1st Sgt. James Hill called Wooster his hometown
Published: July 3, 2009 4:00AM
By PAUL LOCHER
WOOSTER -- It was July 3, 1876 -- exactly 133 years ago today -- and the nation was absolutely agog. The very next day it would celebrate 100 years of American independence, with daylong parades, speeches, parties and illuminations planned from coast to coast.
But that day people read with a sense of consternation early reports from the frontier that a cavalry unit of the U.S. Army had been wiped out in a huge Indian attack. They learned all the men under the command of Ohio native Gen. George Armstrong Custer were lying dead on the stark, windswept plains of the Montana country.
Well, not all Custer's men. One survived. His name was James Hill -- 1st Sgt. James Hill.
He lived in Wooster, Ohio.
This quirk of history was unearthed by two local historians while doing some fairly routine historical research at the Wayne County Historical Society. Roger Rowe of Wooster, chairman of the society's militaria and archaeological committee, and past President Jeff Musselman of Wooster, were looking into another matter when they noticed in an Oct. 3, 1906, newspaper an obituary for Sgt. James Hill of Wooster, who, it briefly mentioned, had served with Custer at the Little Big Horn.
The unexpectedly odd mention sparked the imagination of Rowe and Musselman, who plunged into researching Hill, to see if the statement could possibly be true. What they uncovered, they say, made their jaws drop in amazement.
James Hill was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1833 and served the British Army nine years in the 71st Highland Light Infantry, apparently fighting in the Crimean War and in the West Indies.
In 1856, at the age of 23, he came to the U.S. and enlisted in the U.S. Army at Oswego, N.Y. Among his assignments were fighting the Semiole and Creek Indians in Florida's Everglades. He was then based at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., from which he was sent on a mission against the Mormon settlers in Utah, but was halted at Fort Kearney.
After his first enlistment was up, Hill re-enlisted at St. Louis, Mo., in the 1st Missouri Light Artillery. In this unit, he fought in the great battles of the Civil War at Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson, Shiloh and Missionary Ridge. He served with William Tecumseh Sherman on his famous "March to the Sea," was stationed in Shreveport, La.; Huntsville, Ala., and Nashville, Tenn.
When the Civil War ended, Hill returned to Wooster -- which at some point had become what he regarded as his home town -- and on May 12, 1865, he married Nannie Lowery from Wooster.
Musselman said in all of Hill's known military records, he is listed as being from Worcester, Mass.
"When he told people he was from Wooster," said Musselman, "they must have just assumed that he meant Worcester. Apparently no one ever asked him, 'Wooster, what?'"
Shortly after being married, Hill enlisted in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, with which he served until being discharged by the War Department and appointed superintendent of the national cemetery in Little Rock, Ark., a position he held for one year.
Hill then enlisted in the 19th U.S. Infantry, which he served in for five years, before enlisting in the 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of Gen. George Custer.
Musselman said Hill, in his 40s, was easily one of the oldest men in the unit.
On the day of Custer's fateful attack, Musselman said, the general summoned all of his officers to an early morning meeting. However Hill, a first sergeant, arrived late. In one of his famous moods, Custer decided to make an example out of Hill, assigning him to the pack train, which hauled food, baggage and ammunition, while the other soldiers rode on to the glorious fight that lay ahead.
When Custer's five companies of soldiers found itself outnumbered more than 3-to-1 by the Lakota-Northern Cheyenne nation at Little Big Horn Creek, he sent a messenger to Hill, asking for the pack train to be brought up.
The pack train, however, was cut off from Custer's body of troops by the thousands of hostile Indians in between, and instead had to dig in with Maj. Marcus Reno's forces in a position a couple hills away from Custer.
Two days later when Reno's troops were able to leave their dug-in position, it was Hill -- the only survivor of Custer's command -- who discovered the horror of the naked, bloated, mutilated and dismembered bodies of his comrades on Last Stand Hill.
But even that experience did not end Hill's career as a soldier. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Hill went to Standing Rock, N.D., where he was involved in disarming Indians and gathering their ponies. He fought in many small skirmishes with Indians and was a member of the cavalry detail that guarded civil engineers while they laid out the Northern Pacific Railroad across the plains.
After that he became an ordnance sergeant at Fort Lowell in Tucson, Ariz., and in 1888, at his own request, he retired from the military.
Hill returned to Wooster to be with his wife, living out the rest of his life quietly and in what his obituary described as "unostentatious" manner in his home on Maiden Lane in Wooster's east end, which still stands.
Hill died in November 1906 and is buried in section 18 of Wooster Cemetery.
Hill's grave is marked by two stones, one a military-issued marker such as would be found at Arlington National Cemetery, and the other a stone that matches that of his wife, Nannie, in whose family plot the soldier's body rests.
"It's weird that we never heard about him before," said Musselman. "I don't know how we lost track of him. We knew the gravestone was there and it said the 7th Cavalry. We just never put it together that he was with Custer, and was the only survivor."
Rowe said because the list of those in Custer's annihilated command shows no one from Wooster, Ohio, probably prevented anyone from realizing Hill's connection with the famous "Last Stand."
Rowe said he plans to continue researching Hill's life and military career, and is trying to ascertain whether any pictures of the old soldier survive.
Reporter Paul Locher can be reached at 330-682-2055, or at [email protected]
Civil War Veteran, Co D 1st Mo. Art.
Nannie Lowery Hill
Sponsored by Ancestry