In February 2017, I wrote an article for this blog entitled “A Good Samaritan in Blue,” which detailed the story of Edmond Talbot, a corporal in the 6th Mississippi Infantry who was wounded at the Battle of Port Gibson, Mississippi, on May 1, 1863. Talbot credited his survival to the ministrations of an unknown Union soldier who gave him water and had him taken to a makeshift hospital at the nearby Magnolia Church. My original post can be found here:
I recommend reading Edmond Talbot’s story before continuing on with this one.
Edmond Talbot wrote to the Atlanta Constitution in 1891 hoping to identify his benefactor, stating: “I was too badly wounded to take any note as to the features of this friend, and as a result have no idea as to his general appearance, but think he was a non-commissioned officer, and belonged to the infantry.”(Atlanta Constitution, November 1, 1891)
At the time my post about Talbot was written, I had no idea who the Yankee was that ministered to a Rebel soldier during the Battle of Port Gibson. Thanks however to the modern miracle of digitized newspapers, I can now give you the rest of the story. I found the following letter printed in the Atlanta Constitution, March 21, 1892:
A Friend In Blue
Cascade, Ia., February 11th – Editor Constitution: In The Daily Times of Dubuque, Iowa, of February 3rd instant, I read an article headed “A Friend in Blue.” I found that the article contained an ardent desire of a confederate soldier to find a yankee soldier who showed him kindness after the battle at Port Gibson, Miss.
The soldier states that he was wounded in the right lung, and was a member of the Sixth Mississippi Infantry “Company E.” I desire to state that after the battle I heard a deep moaning in a ravine, after listening and locating the sound; I searched in a small grove, and found a confederate soldier, a young man badly wounded, apparently in dying circumstances. I raised him up and if I remember correctly, I carried him a piece towards the church on the hill, if not all the way. I have some recollection of going for help, but do not remember the details at this late day, but I do well remember getting a confederate soldier from the field up to the church for treatment.
I have often wondered if the poor fellow lived; and if so, I have a strong desire to find him. And having the impression that this is the soldier that it was my great pleasure to help on that sad occasion, I am very anxious to be put in direct communication with him. His name and address were not given in the article. I may also state my name and address, “James Hill, Baptist minister, Cascade, Dubuque County, Iowa.”
At the time of the Port Gibson battle I was first lieutenant of Company “I,” Twenty-First Iowa Infantry volunteers. Hoping to hear from you soon, either by letter or paper.
Yours very respectfully,
I did a little digging into Civil War service of James Hill, and was astounded to find that
he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1893 for his actions at the battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi, May 16, 1863. I quickly pulled out my copy of Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, and there I found, in Hills’ own words, what he did at Champion Hill that earned him the nation’s highest award for gallantry in combat:
On the 16th of May, 1863, while acting as quartermaster of my regiment, I was ordered by my commander, Colonel Samuel Merrill, to select as many soldiers as I needed, and return in the direction of the Raymond and Jackson Cross Roads to forage and collect anything that would serve the regiment on our march to the Big Black River and Vicksburg. I selected a sufficient number of good men, and sent them out to cover part of the country, giving them orders to report to me at Raymond and Jackson Cross Roads with what forage they had gathered in, preparatory to our return to the regiment.
After getting my men off on their mission, I took a pony belonging to the regiment and rode through some timber and brush in search of food, mules and horses. In following a path through the dense timber I unexpectedly rode right into the Confederate lines, and encountered three rebel pickets with their loaded rifles. I realized at once that I had gotten myself into a nasty position. Nevertheless, I did not lose my presence of mind, for as I emerged from the brush, I instantly and in the most natural manner, ordered the Johnnies to ‘ground arms!’ They obeyed. Then slightly turning my head, I addressed an imaginary guard in the brush, with a hasty order to ‘halt.’
The under growth and brush were so heavy that the Confederates were prevented from seeing through and thus discovering the deception. I next gave the command: ‘Ten paces to the front, eyes to the center.’ Seeing my revolver in my hand ready for instant use, the three men complied with my command. I further added that if any of them turned his head to right or left I would shoot him down in his tracks. I frequently gave the order to ‘halt’ to my imaginary guard, tending to frighten my prisoners into absolute obedience. This done, I deliberately dismounted and gathered up the three rifles, placed them against the neck of the pony, mounted, took the rifles under my arm and then gave the order to my prisoners: ‘Single file, march,’ and to my imaginary guard: ‘Forward, march.’
I hurried toward the command at good speed. Before it began to dawn on my prisoners that I had fooled them, they found themselves within our lines. I turned them and their rifles over to Colonel Merrill who sent them to Major-General McClernand. When the prisoners saw that I had fooled them, their anger was vented in terms more strong than polite, one of them saying to me: ‘Lieutenant, you could never have taken us but for that devil of a body-guard we thought you had, from the way your kept halting them.'”
In today’s army, the capture of some enemy soldier’s would not earn a soldier the nation’s highest award for valor; but times were different in the 19th Century, and in that day and age Hill was widely hailed as a Civil War hero. When the old soldier passed away in 1899, his former comrade in arms, William D. Crooke, major of the 21st Iowa Infantry, had this to say about him:
I have constantly resisted the temptation to speak of individual acts of heroism. Where all were brave it seemed invidious to mention special cases, but during the battle of Champion Hill there occurred an incident so unique in character as to justify exceptional notice. I refer to the act of our beloved chaplain. He was then simply Lieut. James Hill, of Co. I, and Acting Quartermaster. Grant’s army was living on the country. Our last rations were issued at Bruinsburg, 17 days before, and were soon exhausted. The Commissariat was not yet in normal operation on the east side of the river. Cornmeal and bacon were plentiful on those Mississippi farms and in the woods, but required to be first found and then brought to camp…The duty of supplying food fell to the Quartermaster of the regiment, who, with a small force, would scour the country within safe distances, and usually with good success. Lieut. Hill was untiring in the performance of his duty, and could not restrain his energy or the pursuit of food and fodder even on the edge of a hard-fought battlefield. (The National Tribune, Washington, D.C., October 12, 1899.)
Sometime after the Vicksburg Campaign ended, Lieutenant James Hill felt the pull of a
new call of duty, and became Chaplain of the 21st Iowa Infantry, a position he held until the end of the war. I found one interesting anecdote concerning his work as regimental chaplain, and interestingly enough, it was from the Findagrave listing of Major William D. Crooke – in his online obituary it was stated:
On August 28, 1864, in Louisiana, William was baptized by the regimental chaplain. Five months later, on January 23, 1865, he tendered his resignation on the ground that “my conviction of Christian duty will not permit me longer to use the sword for the redress of wrong.
The Reverend James Hill passed away on September 22, 1899, in Cascade, Iowa. He is buried in the Cascade Community Cemetery, and his grave has a modern brass grave marker alerting all that pass by that the man buried in this grave was awarded the Medal of Honor.