William B. Hincks was born in either 1841, or 1842, in Maine. He would later move to Bridgeport, Connecticut. On July 22, 1862, at either 19 or 20 years of age, young William would enlist in the 14th Connecticut Infantry. He would officially muster into service at Hartford, Connecticut, on August 23, 1862. The 14th, commanded by Colonel Dwight Morris, would arrive in Washington, D.C., on August 25, and would be placed in the Second Brigade, Third Division (US Brigadier General William French) of US Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps.
Private Hincks was assigned to Company A, and was considered industrious, and brave. Hincks, and the remainder of the 14th Connecticut would have little time to settle in. After US Major General John Pope’s debacle at Second Manassas, his Army of Virginia would return to Washington, D.C. Abraham Lincoln, with his hands tied, turned back to US Major General George B. McClellan, to command the eastern theater. McClellan would waste little time as it was quickly determined that CS General Robert E. Lee was moving into Maryland. McClellan would rapidly push after him along different routes, all leading through passes in South Mountain. This would be Hincks’ first experience in battle – and it would define what the young man would expect from battle.
On September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, Sumner’s II Corps was ordered to support US Major General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps advance, on the Confederate left, along the Hagerstown Pike. Hooker would advance through the infamous Corn Field, an area of tremendous slaughter, while the Second Division (US Major General John Sedgwick), of Sumner’s II Corps would push diagonally from the East Woods towards the Dunker Church and West Woods. Hincks’ Division, commanded by William French, somehow became disoriented and did not guide on Sedgwick’s Division. Instead, he marched his men in a southernly direction slowly losing sight of Sedgwick. Coming over a rise Hincks, the 14th Connecticut and the rest of the division, became silhouetted against the sky and were decimated by musketry from the 6th Alabama commanded by a little known colonel – John Brown Gordon. Part of CS Brigadier General Robert E. Rodes’s Brigade, they would be waiting for the Federals in a sunken road – now called Bloody Lane. As line after line of French’s Division passed over the rise, they were met with severe musketry. However, due to their numerical superiority, and with relief from US Major General Israel B. Richardson’s First Division, which included the Irish Brigade, the Sunken Road became untenable for the Rebels, they would be forced to pull back. At the end of Antietam, the Second Brigade, now commanded by Dwight Morris, which included Hincks’s 14th Connecticut, would be severely punished, suffering 529 casualties. Hincks and Company A, of the 14th Connecticut, received their “baptism of fire” and proved up to the challenge.
After Antietam, Robert E. Lee would retreat back to the safety of Virginia. Unfortunately, McClellan was slow to react – stating he needed time to re-fit his army. He would be removed from overall command of the Army of the Potomac on November 8, 1862. Hincks, and the rest of the Army of the Potomac, now had a new commander, US Major General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside immediately made plans to cross the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg before Robert E. Lee could react. Essentially reaching the south side of the Rappahannock first would leave the road to Richmond wide open for the Union Army. Arriving at the Rappahannock ahead of the Army of Northern Virginia, Burnside’s plan was coming together. Unfortunately, his pontoons had not arrived in time. This gave Lee the necessary time to reach Fredericksburg and entrench his army – setting the stage for the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The Army of the Potomac, now divided into three Grand Divisions, brought battle against Robert E. Lee on December 13, 1862. The battle opened on the Federal left, when US Major General William Franklin’s Left Grand Division assaulted CS Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 2nd Corps. Initially, the Federal forces had some success. However, before long, Jackson’s 2nd Corps pushed Franklin’s forces back beyond the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad tracks.
US Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division, including the II Corps, now commanded by US Major General Darius Couch, assaulted the high ground above Fredericksburg. Master Sergeant William B. Hincks’s 14th Connecticut was still in the Second Brigade of William French’s Third Division. It would attack the left side of a “sunken road” heavily defended by CS Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps. Having had time to organize behind the stone wall of the Sunken Road, French’s Division had no chance. They would be roughly handled and quickly repulsed before reaching the wall. The 14th Connecticut, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sanford Perkins, would also suffer. At the end of the battle, Burnside’s Army of the Potomac would never reach the Sunken Road and would end up retreating across the Rappahannock River on December 14.
