A determined, yet flawed bulldog fighter

Hal Bridges, Lee’s Maverick General, Daniel Harvey Hill. Lincoln, Nebraska: First Bison Printing, 1991 (originally published, 1961).

In the original acknowledgements to this text, Bridges described the work as more of a study than a biography, and I believe that is an accurate point. Bridges worked at a number of universities after completing his studies at Columbia and Daniel Harvey Hill as a subject was suggested to him in 1952. Utilizing the official records of the Civil War as well as deep research into a variety of archives, Bridges was able to pull together a largely analytical narrative, that examines the complexities of Hill’s character. The writing is clear and, like Hill himself, does not pull punches when it comes to expressing negative opinions about fellow Confederate generals.

Hill’s papers are collected at the University of North Carolina and include documents from pre and post war periods, during which time Hill was an academic, chiefly in mathematics. In his introduction to the 1991 edition of Lee’s Maverick, Gary Gallagher points out that Hill is a subject calling for the “definitive” biography. Gallagher believes that Hill’s experience as soldier, educator, and author, would reveal much of the man and the South, particularly possibly adding dimension to how the South faced defeat in the years after the war. With a humorous poke at Hill, Gallagher speculates that a biographer might need to adjust to the general’s prickly personality, even in writing, to complete a detailed study of his life (xviii).

I found Bridges’ organizational choices appealing, and his narrative lively. In addition, Bridges was creative and careful with his transitions, particularly those that moved from one chapter to the next (this is well-illustrated in 1-2 and 2-3). The text opens with the Hill’s experiences near the James River in April 1862 and then shifts backwards to offer the reader views on Hill’s upbringing, West Point training, Mexican War experience, and pre-war professional career.

The latter offers some great insight into Hill’s humor and extreme pride in his Southern roots. In 1857, Hill published The Elements of Algebra which included this algebraic problem:

  • The field of battle at Buena Vista is 6 1/2 miles from Saltillo. Two Indiana volunteers ran away from the field of battle at the same time; one ran half a mile faster than the other, and reached Saltillo 5 minutes and 54 6/11 seconds sooner than the other. Required their respective rates of travel (26).

Bridges’ self-assessment is correct – he has constructed a study of Hill in command more so than a biography. This is not, however a criticism as I found Bridges’ portrayal of Hill’s work in the field deeply interesting, especially when he includes Hill’s tendency towards difficulties with colleagues during the year and after.  I would agree with Gary Gallagher though – there seems to be more to say about Hill in the way of a true biography.  The epilogue by Bridges (as well as chapter two) offers hints at this, including ideas as to Hill’s approach to the Reconstruction period.  Finally, having read Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering several times, I can see myriad ways to extend the commentary on Hill’s facing the passing of colleagues and his own mortality.

ps – Feel free to submit answers to Hill’s algebraic problem?


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Filed under Teaching and Learning History

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