“Come On, You Brave Yank”
The assault upon that part of the works of Vicksburg, occupied by the Twenty-Second Texas, was made by the Eighth and Eighteenth Indiana, First United States Regulars and the Thirty-third and Ninety-ninth Illinois, in the order named. Regarding the assault, Captain A.C. Matthews, of the Ninety-ninth Illinois, says: “I was in command of the color company on May 22, 1863. The color bearer had been wounded a few days before and was not on duty that morning. Private Thomas H. Higgins, a big, strong, athletic Irishman, solicited the privilege of carrying the flag for the day. I gave him permission and handed over the standard to him, telling him not to stop until he got to the Confederate works. He obeyed this order literally.”
The manner in which Private Higgins carried out the order of his superior officer, cannot be more fittingly recounted and with greater credit to the brave color bearer than by Charles I. Evans, an ex-Confederate soldier of the Second Texas, who says:
“After a most terrific cannonading of two hours, during which the very earth rocked and pulsated like a thing of life, the head of the charging columns appeared above the brow of the hill, it presented the grandest spectacle the eye of a soldier ever beheld. The Texans were prepared to meet it, however, for, in addition to our Springfield rifles, each man was provided with five additional smooth-bore muskets, charged with buck and ball.
When the first line was within fifty paces of the works, the order to fire ran along the trenches, and was responded to as from one gun. As fast as practiced hands could gather them up, one after another, the muskets were brought to bear. The blue lines vanished amid fearful slaughter. There was a cessation in the firing. And behold, through the pall of smoke which enshrouded the field, a Union flag could be seen approaching.
As the smoke was slightly lifted by the gentle May breeze, one lone soldier advanced, bravely bearing the flag toward the breast works. At least a hundred men took deliberate aim at him, and fired at point-blank range, but he never faltered. Stumbling over the bodies of his fallen comrades, he continued to advance. Suddenly, as with one impulse, every Confederate soldier within sight of the Union color bearer seemed to be seized with the idea that the man ought not to be shot down like a dog. A hundred men dropped their guns at the same time; each of them seized his nearest neighbor by the arm and yelled to him: ‘Don’t shoot at that man again. He is too brave to be killed that way,’ when he instantly discovered that his neighbor was yelling the same thing at him. As soon as they all understood one another, a hundred old caps and hats went up into the air, their wearers yelling at the top of their voices: ‘Come on, you brave Yank, come on!’
He did come, and was taken by the hand and pulled over the breast works, and when it was discovered that he was not even scratched, a hundred Texans wrung his hands and congratulated him upon his miraculous escape from death. That man’s name was Thomas J. Higgins, color bearer of the Ninety-ninth Illinois.”
Private Higgins was taken before General Pemberton, the rebel commander, who asked him where General Grant’s headquarters were.
“I do not know, as he is moving them every day, but they will be here tomorrow,” came the ready response from the quick-witted Irishman.
“How many men has your general got?” the rebel leader inquired.
“Oh, not many, only about seventy-five thousand,” Higgins replied.
“How far back do his lines extend?”
“As far as Cairo, Illinois, and they are still being formed in the state of Maine.”
“Well,” General Pemberton observed sarcastically, “we’ll have Grant here in as prisoner tomorrow.”
“I know,” the doughty Yankee soldier’s reply. “General Grant will come in here tomorrow to ship you and your command to Altona, Illinois, where he has a big boarding house.”
At this General Pemberton got angry. “Sergeant,” he exclaimed, “take this man away. He is insulting. He is impudent. He is insolent.”
Thereupon, Private Higgins was led away, a few days later paroled, exchanged, and subsequently he returned to his regiment, where he remained until the end of the war.
His Medal of Honor was awarded him at the request of the very Confederate who captured him at the assault.
Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (Detroit: Perrien-Keydel Co., 1901), Volume I, 198-200.
Born in upstate New York, Thomas H. Higgins (1831-1917) ended the war as a Sergeant in the Ninety-ninth Illinois. He is buried at Holy Family Catholic Cemetery in Hannibal, Missouri.