Forage parties in hostile territory always ran the risk of crossing paths with the enemy. Such was the case for 1st Lt. James Hill on May 16, 1863. On that day, he and his comrades in the 21st Iowa Infantry composed part of the Union army’s reserve force during the Battle of Champion Hill, the pivotal engagement of the Vicksburg Campaign. Hill received orders to organize a detail of foragers into the countryside to secure supplies in advance of a forthcoming march.
Hill, a 40-year-old English-born Baptist minister, had paused his clerical duties in 1862 to become a combat officer. As one Iowa historian put it, Hill “seems to have combined the church militant with gallant soldierly fighting.”
Months later at Champion Hill, 1st Lt. Hill pulled together the foragers and sent them out with instructions to meet up with him at Raymond and Jackson Cross Roads. He then saddled up on a pony and set out in search of food, mules and horses. While riding along a path through dense timberland, he encountered three soldiers with rifles. He recognized them as enemy pickets and knew he had entered Confederate lines. “I realized at once that I had gotten myself into a nasty position,” he recalled long after the war.
Hill kept his cool—and without missing a beat devised a bluff. He emerged from the brush and ordered the trio of rebels to “ground arms.” Then, with a slight turn of his head, he glanced into the brush and shouted “halt” to an imaginary guard. Brandishing his revolver, he commanded the men, “Ten paces to the front, eyes to the center.” Hill warned them not to turn their heads on penalty of death, and barked another “halt” to the imaginary guard.
Hill dismounted, laid the rifles against the pony, climbed back on his mount, and tucked the guns under his arm. He ordered the rebels to “single file, march” and his phony guard to “forward, march.” Hill marched his prisoners quickly through the brush and into Union lines before the Confederates had a clue that they had become the victims of a big bluff by a man of faith in a blue uniform. Three months later, he became chaplain of the 21st.
In 1893, Rev. Hill received the Medal of Honor for “skillful and brave management” at Champion Hill. He died six years later at age 76. His remains rest in the community cemetery at Cascade, Iowa.
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