In May 1863 Hincks would again fight with the II Corps at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The 14th Connecticut would support the Federal lines around the Chancellor tavern, and would again suffer significant losses. Due to their losses at Fredericksburg, the 14th was now commanded by Major Theodore Ellis. The Army of the Potomac, under the overall command of US Major General Joseph Hooker, would suffer a terrible defeat at Chancellorsville.
After Chancellorsville the 14th Connecticut would head north, following Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as it once again headed past the Mason-Dixon Line. Sergeant Major Hincks would provide his country his most valuable service in early July 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Army of the Potomac, now commanded by US Major General George Gordon Meade, would bring battle against the Army of Northern Virginia July 1–3. By July 3, Meade’s army had established a significant line of battle, shaped like a fish hook, running from Culp’s Hill on the north to Little Round Top on the south. The II Corps, now commanded by US Major General Winfield S. Hancock, held the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. The 14th Connecticut, still in the Second Brigade (Colonel Thomas A Smyth), Third Division (Brigadier General Alexander Hays) of the II Corps would be assigned just north of the “Angle” of Hancock’s salient on Cemetery Ridge and would maintain the brigade’s left flank. This portion of the line would be directly in the path of CS Major General George E. Pickett’s famous charge. Commanding the 14th Connecticut, Major Theodore Ellis would brace his men for the coming onslaught from CS Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew’s North Carolinians and Colonel Birkett D. Fry’s mixed brigade of Alabamans and Tennesseans. The Federal troops could see Pickett’s troops coming thefrom nearly a mile away. Bracing, the Federals were told to hold their fire, until the Rebels came across the fence north of the Codori Farm, running along the Emmitsburg Road. Once they crossed, the Federal artillery opened large gaping holes in the Confederate formation, which quickly closed as the Rebels reformed. As they approached closer division, brigade and regimental commanders would allow their commands to open with musketry, further decimating the Rebel formation.
Opposing the 14th Connecticut was CS Captain Bruce Phillips’ 14th Tennessee. As they closed in on Ellis’s regiment, the Tennesseans planted their regimental flag sporting twelve separate battle honors. With the intensity of the Federal musketry and cannister coming from the artillery, many men of the 14th Tennessee were forced to lay down on the ground to save themselves. Ellis seeing the flag apparently unprotected asked for volunteers to capture it. Hincks, and two other Connecticut soldiers, leaped from behind the wall and ran towards the flag some 50 yards in the distance. Immediately after jumping the wall, one Connecticut soldier was shot. Outrunning his other companion, Hincks would reach the flag under tremendous fire, grab the colors, swinging his saber over the prone Confederates, and run back to the safety of his lines.
The Federal defense along Cemetery Ridge would win the day – and the battle, for Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee would never again take his entire Army of Northern Virginia into the North. The 14th Connecticut would remain with the Army of the Potomac for many additional battles including Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Deep Bottom, Petersburg, Sailors’s Creek and Lee’s surrender, at Appomattox Court House.
Sergeant Major William B. Hincks would be awarded the highest military honor for his actions at Gettysburg. On December 1, 1864 he would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Following, is his citation.
During the highwater mark of Pickett’s charge on 3 July 1863 the colors of the 14th Tenn. Inf. C.S.A. were planted 50 yards in front of the center of Sgt. Maj. Hincks’ regiment. There were no Confederates standing near it but several lying down around it. Upon a call for volunteers by Maj. Ellis, commanding, to capture this flag, this soldier and 2 others leaped the wall. One companion was instantly shot. Sgt. Maj. Hincks outran his remaining companion running straight and swift for the colors amid a storm of shot. Swinging his saber over the prostrate Confederates and uttering a terrific yell, he seized the flag and hastily returned to his lines. The 14th Tenn. carried 12 battle honors on its flag. The devotion to duty shown by Sgt. Maj. Hincks gave encouragement to many of his comrades at a crucial moment in the battle.(i)
After the Civil War, Sergeant Major William B. Hincks worked as a treasurer of a gas company and Secretary and Treasurer of City Savings Bank. Hincks died at Bridgeport, Connecticut, on November 7, 1903. He was approximately 64 years old. Sergeant Major Hincks is a true American HERO.
(i) R.J. (Bob) Pfoft, Editor, United States of America’s Medal of Honor Recipients, Fifth Edition, Pg. 897.