A.P. Hill’s Death Wish?: The Problem with Using Quotes

Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill rode to his death during the immediate aftermath of the April 2, 1865 breakthrough at Petersburg. Hill sought to meet Major General Henry Heth at the division commander’s Pickrell house headquarters. Instead he encountered Pennsylvania soldiers John Mauk and Daniel Wolford just 800 yards from his objective. Some have speculated that the reckless nature of his final journey meant that Hill may have been going out in blaze of glory–a suicide by Yankee. As proof, they quote Hill saying less than a week before his death that he did not want to survive a Confederate defeat. Historians, however, should be wary of interpreting anything more from that supposed statement.

A skilled brigade and division commander, Hill failed to duplicate that success at the corps level. He had feuded with Stonewall Jackson and could not live up to the high expectations as his somewhat successor (Jackson’s command was divided between Hill and Richard S. Ewell). Hill suffered from illness frequently during the last year of the war. His Third Corps played an important role in the Petersburg campaign, but the general was a relative non-factor.

On March 20, 1865 Hill took a brief leave of absence to restore his health. He stayed at his extended family home in nearby Chesterfield County. Both the Thomas and Henry Hill families are shown to be living or seeking refuge on the property. Uncle Henry worked as a Confederate paymaster in Richmond and the general accompanied him into the city on March 29th. George Powell Hill, one of Thomas’s sons, also worked in the paymaster department. He afterward wrote that A.P. Hill did not wish to live if the city fell. Here is the relevant excerpt from G. Powell Hill’s statement:

During this visit to my father’s home he accompanied Colonel Hill to Richmond, and while seated in our office talking with several prominent citizens who had called to pay their respects, the subject of the evacuation of the city was touched upon, which seemed to annoy the General, and he remarked that he did not wish to survive the fall of Richmond.

Thus it should be noted that the quote is just a secondhand source and not an actual written or documented statement. However, if an author writes that Hill said he did not “wish to survive the fall of Richmond” it implies that it is a direct quote, which can therefore be construed as proof that Hill was indeed trying to get himself killed on April 2nd. The author might not even have such an agenda. It is awkward to work the G. Powell Hill postwar account detail into a narrative flow. Footnotes allow for clarification but there is no guarantee the reader will consult them. It is too easy to simply see “did not wish to survive the fall of Richmond” and accept it as fact.

The entire account from George Powell Hill should also be treated as what it is. Though an incredibly useful resource for learning about the first of three burials for A.P. Hill, Powell’s statement is not a window into the general’s mind. The article was written in 1891 when Hill’s body was being dug up for the second time to be reinterred as the centerpiece for new development north of Richmond. Recalling events after a quarter century is challenging enough, determining someone else’s personal opinion is nearly impossible.

Regardless of his mindset at the end of the campaign, General Hill returned to command on April 1st. He spent the last day of his life inspecting his lines from Hatcher’s Run to Battery 45, and settled in for a restless night at the Venable house on Petersburg’s outskirts, where his pregnant wife and two young daughters slept. Kept awake by Union artillery fire, Hill saddled up at about 3 a.m. to ride to Lee’s headquarters a mile and a half to the west at Edge Hill. Along the way he learned that his own lines were under attack. He discussed strategy with Lee and James Longstreet until sometime after 5 a.m. when Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott Venable brought news that Federal infantry had broken through along the Third Corps position.

Hill immediately wanted to meet with Heth, the division commander responsible for the Confederate fortifications from the Hart house south to Hatcher’s Run. He was accompanied by Venable and couriers George Washington Tucker, William Henry Jenkins, and George Percy Hawes during various stages of his ride from army toward division headquarters. A small component of infantry briefly attached themselves as escorts but Hill shed his companions along the way until only Tucker remained for the final showdown with the Pennsylvania pair.

