When the Civil War began the 99th Illinois would start recruiting and would actually be the first to organize and leave their homes in the state for the battlefield. And along with them they took Private Thomas J Higgins who had travelled to Barry Illinois, not far away and enlisted. Within 18 days Higgins had so impressed his superiors that he was promoted to Corporal. He had signed up for 3 years and stayed with the unit throughout the war. Having fought through several skirmishes in short order he would soon be on the battlefields of Vicksburg within ten months of enlistment. And by that time he would be a Sergeant.
The above shows the Union, in blue and advancing against the Confederates holding down Vicksburg. The three mile long front line of General Grant is only partially shown here. Higgins was a sergeant in the 99th and as such, was attached to Berton's division shown just under the arrow. At it's tip you can see the Confederate position of the 2nd Texas Infantry.
These Confederates were about 100 strong and dug into a long slit trench that faced the approaching Union soldiers. The 2nd were armed with powerful Springfield rifles. And each had a backup of 5 loaded smoothbore muskets, and possible another fellow doing the loading for them.
When about 300 of the 99th Infantry made their advance, they had to attack going uphill. When they cleared the top they were about 100 yards away from their enemy with 600 loaded weapons waiting for them. When about 50 yards from the enemy the union soldiers were moved down as 100 Sringfields all fired at once... and each Confederate quickly reached for their 2nd weapon. Several shots were fired into the decimating Union lines and then, all of sudden there was no firing. Most of the Union were dead, or lay horribly wounded and laying on the ground moaning for help.
As the smoke rose above the ground level, the cool May winds kept just one flag still flapping in the breeze. The Confederates took up aim again...100 strong and all let loose, but the flag bearer just kept advancing without as much as a scratch. It had to be nothing short of a miracle!
The Confederates then started talking to each other and all agreed in very short order that they were no longer going to try to shoot the man down like a dog. He was clearly just to brave to die that way. In fact they were so impressed that they threw their hats in the air and proded the hero to come forth..to keep coming and he did. Upon arrival he planted his flag into the parapit and said something to the effect that they were all now his prisoners. he did not even have a weapon with him. He had volunteered that morning to carry the flag when the colour Sergeant could not show up for duties. He had been wounded 2 days earlier. And it took two hands to handle the flag pole.
The Confederates pulled the hero into their pits and all wanted to just shake his hand. In fact so did the general... a Lt. General to boot who started to grill him about Union strength etc.
General... Where is Grant's headquarters
response I don't know , he keeps moving it everyday
General... How many men has your General got
response... Oh,.... only about 75,000
General... How far back do his lines extend
response... As far back as Cairo Illinois and they are still being formed in the state of Maine
General... Well, we'll have grant in here as a prisoner tomorrow
response... General Grant will come in here tomorrow to ship you and your command to Altona, Illinois where he has a big boarding house
General... Sergeant...take this man away. He is insulting. He is impudent. He is insolent.
The battle did not go well for the Union and a siege was started against Vicksburg that would last till they eventually surrendered, but that was not until the 4th of July.
(As the Irish Rovers used to say... it musta been a party)
Shortly after that this fellow was released in a POW exchange, returned to his unit and fought with them throughout the rest of the war. And as you have no doubt guessed by now... this fellow was none other than Sergeant Thomas J Higgins of Quebec Canada. There were 300 of his unit that fought in this battle and at the end of the day 103 lay dead or dying on the battlefield. Soon after the battle the commander of the 2nd Texas stated that... All along the road (Baldwin Ferry Rd) for more than 200 yards the bodies lay so thick that one might have walked the whole distance without touching the ground.
Tom Higgins became friends with a few of the Confederates over the years and often exchanged mails. At one point Thomas was asked if he every got a MOH and indicated he had not. Then the ball got started rolling again. It would be several of the Confederates who took on the task of recommending Higgins... their enemy at war... and friend after... to receive a MOH. Numerous exchanges took place and then the newspapers in late December of 1897 brought forth stories across the country advising that not only had Thomas Higgins now been awarded the Medal of Honor, but in this case, was the first ever reported, and perhaps the only one since, where a recommendation for the medal came from the enemy. The December news articles clearly show that most official citation dates of 1 April 1898 must be wrong.
It was after seeing his name in print that Higgins wrote the Secretary of War noting that whilst the press could tell him he had earned a MOH, it was too bad the War Department couldn't, and to please send it along, so they did.
But it seems to keep it was yet another battle to be fought.
Not long after received it, Higgins was to meet some of his army friends at a fair in Hannibal and they wanted to see the new medal. He pinned it on his chest and walked from the riverfront up to the post office where his son worked. On route he and the friend noticed that the medal had fallen off his chest. They then spent hours retracing their route but to no avail. Notices in the papers did not turn it up and so another was requested and delivered from the war department. The location of that medal is unknown today.
After the war Higgins returned to the Hannibal area and stayed in the cobbler business and raised his family there. Like so many other recipients, he did not feel like a hero and once noted that ... "the medal was a recognition of an act I thought at the time was simply a soldiers duty."
Thomas Higgins died in August 1917 and is buried at Hannibal Mo
His General Order announcing the award was issued on 1 April 1898, 115 years ago a few days back. Though the date is probably wrong as above noted.