At Cold Harbor near dawn on June 1, 1864, a Confederate corps changed position along its main line before another day of brutal combat. Union forces spotted their movements through the gray light, and officers moved quickly to strike a blow. Orders flew to federal pickets occupying an advanced position nearest the enemy. A skirmish line formed and moved out.
The officer is command of the skirmishers, Capt. Edward Hill, of the 16th Michigan Infantry, had been on picket duty with his men most of the night. A New York native who had settled in Michigan prior to the war, he began his service with the 16th in March 1862 as a second lieutenant, and suffered a wound at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He worked his way to captain. Fellow officers described him in words reserved for men of character: Efficient. Gallant. Moral. In short, a gentleman.
Off the good captain went on that June morning through the rough and tumble Virginia landscape. It was a “spirited reconnaissance,” according to one story. Hill and his command “charged swiftly and steadily through the intervening timber and underbrush, up the slope to the enemy’s works. As the line reached and carried the rifle pits, a destructive fire of artillery and musketry opened on front and flank, but the line pressed unfalteringly on, driving the enemy over their line of entrenchments.” When the skirmishers finally ground to a halt, unable to go any further, regiments from their brigade in close support occupied the ground, and held it the rest of the day as they resisted repeated Confederate assaults.
Somewhere along the way, a bullet ripped into Capt. Hill. He scribbled in his pocket diary that same day with a Shakespearean flourish, “An alarm last night. I had charge of the Picket line on the left. This morning the 16 ordered to advance. carried the enemies rifle Pitts and advanced to the brow of the Hill, when I was shot in the right thigh. alas poor Yorick—”
Surgeons soon went to work. Hill reported the result on June 2. “Suffered terribly from my operation yesterday the ball having passed through the flesh of the hip going also entirely through the Ilium bone from this point the surgeon has been unable to trace it, but I know what he thinks. He thinks that it has passed into the bowels and that I will die.”
Hill survived and ended the war as the lieutenant colonel of his regiment. In 1893, he received the Medal of Honor. He died seven years later at age 65.