Corporal Mauk’s bullet struck Hill but Private Wolford missed Tucker and the courier hastily escaped to inform Lee of Hill’s death. In 1883 Tucker wrote his recollections for the Philadelphia Weekly Times “Annals of the War” series. The account is highly reliable as a guide to the progress of Hill’s last ride and in describing the encounter with the Pennsylvanians. Mauk also wrote several accounts of his shot that killed Hill. The Union and Confederate versions proved remarkably consistent.

Tucker’s article portrayed the general as distant and impatient. He claims to have ridden along Cattail Run at Hill’s side but the general hardly spoke to him.

Proceeding still further and General Hill making no further remark, I became so impressed with the great risk he was running that I made bold to say: “Please excuse me, General, but where are you going?” He answered: “Sergeant, I must go to the right as quickly as possible.” Then, pointing south-west, he said: “We will go up this side of the branch to the woods, which will cover us until reaching the field in rear of General Heth’s quarters, I hope to find the road clear at General Heth’s.”

… When going through the woods, the only words between General Hill and myself, except relating to the route, were by himself. He called my attention and said: “Sergeant should anything happen to me you must go back to General Lee and report it.”

Tucker claimed that he spurred his horse ahead of Hill as they crossed an open field in order to reach a swampy forest opposite Heth’s headquarters on the Boydton Plank Road. When two-thirds of the way across the field they spotted Mauk and Wolford in the treeline running perpendicular to the plank road and additional Union soldiers further into the woods.

I looked around to General Hill. He said: “We must taken them,” at the same time, drawing, for the first time that day, his Colt’s navy pistol. I said: “Stay there, I’ll take them.” By this time we were within twenty yards of the two behind the tree and getting closer every moment. I shouted: “If you fire, you’ll be swept to hell! Our men are here – surrender!” When General Hill was at my side calling “surrender,” now within ten yards of the men covering us with their muskets (the upper one the General, the lower one myself,) the lower soldier let the stock of his gun down from his shoulder, but recovered quickly as his comrade spoke to him (I only saw his lips move) and both fired. Throwing out my right hand (he was on that side) toward the General, I caught the bridle of his horse, and, wheeling to the left, turned in the saddle and saw my General on the ground, with his limbs extended, motionless.

Tucker’s narrative is wonderfully quotable and all modern versions rightfully utilize his dialogue, even though the exact exchange had likely been altered after eighteen years. Removing those quotes and all others in similar situations would certainly make history rather boring, but, if they are to remain, readers should be wise to not accept them as gospel.

Furthermore, Tucker’s account showed that it was Hill who acted recklessly during the ride. Colonel William Henry Palmer, Hill’s chief of staff, believed that Tucker misrepresented which of the pair was aggressive that morning. Palmer remained at Third Corps headquarters until he received news from Edge Hill that the Confederate lines were under attack. He traveled to Major General Cadmus Wilcox’s division headquarters inside Petersburg’s Dimmock Line (the main set of entrenchments surrounding the city) and then rode toward army headquarters by way of the Boydton Plank Road and Long Ordinary Road.

Palmer claimed that he encountered Tucker at that road junction as the courier frantically returned from Hill’s death site. Supposedly Tucker informed the chief of staff about what happened as the two rode together to Lee’s headquarters. In a November 8, 1902 letter to Captain Murray Forbes Taylor, a Third Corps aide-de-camp, Palmer stated that Tucker had changed his story in between that fateful April morning and the 1883 publication. Palmer believed Tucker did so to shift blame from himself, writing:

Gen’l Hill lost his life doing a chivalrous thing. When Tucker rushed forward, & ordered the two skirmishers behind the tree, to surrender, Gen’l Hill for the moment remained behind on a slight elevation. He saw that they were going to fire on Tucker, & were not going to surrender. It was no longer a Lieut General and his courier. He spurred his horse to Tucker’s assistance. It was man to man. Tucker told me that he had no idea that Gen’l Hill was near until he heard the snort of the Gen’ls horse, just as the two skirmishers fired.

Palmer believed that he would have been a better escort to Hill that morning and regretted that the general had ordered him to remain at corps headquarters for further instructions.

