In Harford County's convulsed history of race relations, which continues to the present day, one unalterable fact stands out in a place that has also long honored its sons and daughters for their military service.
Of all the county's men and women who have gone off to battle since the first shots were fired in the Civil War though current deployments in Afghanistan and the Middle East, only one, an African-American man, has received the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
The story of Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton (1840/42-64) is one of considerable irony. Born a free black in a county where Negro slavery was accepted and protected, as it was everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Hilton fought for the Union in a segregated unit, the 4th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, which was commanded by white officers.
"Hilton's life was characterized by poverty, illiteracy, insecurity, discrimination, obscurity, and an untimely death and burial far from family and loved ones," local historian and author James Chrismer wrote in a 2000 edition of the Harford Historical Bulletin.
"Whatever his precise age, Alfred B. Hilton at the outbreak of the Civil War was living in the Hopewell area, near Havre de Grace, on a hardscrabble fourteen acre farm his parents purchased for $320 from John and Sarah Charshee in 1860," Chrismer wrote of Hilton's early years. "The household consisted of Alfred and his parents (then in their 60s); his brothers Abraham (29), Aaron (22), David (13), and James (8) and his sister Susan (10). Hannah Jones, a 40-year old African American woman, also lived with the family.
"Sisters Alice, Ann, and Eliza, cited in the 1850 census as being, respectively, 14, 7,and 6, apparently were no longer with the rest of the family, and may have either been bound out by their parents or have lived with their own family, as did brothers Edward and Henry.4 None of the adults, Alfred included, was able to read or write."
According to Chrismer's article, "to be a free black man in Maryland in the mid 19th century was to be a near pariah, regarded, in the words of one white resident as a 'most fruitful source of mischief and disquietude.' The main problem, in the conservative mind, was the county's relatively large and growing population of freedmen—persons thought to be greatly responsible for any unrest among and disappearance of Harford County's dwindling number of slaves."
Harford County's population in 1860 included 3,644 free blacks and 1,800 slaves, among a total population of 23,415. According to Chrismer, "the number of free blacks in the county had risen by 50 percent in Hilton's lifetime and by 31 percent in the decade of the 1850s alone. During the same periods the slave count dropped by 46 percent and 20, respectively."
Putting racial considerations aside, Chrismer wrote, poor whites believed free blacks were responsible for depressing wages and taking laborers jobs that might otherwise had gone to white men. In the years immediately before the war's outbreak in 1861, several prominent white male residents in Harford were involved in movements to push free blacks either out of Maryland completely or back into slavery, he noted.
Though many Harford County residents fought in the Civil War, no actual battles were fought locally. Still, the Union Army considered the area vulnerable to saboteurs and irregular attacks by Confederates because of the county's sizable population of Southern sympathizers.
On July 11, 1864. A Confederate detachment led by Maj. Harry Gilmor, succeeded in burning part of the Gunpowder River crossing of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad and captured a Union general in the process in what is also known as the Magnolia Train Station Raid.
According to the National Archives website, the Union Army began enlisting blacks in earnest following President Abraham Lincoln's presentation of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet in July 1862 and in the face of declining numbers of white volunteers. (Conscription, or a draft, which was a controversial subject, was finally implemented in March 1863).
Alfred Hilton and two of his brothers joined several other Harford County black men in enlisting in August 1863, according to Chrismer. No Civil War soldier's life was easy, he wrote, even more so for a black soldier, who would be an especially hated target for the enemy.
A member of the Company H of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops, Hilton was the national flag bearer for the regiment, a dangerous position, according Chrismer, a Bel Air resident and a retired high school history teacher who has extensively researched and written about Hilton and other Harford County residents who served on both sides in the Civil War.
Hilton's regiment participated in the Union Army's 1864 effort take the Confederate capital, Richmond, Va., that went on for months. It was in the Battle of Chaffin's Farm and New Market Heights, fought during the siege of Petersburg on Sept. 29-30, 1864, that Hilton and many members of his unit will be forever remembered.
During a charge, the regimental flag bearer was hit and Hilton, who had also been hit was able to grab that flag and hold it in his other hand as the charge continued. The wounded Hilton struggled forward and until he couldn't continue, and another member of the regiment took the flag from him, Chrismer said.
Chrismer said Hilton, a large man, held an important but dangerous post in the regiment. "He was front and center when they charged," he explained in a 2014 interview, noting that the 4th U.S. Colored Troops distinguished themselves in the battle, which resulted in the Union Army finally gaining a strong foothold to begin its siege of the Confederate capital.
Hilton was eventually moved to the rear and later transferred to a military hospital at Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads, Va. He died from his battle wounds on Oct. 21, 1864, and was buried in a military cemetery in Hampton, Va.
Harford County's Alfred Hilton Park, formerly Gravel Hill Park, was dedicated on Memorial Day 2002. It is believed Hilton was born and grew up on land across from the park that is still owned by some of his descendants.
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Of 16 black Union Army soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their service in the Civil War, 14 fought at the Battle of New Market Heights, where there were more than 5,000 casualties on both sides combined.
Though largely considered by historians to be a stalemate, the battle forced Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee to divert thousands of troops from the west to defend the capital at Richmond, which is believed to have hastened the war's end the following April.
What has been lost to history is Hilton's Medal of Honor. He never married and fathered no children and none of his living descendants, some of whom still reside locally, has the medal. No photographs of Hilton are thought to exist, either.
Efforts have begun locally, however, to erect a suitable monument to Harford's only Medal of Honor recipient.
Led by Hilton's descendants, Chrismer, members of Bel Air American Legion Post 55 and members of the Harford 42 Campaign, a bi-racial group that is promoting awareness of local African-American history, the group has been discussing potential sites and a design competition and funding needs for the monument.
"…In April 6, l865, three days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox and nearly six months after Hilton's death, the War Department, 'upon the recommendation of Major General [Benjamin] Butler [Hilton's commander],' extended the Congressional Medal of Honor for 'gallantry in action, to fourteen African-American soldiers who fought at New Market Heights," Chrismer wrote in 2000. "That same day medals to recipients who were no longer living, Hilton included, were forwarded to the Treasury Department to be delivered "to the next of kin, when claimed."
The posthumous citation for Hilton's Medal of Honor reads: "When the regimental color fell, this soldier seized the color and carried it forward, together with the national standard until disabled at the enemy's inner line."