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Playground honoring Medal of Honor recipient Alfred B. Hilton, Civil War history dedicated in Gravel Hill Road park

Harford County native Alfred B. Hilton died more than 150 years ago, fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War, but he remains part of the fabric of the lives of his descendants and of local history.

“It’s just amazing to realize that someone who, more than 150 years ago gave his life, [and] is now a part of our community today,” one of Hilton’s descendants, Evelyn Byrd of Level, said Monday during a dedication ceremony for a Civil War-themed playground in his honor.

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The playground is in Alfred B. Hilton Memorial Park off of Gravel Hill Road, in the area just west of Havre de Grace where Hilton grew up and his descendants still own property.

Hilton, who was Black and born into a free family in the early 1840s, was a sergeant in the 4th Regiment of the segregated U.S. Colored Troops, assigned to carry the U.S. flag in battle. He and his comrades were fighting in the battles of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights in Virginia in late September of 1864 — part of the Union’s months-long campaign to take the city of Petersburg and ultimately the Confederate capital of Richmond.

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Hilton, who had been wounded, saw the bearer of his regiment’s flag go down, so he picked up and carried the regimental flag along with the U.S. flag until his wounds forced him to stop. He was evacuated to a hospital in Hampton Roads and died from his wounds on Oct. 21, 1864. He is buried in Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia.

The U.S. government granted the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, to Hilton after his death. He remains the only person born in Harford County to receive the Medal of Honor.

The Gravel Hill Road park is not the only place or piece of infrastructure in Harford named for Hilton. The American Legion’s Post 55 in Bel Air, as well as the Route 22 overpass of I-95 in Aberdeen, have been named for him, and his family is part of the Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton Memorial Foundation, which is working to raise money to build a monument to him in Havre de Grace.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who also spoke during the playground dedication, said he did not learn about Hilton and his legacy while in school.

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“I think, [as] part of paying tribute to our African-American history here in Harford County, that we should celebrate him, and every child that goes through Harford County schools should learn about Alfred B. Hilton,” Glassman said.

Hilton’s exact birth date is unknown, and he was not married and had no children at the time of his death, so he has no direct descendants. Byrd, 58, said she is related to Hilton through her mother’s side of the family — Hilton was the uncle of her mother’s great-grandfather.

Byrd’s mother grew up in Level and went to college at Morgan State University in Baltimore where she met her husband. The couple moved to New Jersey after college, and Byrd and her siblings were raised in Jersey City.

Her parents moved to Harford County after retirement — Byrd said her father has passed away, but her mother still lives on the same Gravel Hill property on which she grew up. Byrd noted how many of her relatives served in the military — she is a veteran who spent “15 fabulous years” in the Army.

Byrd detailed how many of her relatives did not know about Hilton’s legacy — her cousin was a member of the ROTC while a student at Hampton University in Virginia, and he could look out the window and see Hampton National Cemetery but had no idea at the time he had a highly decorated ancestor among the veterans buried there.

Byrd said she and her family knew Hilton and some of his brothers joined the Union Army during the Civil War, but they did not know he was a Medal of Honor recipient until contacted by local author and historian Jim Chrismer, who published an extensive article about Hilton in 2000 in the Harford Historical Bulletin, the Harford County Historical Society’s quarterly magazine.

“Since then, it has become more and more a part of our family history,” Byrd said of Hilton’s legacy, noting the naming of the park and highway overpass in his honor, the playground dedication and the effort to fund a monument.

The playground includes climbing and swinging equipment, as well as a slide, which Glassman christened by going down twice. It has been decorated in a Civil War theme, with a blue and gray color scheme, a U.S. flag, renderings of the Medal of Honor, as well as a stack of logs on which users can climb and a mock cannon.

“I think all of those generations of young people will be able to come out and play and learn about [Hilton’s] service during the Civil War,” the county executive said.

Glassman gave credit to Billy Boniface, his former director of administration and current chief advisor, and Kathy Burley, the county’s director of parks and recreation, for coming up with the idea for the playground and finding a vendor that could create the Civil War-themed equipment.

“When you want to make something happen, you find a way to do it,” he said.

The playground, as well as the park, is open to the public from dusk to dawn, according to Burley, who said most of Harford County’s parks are open for public use during the COVID-19 pandemic. She recommended that people exercise precautions such as maintaining social distance, using hand sanitizer and wearing a mask even while outdoors.

Burley said the county has seen a major increase in park usage during the pandemic as county residents seek places “where they can socially distance and get outdoors.”

The county government announced on Tuesday the phased reopening of its organized outdoor recreation programs starting Feb. 1 as well as activities at indoor recreation facilities later this year.

Byrd, who noted that her family comes to Hilton Memorial Park every two years for a reunion, said she “can’t wait until the rest of the family gets to see this beautiful playground here, and the little children get to play on it and [Hilton] becomes a part of our lives.”

She thinks a lot about Hilton being a young man, dying without his own family and not having any direct descendants.

“We wrap our arms around him, and we love the idea that he gave his life for his country and he is part of our family today,” Byrd said.

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