If the General had have allowed me to accompany him [I] have always felt assured that I could have impressed him with the importance of avoiding scattering parties of the enemy & the keeping well to the right near the Cox Road… I say this because I had influence with him about such matters, & feel assured that on two occasions during my service I saved him from wounds by cautioning him & taking precautions for him.

The chief of staff believed that Hill acted as he normally would in battle and that Tucker’s careless desire to capture Mauk and Wolford led to the general’s death. Of course that cannot be proved either, but Palmer’s objection to Tucker’s account demonstrates that there are plenty of rational reasons to explain the bizarre encounter between Hill and the Pennsylvanians.

During the lectures and tours I have led about Hill’s death I have found the “suicide by Yankee” scenario is nevertheless popular. Those who promote that idea use the same reasoning, based in part on Hill’s illness and a speculated but ungrounded desire by the general to restore his legacy, but primarily reliant on the quotes from George Powell Hill and George Tucker. Eliminating those quotes dries up the story so I’m not advocating their exclusion entirely. I freely used them in my chapter on Hill’s death in Dawn of Victory. With disclaimer, I will continue to do so. But what worked for narrative is unreliable for analysis.

Many people are drawn to the Civil War because of its rich personalities, but we should be cautious in trying too hard to think that we can therefore fully understand them. The quotes that make Hill’s last ride compelling portray him as acting too reckless but they were written several decades after the war. Despite their appearance in quotation marks, they were not the general’s actual dialogue. Remove that hearsay evidence from the notion that Hill willingly rode to his death and that theory falls apart.



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

G. Powell Hill, “First Burial of General Hill’s Remains,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 19 (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1891).

William H. Palmer to Murray F. Taylor, November 8, 1902, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

J.E.B. Stuart and the Question of Corps Command

JEB Stuart

In the days after his victory in the Chancellorsville Campaign, Gen. Robert E. Lee faced a number of critical decisions, among them the reorganization of his Army of Northern Virginia. The death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 10, 1863 had left a void at corps command. There were a number of officers, including Maj. Gens. Richard Ewell, Ambrose Powell Hill and Richard Anderson in the running to replace Jackson. Another name which may have been the most intriguing was the commander of Lee’s cavalry division, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve been trying to locate primary evidence regarding Stuart’s consideration for corps command. The search is far from over, in fact in may never be over, but I wanted to share what I have found so far and offer my thoughts on the matter. I also invite our readers to share any primary sources on the subject for additional research.

When Jackson fell victim to friendly fire on the night of May 2 at Chancellorsville, command of his Second Corps eventually fell to Stuart. The cavalry chief turned in a splendid performance the following day and his efforts eventually led to a Confederate victory. Stuart returned to command of the mounted division on May 6. Following Jackson’s death on May 10, rumors regarding his replacement began to circulate through the Confederate ranks.

Stuart’s own headquarters was not immune to such innuendo. Captain John Esten Cooke, a relative of Stuart’s wife, Flora, and member of his staff recorded in his journal a brief discussion he had with the gray cavalier. According to Cooke, Stuart related a story told to him by Col. Thomas L. Rosser, the commander of the 5th Virginia Cavalry, “that Jackson on his death bed had expressed a desire that he…should succeed him in the command of his corps.” Stuart then told Cooke that he “would rather know that Jackson said that, than have the appointment.”

Interestingly enough, Rosser  did not visit Jackson during the final six days of his life. Additionally, the statement from Jackson has not been corroborated by those who were with him as he passed away his last hours in Thomas Chandler’s plantation office near Guinea Station. That isn’t to say those that were closest to Jackson were not impressed by Stuart’s performance. Jackson’s cartographer, Jedediah Hotckiss, praised Stuart for his actions at Chancellorsville in a letter to his wife written on May 19. Hotchkiss, however, does not mention the potential of Stuart taking over Jackson’s corps. Stuart also mentioned the camp rumors in a letter to Flora. “There has been a great deal of talk of my succeeding General Jackson,” he wrote, “but I think without foundation in fact.”

