During the Civil War, a unit’s battle flag was of critical importance. It led men into the fight and gave commanders an understanding of how a campaign was going. So, when you were able to capture a flag from your enemy, it was considered an act of heroics.
Union Army Maj. William Bliss Hincks captured an enemy flag during a pivotal point in time at the Battle of Gettysburg. That moment of bravery earned him the Medal of Honor.
Hincks was born Sept. 8, 1841, in Bucksport, Maine. His parents, John and Sarah Ann Hincks, eventually moved him and his brother, John, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, when he was still a boy.
Hincks enlisted in the Union Army in July 1862, a little more than a year into the Civil War. He was placed into Company A of the 14th Connecticut Infantry.
According to the Connecticut National Guard, the 14th was sent to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 after they’d only had a few weeks of training, and they didn’t fare well. During the deadliest single-day battle in U.S. history, the regiment suffered the highest number of casualties of any Connecticut regiment of the war.
By the time the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania rolled around, though, Hincks had worked his way up to sergeant major, and the 14th was ready to redeem itself.
On July 3, 1863 — the third and last day of the Gettysburg campaign — Confederate Gen. George Pickett’s troops used heavy artillery to bombard Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge. About 10,000 of Pickett’s men were then ordered to penetrate the center of Union forces on the ridge.
During the attack, known as Pickett’s Charge, the colors of the Confederate 14th Tennessee Infantry were planted 50 yards in front of Hincks’ regiment. While several enemy soldiers were lying down around the flag, none were standing near it.
Seeing that, Maj. Theodore Ellis, the commanding officer of Hincks’ regiment, called for volunteers to capture the flag. Hincks and two other men jumped at the opportunity, leaping over the low stone wall that divided the two enemies.
One of the men was instantly shot. Hincks outran the third through a hail of gunfire. When he reached the Confederates lying on the ground around the flag, he swung his sword over them, “uttered a terrific yell,” according to his Medal of Honor citation, then grabbed the flag and ran back to the Union line.
According to his citation, the 14th Tennessee carried 12 battle honors on its flag, meaning it had distinguished itself in 12 major engagements prior to Gettysburg. Capturing that flag was a big deal – something that really encouraged Hincks’ fellow soldiers and led them to successfully protect one of the most important points of the Union line.
Soldiers of the 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment captured five more enemy battle flags that day, according to the Connecticut National Guard.
Only one Confederate brigade was able to temporarily reach the top of the ridge, which was a highwater mark for the Confederacy. But with casualties at about 60%, the charge was a disaster for the South. As a consequence, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was forced to retreat and ultimately abandon his attempt to use Pennsylvania to reach Washington, D.C.
For his bravery in action, Hincks received the newly created Medal of Honor on Dec. 6, 1864, from Maj. Gen. George Meade near Petersburg, Virginia. Two other soldiers from his regiment also received the nation’s highest honor for valor: Cpl. Christopher Flynn and Pvt. Elijah Bacon.
Hincks mustered out of the Army as a major on May 31, 1865, shortly after the war ended. He returned to Bridgeport, where he became one of the city’s most prominent and successful citizens.
Records from Yale University show Hincks earned an honorary Masters of the Arts degree in 1878. He was the secretary and treasurer of Bridgeport’s City Savings Bank, a member of the public school board of education and an officer of the Fairfield County Historical Society. With Hincks’ help, fellow Bridgeport native and circus showman P.T. Barnum was able to establish the Barnum Museum and the Bridgeport Hospital.
The New York Times reported that Hincks was also the executor of Barnum’s estate after he died, as well as the vice president of the Bridgeport Gas Light Company and the director of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, the Bridgeport National Bank and the Bridgeport Public Library.
At some point, Hincks married a woman named Mary Louise Hart, and they and two sons, William Jr. and Robert.
Hincks died Nov. 7, 1903, after being ill for several days, his obituary in the now-defunct Meriden Weekly Republican said. He is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense