More recognition planned for Harford's only Medal of Honor recipient

Allan Vought

Monday was the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of New Market Heights in which Sgt. Alfred Hilton, Harford County's only native born Medal of Honor recipient, was mortally wounded carrying his country's and his regiment's colors.

A century and a half later, Harford County's Historical Preservation Commission is close to getting more tangible recognition for Sgt. Hilton: a Civil War Discovery Trail monument erected in at the small county small park named in his honor in the community where he was born.

"It's something we believe is needed and should be installed at the park," Robert Thomas, the commission chairman, said of the monument.

Sgt. Hilton, who was born around 1840 at Gravel Hill, northwest of Havre de Grace, received what became the nation's highest military honor for his actions in the Battle of New Market Heights, also known as the Battle of Chaffin's Farm, about 10 miles south of Richmond, Va., on Sept. 29, 1864.

"The 150th anniversary of the battle is the reason we began to push the county to do something to note that," explained Jim Chrismer, a commission member who has extensively researched and written about Sgt. Hilton, as well as other Harford County African-Americans who served in the Civil War.

The Civil War Discovery Trail is a program linking more than 600 battlefield and other significant sites in 32 states and the District of Columbia, according to, the website of the Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization works to preserve former battlefields and promotes "educational programs and heritage tourism initiatives to inform the public of the war's history and the fundamental conflicts that sparked it." 

Arden McClune, Harford's parks and recreation director, said Monday that the Historic Preservation Commission approved plans for the monument last week and has forwarded them to her department, which owns Alfred B. Hilton Memorial Park.

"We would expect to forward the request to the Civil War Trust over the next couple of weeks. How long it takes for the trust to get back to us, I would expect it would be early next year, so we are probably looking at next spring" to have the monument installed, McClune said.

Descendants in Harford

Joyce Hilton Bransford Byrd said she welcomes the additional recognition for Sgt. Hilton, who she said was her uncle "five or six generations back."

Byrd said she other family members traveled to Virginia Saturday to attend a 150th anniversary re-enactment of the battle of New Market Heights.

"It was very exciting...awesome," said Byrd, 82, a retired school teacher who lives in Level and has four children in the area. "There were thousands involved. It was overwhelming to be part of it and to see your own family's history right there in front of you."

Byrd said there were families present representing 12 or 13 of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops soldiers who received the Medal of Honor, as a result of their heroism in the battle. They received several gifts, including a painting of the battle, she said.

"It's very gratifying as a teacher to be able to talk to our grands and great-grands about your family beyond the history books," she said. "To be part of that history as a family, I am in awe."

Alfred B. Hilton was one of 14 children born to manumitted slaves, Isaac and Harriet Hilton. According to Chrismer, Gravel Hill was one of the larger communities of free blacks in Harford prior to the war. In the 1860 census, Harford had 3,664 free blacks and 1,800 slaves from a total population of 23,000.

In August 1863, Alfred Hilton and several other local black men, including his brothers, Aaron and Henry, joined the army in Havre de Grace and became part of the 4th United States Colored Troops, according to the account Chrismer has written for the proposed monument. More than 200 men from the county joined the USCT, he said, and most who survived the war are believed to have returned to their home county.

A member of Company H of the 4th USCT, Sgt. Hilton was the national flag bearer for his regiment, a dangerous position, according Chrismer, a Bel Air resident and a retired high school history teacher.

Sgt. Hilton, Chrismer noted, is the only Harford County resident to ever be so honored. The medal has been awarded in every conflict since the Civil War.

Kept the colors high

During a charge on New Market Heights involving about 350 4th USCT soldiers, the regimental flag bearer was hit and Sgt. 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 Sgt. Hilton, a large man in stature, held an important but dangerous post in the regiment. "He was front and center when they charged," he explained, noting that the 4th U.S. Colored Troops distinguished themselves in the battle, even though they were outnumbered against some of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's most battle-hardened troops.

Sgt. Hilton was eventually moved to the rear and later transferred to a military hospital at Fortress Monroe, at Hampton Roads, Va., which had remained in Union hands throughout the war and had been an early base for the U.S. Colored Troops. Sgt. Hilton died from his battle wounds on Oct. 21, 1864, and was buried in a national military cemetery in Hampton, Va.

There were an estimated 5,000 casualties from the two-day battle, that largely resulted in a stalemate but also forced Lee to send in massive reinforcements to protect the capital. Richmond finally fell to the Union Army the following April, six days before Lee surrendered to end the war on April 9. 1865.

According to Chrismer, Sgt. Hilton was one of 16 African-American soldiers from the Civil War who received what was then called the Congressional Medal of Honor. The medal was created by Congress to honor officers and enlisted personnel for a "particular deed of most distinguished gallantry in action." Fourteen of the African-American recipients were involved in the Battle of New Market Heights.

Mysteries remain

Despite great efforts of historians to honor the exploits of those men, Chrismer said, no photograph of Sgt. Hilton is known to exist.

"There are photos of 13 or 14, but none have been located of the others, including Hilton," he said. "The irony is that when his possessions were inventoried at the hospital after his death, the form says there were two ambrotypes [Civil War era photographs], but nobody knows what happened to them or who they were."

Another "wrinkle" to the Sgt. Hilton story, Chrismer said, is that the Hilton family claims to have never received the Medal of Honor, which he said would have been the responsibility to the U.S. Treasury Department to deliver to "next of kin, when claimed."

Chrismer said he has talked with Sgt. Hilton's descendants both in Harford County and in Philadelphia, and none of them knows the whereabouts of the Medal of Honor or if was ever received. He noted that Sgt. Hilton never married and had "no direct heirs."

Over the generations, the families who are descendants of Sgt. Hilton have been very keen about preserving their history, Chrismer said. However, all anyone has been able to tell him is they believe they had seen a special commemorative silver medal that the commander of the Union's Army of the James, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, personally had struck to give to all of the troops under his command at New Market, including those of the 4th U.S. Colored Regiment.

Alfred Hilton Memorial Park, formerly Gravel Hill Park, was dedicated around Memorial Day 2002. Chrismer was instrumental in getting the park, which is across the road from Sgt. Hilton's birthplace, renamed in his honor.

The monument planned for the park is similar to three other Civil War Trails monuments in Harford, according to Chrismer. One is in front of the courthouse in Bel Air and commemorates certain local events during the war, as well as prominently mentioning Sgt. Hilton and a second Medal of Honor winner, Charles Phelps. The latter was from Baltimore County but spent much time in Harford because of his friendships with several prominent Harford residents, said Chrismer, who wrote the wording on the courthouse monument.

There are two, one near Jerusalem Mill in Joppa and the other at Mariner Point Park in Joppatowne, that commemorate the only Civil War fighting that occurred in Harford, the Gilmor Raid of 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.

The suggested wording of the Hilton Park monument includes the posthumous citation for Sgt. Hilton's Medal of Honor: "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."

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