On May 20, Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis to propose a reorganization of his army. This restructure revolved around the creation of a third corps. Stuart’s name is not mentioned either as a replacement for Jackson or as a new corps commander. It does appears from a letter written by Lee to Stuart on May 23 that Stuart offered his thoughts on who should succeed Jackson.

That’s not to say Stuart did not covet a third star and a promotion to Lieutenant General, a grade synonymous with corps command in Lee’s army. Stuart stood fourth on the seniority list of Major Generals behind Ewell (January 24, 1862) Hill (May 26, 1862) and Anderson (July 14, 1862). Such a promotion, vaulting Stuart over three other officers, could create discontent and friction within the army. Lee was in the midst of planning his second Northern invasion where cooperation and cohesion among his subordinates would be critical to the operation’s success.

Still, rumors regarding Stuart’s consideration for command persisted. It appears one of the chief purveyors was Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender, a brigade commander in Hill’s division. “I hear that Gen’l Jackson is thought to be in very serious condition”, he wrote to his wife, Fanny, on May 9. “He has pneumonia…he will be a great loss to the country  and it is devoutly hoped that he may be spared to the country. Some think in his absence Stuart will be made Lt. General, but I hope not.” In another letter two weeks later, Pender wrote, “it is rumored that Stuart has tendered his resignation because they will not give him this corps, but I cannot think him so foolish.”

Stuart’s elevation to the corps level had the potential to upset Pender’s own rise within the army. Pender’s direct superior, A.P. Hill, was Jackson’s senior division commander and stood to receive the Second Corps. If Stuart were given Jackson’s corps, Hill would remain at the division level. On the other hand, Hill’s elevation would create a vacancy for his division. Pender,  stood second on the seniority list among Hill’s brigadiers behind Henry Heth. It should be noted that Pender shared his appointment with fellow brigade head James Archer. Heth, however, presented problems of his own.

“If A.P. Hill is promoted, a major general will be wanted for his division,” Lee wrote  in the aforementioned letter to Davis. “Heth is the senior brigadier in the division. I think him a good officer. He has lately joined this army, was in the last battle, and did well. His nomination having been once declined by the Senate, I do not know whether it would be proper to promote him.” In the subsequent reorganization, both Heth and Pender were promoted to Major General and received a divisional command.

But at end of the day, the discussion may be a moot point. In August, 1863, Lee recommended that Stuart’s cavalry be restructured as a corps. Davis approved the measure and Stuart finally received his corps command in September. It should be noted that Stuart was not promoted to Lieutenant General upon the reorganization, which might be worth looking into at some point as well.

All things considered, there appears to be little evidence that Stuart was a major contender for an infantry corps after Chancellorsville. Still, the search goes on and the process continues.

Harry Heth Meets Richard Francis Burton

When I think of Confederate General Henry Heth, I can’t help but imagine actor Warren Burton’s portrayal of him in the 1993 film Gettysburg. I can just picture Heth now trying to explain to General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) why he brought on an engagement at Gettysburg. I can clearly see the dissatisfaction on General Lee’s (Sheen’s) face. Regrettably, this is how Heth has been remembered.

While browsing Heth’s memoirs, I came across some fascinating accounts of his life before the American Civil War. One of these was a chance meeting with one of the Victorian era’s most famous explorers, Richard Francis Burton.

Antebellum Photograph of Heth. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

The Virginian graduated last in his class from the United States Military Academy in 1847 (just like his cousin, George E. Pickett). He goofed off most of the time with his pal and roommate, Ambrose E. Burnside. “I was not good,” Heth stated. “I was happy, and had a good time.” He piled up demerits, admitting, “My four year career at West Point as a student was abominable.”

Shortly after graduating from West Point, Lieutenant Heth sailed for Veracruz with four other green army officers. The U.S.-Mexican War had officially ended but he joined a company of the Sixth Infantry in garrison duty. He became messmates with Lieutenants Lewis A. Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock and was reunited with Burnside. “Heth, old fellow, I want to caution you about having anything to do with these Mexican girls,” Burnside warned his friend, “they are she-devils, the most jealous beings on earth; when angry they would not hesitate to knife you, or to cut your throat.” But Burnside’s advice didn’t stop Heth, who acted as a wingman to Hancock while he chased after the local señoritas.

