branch,” he claimed. “When we left the gate of the Turnbull House General Hill had but one courier; but another could have easily ridden up behind us without attracting my attention, while we were examining the front so intently in the dim light of the coming day.”[3]

Despite Venable’s doubts, historians have accepted Tucker’s insertion of Jenkins into the story.

The courier seemingly lived a normal life after the war. He married Mary Virginia Zimmerman on April 7, 1868, and moved to Ladoga, Indiana by the end of the decade. The 1870 census listed him as a silversmith with a personal estate of $200. Mary meanwhile kept house, which now included a one-year-old son, William K. Jenkins. Ten years later, the elder William worked as a jeweler and by 1900 he had become a hardware dealer. Three daughters, Bertha, Nellie, and Annetta, still lived at home at the turn of the century. His son worked as a carpenter and lived next door with wife Francis, son Noah, and daughter Doris. William H. Jenkins died on November 9, 1908, and was buried in Ladoga Cemetery.

Five months before William’s death, the National Tribune published an article on June 11, 1908 by Gilbert Thompson, a former Union engineer. Thompson compiled the various accounts of the death of A.P. Hill into a narrative and included the courier’s presence. Historians can thank one of William’s friends who showed him this article, giving us another perspective of the story. William wrote to the newspaper the next month with his recollection of Hill’s death.

As could be expected, his memory had unfortunately clouded during the almost half a century since the event. Like many who wrote after the war, he also probably inflated his own impact and standing, particularly when he mentioned his meeting with Robert E. Lee just before the campaign. His claim to have been with Hill for over two years also does not match his service records. With these disclaimers, however, here is Jenkins’s full account with minimal comment. It is useful in showing the presence of Union soldiers so close to Lee’s headquarters just after the breakthrough, as well as explaining what happened to Jenkins and his prisoners after they left Hill’s cavalcade.

Editor National Tribune: Thru the kindness of Comrade Fred Souther, a Union veteran, I was presented a paper containing the account of Gen. Ambrose Powel[l] Hill’s death at Petersburg. As I was one of his couriers and had been with him for over two years I will give a few items that may be of interest to some. I, therefore, will make a short statement of the incidents connected with the General’s death.

All are familiar with the situation of the two armies facing each other around the city of Petersburg, Va., and at this time every one who was conversant with the surroundings, believed that a crisis was near. For instance, a day or two before the crisis came, a courier was called and my turn came to carry some papers from Hill’s headquarters to Gen. Lee’s headquarters and also to Gen. Heth, both being west of the city. When I delivered the message to Gen. Lee I saw the General was troubled, and being a very pleasant gentleman and a dear friend to your correspondence, after my official duty was ended with him I told him I was going over to Gen. Heth’s headquarters, and as I started the General accompanied me down almost to the road in front of the Venable House, which was a good distance from the road; all the while talking of the situation, which the General knew I was very familiar with. [ed. – Throughout the article Jenkins misidentifies Lee’s headquarters, which were actually at the home of William Turnbull. To prevent confusion, I will correct all future references.] When we parted Gen. Lee said: “Jenkins, tell Gen. Heth, for me, to keep a close watch on the enemy’s movements, and report every move to me at once,” which I did. This showed the great stress to which the situation had grown.

On the morning of April 2 the crisis came. When our lines were broken about Fort Gregg, about 8 o’clock, Gen. Hill called for two couriers. Serg’t Geo. W. Tucker and myself went with Gen. Hill to the right of our line. [ed. – Jenkins does not include Kirkpatrick, who only briefly accompanied Hill but whose presence was confirmed my multiple sources. He also misidentified the time and location of the breakthrough.] We went by Gen. Lee’s headquarters at the [Turnbull] House, and I think Gen. Hill stopped a short time, talking with Gen. Lee. We then proceeded on our way to the westward. We had gone probably about a mile when we came upon two bluecoats (stragglers), whom we disarmed and Gen. Hill said to me: “Jenkins, you take these prisoners to Gen. Lee’s headquarters.”

I immediately started back with the prisoners, but had not gone more than half a mile when I encountered a squad of 12 to 15 armed infantrymen near a peach orchard, west of the [Turnbull] House. I at once dismissed my prisoners, and falling flat on my horse’s back, ran the gauntlet.

These men had crossed the road, gone north, and were returning. When they saw me they commenced firing and as they were not more than 200 yards away I made the run thru the peach orchard under this fire and at the east end of the orchard I got out of their range, as I went down an incline which hid me from the firing squad. Then I proceeded on my way to Lee’s headquarters, and when I got there Serg’t Tucker had just arrived with the General’s horse and his own.

After I left Gen. Hill and Serg’t Tucker to take the prisoners back, they proceeded westward and came to a skirt of timber, where they came upon a bluecoat standing by a tree and ordered him to surrender. He set his gun down by the tree, then suddenly grabbed his gun and fired at Gen. Hill, the ball passing thru his left hand and his body, killing him instantly. With his left hand he was holding his bridle rein. [ed. – Corporal Mauk, who killed Hill, was not alone. Private Daniel Wolford was also present and did start to lower his musket when ordered to surrender. Mauk, however, maintained his aim on Hill the entire time. Many southern accounts of Hill’s death nonetheless claimed that Mauk had deceived Hill and Tucker by pretending to surrender. It is partially due to this rumor’s prevalence that the modest Mauk agreed to write his own recollections for publication.]

The General’s body was recovered about two hours later, and nothing of his personal effects had been disturbed. As I was a bunkmate and messmate of Serg’t Tucker, he told me all about it when we were together again, and I have always understood it this way—that there was but one man when Gen. Hill was shot, and no one else with the General but Serg’t Tucker.

Col. Venable was not with Gen. Hill when we started from Gen. Lee’s headquarters. Gen. Hill’s death caused a wave of great sorrow all thru the army.

So far as I remember, Serg’t Tuck and myself were the only two persons who accompanied Gen. Hill from his headquarters that morning from the Widow Knight’s home.—W.H. Jenkins, Ladoga, Ind.[4]

So it’s not a perfect source, as none of them seem to be, but by trimming it up I will find a way to fit into the story of Hill’s death.

 

[1] George W. Tucker, “Death of General A.P. Hill,” Southern Historical Society Papers (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1883), Volume 11, 566.

[2] Ibid., 567.

[3] Charles S. Venable to George Percy Hawes, December 25, 1883, “Further Details of the Death of General A.P. Hill,” Southern Historical Society Papers (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1884), 187.

[4] W.H. Jenkins, “Death of Gen. A.P. Hill: One of the Couriers on Duty With Him Gives His Remembrance of the Circumstances,” National Tribune, July 30, 1908.