Heth remained in the army after the war and saw extensive service against Indians on the frontier. He took part in the Battle of Blue Water on September 3, 1855, when Colonel William S. Harney attacked and destroyed a Lakota village in Nebraska in revenge for the murder of Lt. John Lawrence Grattan and thirty of his men. In 1857, he was stationed in Utah under General Albert S. Johnston (followed by Lt. Colonel Charles F. Smith) at Camp Floyd, forty miles south of Salt Lake City. When Captain Richard Francis Burton arrived at Camp Floyd in September 1860, the thirty-five-year-old Heth offered Burton a spare bed in his quarters.

Burton was already an international celebrity when he arrived to the United States. He was a brilliant linguist, prolific author, and enthusiastically studied native customs. In 1853, the British army officer had disguised himself as a pilgrim and braved death to make the Hajj to Mecca. While searching for the source of the Nile in 1858, he discovered Lake Tanganyika in East Africa (and nearly died). He decided to visit the United States soon after.

Richard Francis Burton.

Burton left England in April 1860. When he arrived to the United States, he met with Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who gave him letters of introduction so that he could travel to different frontier posts. He had a fascination for the Mormons and planned to write a book about them. Burton stayed liquored up during most of his travels and was obsessed with the desire to be ambushed by a party of Indians.

Burton got along wonderfully with Heth during the five days at Camp Floyd. “My host was a son of that Old Dominion of Queen Elizabeth,” Burton recalled, “where still linger traces of the glorious Cavalier and the noble feudal spirit, which (alas!) have almost disappeared from the mother country.” Burton was impressed with Heth’s ability to hunt buffalo with a bow (He also mastered killing them with a revolver). “I have met but one officer, Captain Heth, of the 10th Regiment, who ever [sic] acquired the art,” Burton declared.

Heth became a favorite source for answering Burton’s questions about Indians, Mormons, frontier life, animals and the geography. He took pages of notes that he later published in a book titled, The City of Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1862). The book mentions Heth’s name in several instances. Heth apparently didn’t mind being interrogated or acting as chaperon to the Englishman, and found him to be “a most enjoyable companion.”

Burton picked Heth’s brain on the subject of scalping. He gained a reputation for covering taboo subjects in his other books. “He was anxious to secure some Indian trinkets, and especially an Indian scalp,” Heth wrote, “I happened to have what he wanted, and gave him my collection. He said he promised his sweetheart in England to bring her an Indian scalp.” It is doubtful that his fiancé at the time, Isabel Arundell, cared for a scalp. She instead considered entering the nunnery after Burton failed to inform her of his premature departure to the United States (she also had heard rumors that he had been killed during his trip).

Burton returned to England after his tour of the United States. Heth and Burton stayed in contact until the outbreak of the American Civil War. Their correspondence ended soon after and never resumed. Heth wrote his memoirs in 1897 (later published in 1974). The Memoirs of Henry Heth provide insight into Heth’s experiences and thoughts before the American Civil War—including his chance meeting with the famed British explorer—and it is essential reading for any student of the American Civil War. It helps to give us a comprehensive view of Heth, freeing him from the narrative of the hapless general who started the Battle of Gettysburg in search of shoes.

Further Reading

Burton, Richard F. The City of Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1862.

Farwell, Byron. Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963.

Heth, Henry. The Memoirs of Henry Heth, ed. James L. Morrison. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

James Keith Boswell Remembered

May 3, 1863. The day had dawned with a promise of battle, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Jedidiah Hotchkiss with a message to General J.E.B. Stuart. Hotchkiss rode along a familiar route, one he had traversed in the deep darkness of the previous night, bringing news to Lee that General “Stonewall” Jackson had been wounded.[i] As mapmaker and topographical engineer for Jackson, Hotchkiss had played a major role in scouting the routes which had been used the previous day to launch a flank attack against the Union XI Corps which had slowed only with the night’s darkness.

Sunlight at Chancellorsville, near the site where Hotchkiss returned.

Worrisomely absent, James Keith Boswell – Jackson’s Chief of Engineers and Hotchkiss’s military superior and friend – had not emerged from the woods. Realizing that Lee’s orders to Stuart had become obsolete as the fighting unfolded throughout the day and overcome with exhaustion, Hotchkiss halted near the place where Jackson, A.P. Hill, and their staffs had met friendly fire the last evening. He had to find young Boswell. Though the young man sometimes irritated Hotchkiss with incessant mooning over an unsuccessful courtship and worried him with frantic promises to do something extreme in battle to win his lady’s favor, the mapmaker sincerely cared about his comrade. Hotchkiss moved along the turnpike and then he saw James Keith Boswell “some 20 steps in advance, by the roadside…”[ii]

This young man – born November 18, 1838 – had been trained as a civil engineer and, prior to the war, had constructed railroads in Missouri and Alabama. When the war began, he returned to his native state, Virginia, and offered his services in her defense. At first, James Keith Boswell served on General Magruder’s staff, but General Thomas J. Jackson specifically requested his transfer, and Boswell arrived in Winchester, Virginia, during the last week of February 1862.

James Keith Boswell (no known image restrictions)

Described as “an excellent, good-natured, honest Presbyterian” who was “well off, has a sweetheart in Fauquier [county] where the Yankees are, and he talks much about her,”[iii] Boswell became an integral part of Jackson’s staff and part of the younger clique of officers at Second Corps Headquarters. Historian James I. Robertson described Boswell as “one of Jackson’s most reliable staff officers”[iv] and his knowledge, creativity, and steadfastness to duty led to important roles in Jackson’s campaigns.

At the beginning of the 1862 Shenandoah Campaign, Boswell informed Jackson that Winchester was indefensible[v], eventually leading to the military decision to abandon this prominent town in the lower end of the Valley. Later in the campaign, just before the Battle of Port Republic, Jackson ordered Boswell to find a bridge and prepare a direct route to move sick and wounded soldiers to Staunton for proper medical attention. Finding the bridge gone and the river swollen by recent rains, the young engineer improvised and persuaded Captain C.R. Mason and his pioneers to construct two boats which he used to ferry the casualties across the river.[vi] The Seven Days Battles brought numerous challenges for Jackson, the staff, and the soldiers; Boswell lived at the center of the chaos, often sent to try to find roads or ordered to guide Jackson to various points.[vii] Then, during the march to Second Manassas in August 1862, he led the advance units of the Second Corps directly to the battlefield and into position.[viii]

Boswell admired his commander, noting in his journal that General Jackson was “one of the most pleasant men as a commander who could be found in the Confederate army. …Very reserved, not particularly companionable, but always extremely affable and polite.”[ix] Jackson, in return, clearly trusted his Chief Engineer, relying on his judgment frequently during the 1862 campaigns. To his fellow staff officers, Boswell was “genial, energetic, ever-faithful.”[x] However, he had the habit – entertaining or irritating – of taking spare time to make sure his friends knew about his romantic interests in Miss Sophia DeButts Carter and could apparently talk endlessly about her and his wonderings if she really loved him.[xi] Still, Jedidiah Hotchkiss and the others genuinely liked Boswell and cared about him as a comrade.

Jackson wasn’t the only general aware of Boswell’s talents as an engineer, guide, and problem-solver. Early in 1863, General D.H. Hill needed help with fortifications, and Boswell arrived to his aid. The task lasted about a week and tested the staff officer’s patience. Boswell recorded his thoughts privately in his journal: “He [Hill] thinks every point where he visits last the most important to be finished without delay.” Furthermore, Hill “interferes as usual and insists on acting as engineer. I am disgusted and will let him take his own way.”[xii]

Jedidiah Hotchkiss, one of Boswells friends (no known image restrictions)

About that same time, Boswell’s friends managed to get him a furlough to go see Miss Carter, hoping he would settle – once and for all – if she loved him. Unfortunately for all, Miss Carter refused James K. Boswell’s proposal, and he returned to camp, brokenhearted, searching for his rivals, and vowing to do something heroic to make her love him. Hotchkiss worriedly recorded Boswell’s exuded feelings and rants throughout the early spring, saying Boswell “felt very bitter toward Col. Carter [one of his supposed rivals for Miss Carter’s affections] calling him a coward and denouncing him about as vigorously as a good and consistent Christian, that my friend undoubtedly was, could well do. During the night he was constantly grating his teeth and breathing out threatenings as to what he would do. In his saner moods he said he would go into the next battle in such a way as to win promotion and that he would yet prove to this young lady that he was more worthy of her hand than the white livered colonel.”[xiii]

Thus, with a solid military staff officer record, an overwrought romantic nature, and slightly disturbed mind, Captain Boswell had approached the vast tangle known as The Wilderness with his general as Union General Joe Hooker paused the advance and seemed to invite attack. On the evening of May 1, 1863, Boswell and Major Thomas Talcott – one of General Lee’s aides – scouted close to the Union’s center and along the enemy’s left flank. They both concluded no attack could be made there and a frontal assault seemed to invite Confederate disaster.[xiv] Armed with this important knowledge, Lee and Jackson puzzled through the evening, eventually planning a Jacksonian flank attack on the Union right.

General Jackson by John Adams Elder (Image by © The Corcoran Gallery of Art/CORBIS)

May 2, 1863, unfolded as Jackson’s Corps moved through the Wilderness and to the attack position. Boswell moved along the lines “constantly seeking for information, regardless of danger all along the enemy’s front.”[xv] About suppertime, the gray-clad troops burst from the woods, racing toward the Union’s XI Corps lines and rolling them back in a panicked retreat. The Confederates pressed on until nightfall slowed the advance. Desperate to continue the pursuit and seeking a way to cut off some of the Union retreat, Jackson and part of his staff went forward to see what was happening.

Meeting General A.P. Hill and his staff on the Plank Road, Jackson quizzed Hill, anxious to know when he would advance and if he knew the land between Chancellorsville and U.S. Ford. Hill admitted his lack of familiarity and asked for a guide. Turning to Boswell, Jackson ordered him to accompany General Hill, then finished giving advance orders for the attack.[xvi]

As Jackson and his group moved further down the dark road, groping into a sort of no-man’s land between the armies, Boswell rode with A.P. Hill, following Jackson at a little distance. Minutes later, Jackson tried to re-enter Confederate lines. Friendly fire blazed along the battle line, hitting Jackson’s group and bringing Hill’s staff under fire. Jackson – the “famous” casualty of the night – was not the only one from Second Corps Headquarters to fall that evening. In the same volleys that felled Stonewall, James Keith Boswell – Chief of Engineers – took three bullets. One wounded his leg. The other two struck him full in the chest, tearing through his engineering sketchbook in his breast pocket, penetrating his flesh – killing him instantly.[xvii]

On the morning of May 3, 1863, Jedidiah Hotchkiss found Boswell “along the roadside.” Dead. There would be no happy ending. There would be no more scouting adventures or evening gatherings with his friends. There would be no reversal of Miss Carter’s feelings by Boswell’s courage in battle.  But perhaps Boswell had found satisfaction in the final instant, believing she might really care for him at last. Hotchkiss noted, “I found him looking perfectly natural, a smile on his face.”[xviii]

James Keith Boswell was later reburied in a marked grave in Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery

Finding an ambulance, Hotchkiss removed Boswell’s body from the battlefield and, with  Reverend Dr. Lacy, laid the staff officer to rest near Ellwood Manor, in the family graveyard. “I…wrapped his overcoat closely around him putting the cape over his head, and buried him thus, in his marital dress, lowing him to his resting place in a shelter tent I picked up on the field of battle, and then spreading it over him. Mr. Lacy made a noble prayer and we finished our sad duty just as the moon rose over the distant hills of his own loved native country. …We wept freely as we left his manly form to await the last trump. He was a Christian and has gained by the exchange of worlds.”[xix]

James Keith Boswell – the irrepressible romantic, the innovative problem solver, a trusted officer, and sincere friend – died on Chancellorsville battlefield in the same volleys that wounded his commander. Yet, most history books mention him only in passing or not at all. The Second Corps headquarters lost leaders and promising men at Chancellorsville; most notably, of course, Jackson who overshadows his young officers Crutchfield, Boswell, and many others.

Reading about Boswell’s brief life, love affair, and military actions, the tragedy of war is fully realized. This twenty-three year old officer should’ve had his whole life ahead of him. Instead, Boswell’s life ended short on a dark battle night along a lonely turnpike and even his memory would eventually be overshadowed by the other casualties.


[i] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 115.

[ii] Ibid, page 115.

[iii] Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Macmillan Pub. 1997. Page 328.

[iv] Ibid, Page 328.

[v] Ibid, Page 328.

[vi] Ibid, Page 427.

[vii] Ibid, Pages 487, 491, 547.

[viii] Ibid, Pages 547-549.

[ix] Ibid, Page 681

[x] Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall. University of North Carolina Press. 1968. Page 211.

[xi] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 102-104.

[xii] Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Macmillan Pub. 1997. Page 678.

[xiii] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 105.

[xiv] Lively, Matthew W. Calamity at Chancellorsville. Savas Beatie, 2013. Page 26.

[xv] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 115.

[xvi] Lively, Matthew W. Calamity at Chancellorsville. Savas Beatie, 2013. Pages 48-49.

[xvii] Miller, William J. Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss. Elliott & Clark Publishers. 1993. Page 115.

[xviii] Ibid, Page 115.

[xix] Ibid, Pages 117-118.

Atop Reel Ridge: Examining Lee’s Fallback Position North of Sharpsburg

By 8:30 a.m. on the morning of September 17, 1862, the left end of Robert E. Lee’s line on the Sharpsburg Heights crumpled under repeated Federal blows. The Confederates of Alexander Lawton’s and J.R. Jones’s divisions had been forced back from their positions defending the high ground adjacent to the Dunker Church. Lee’s left still had three and one-half miles of open land behind it before reaching the banks of the Potomac River, but the commanding general feared for the fate of his left flank.

The red dots indicate Confederate artillery positions on Reel Ridge and around the Piper Farm during the Union breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Any Federals advancing further would do so into a concave formation of Confederate artillery.


Immediately, Lee began cobbling together his fallback position from the Dunker Church Plateau atop the Reel Ridge west of the Hagerstown Pike. He pulled together as many pieces of artillery he could find, a number that eventually totaled approximately 25 guns. Arriving infantry soon buttressed the defensive position, and the Federals never truly tested Lee’s position on Reel Ridge.

Reel Ridge proved crucially important to the preservation of the Army of Northern Virginia on September 17. The host of Confederate cannoneers and their pieces contained Israel Richardson’s breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Indeed, the Confederate artillerists outnumbered their Union counterparts on that part of the field: at least 25 guns to 6 Federal smoothbore pieces. One of those Southern guns even dealt Richardson his mortal wound from atop Reel Ridge, which effectively stopped any further Union incursions beyond the Sunken Road.

This annotated view from atop Reel Ridge shows the commanding nature of the position Lee chose as his left flank’s fallback point.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Reel Ridge, which is currently owned by the Civil War Trust. The view from the top of the ridge is spectacular. Standing there and looking towards the Sunken Road gives one a clear picture of why Confederate artillery dominated the Federal artillerists in the area, and why any further advance by Richardson’s blue-coated infantry seemed improbable.

Since a visit to the top of Reel Ridge does not happen often, I thought I would share with the readers at Emerging Civil War the view from the top, with a few of my own annotations mixed in.