A Very Brave Boy

Dear Students: I hope that you and your families are doing well. My two-year old grandson was with us for the weekend, so all is bright here. 

Today’s story is about a boy named Billy Hines who fought in the Civil War before attending classes at Notre Dame. I was able to find a letter that he wrote to his mother from the battlefield and thought you might enjoy reading his first-hand account. And as usual, read to the end to learn a surprise twist. 

Billy was born in 1846 in County Kilkenny, Ireland. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1853, settling in Wisconsin. Billy enjoyed writing and was a voracious reader. He soon landed a job as “devil” with the Lacrosse Republican newspaper, mixing ink, fetching type, and running errands. 

In 1862, at age 16, Billy enlisted as a Private in the 20th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was injured in December at the Battle of Prairie Grove but was able to rejoin his unit soon thereafter. He wrote this letter home:

Camp Near Vicksburg, Miss., June 16th, 1863

Dear Mother: 

We left Lake Springs [a large camp in central Missouri], and crossed the Mississippi on the 12th … then marched to our present quarters. We are now stationed on the left, about two miles from the city of Vicksburg. The rebel batteries and rifle pits are about a good half mile from our camp; there are hills and deep ravines between us.

Yesterday five companies of our regiment were on picket duty on a big hill, right above our camp. Co. “A” was one of them. The distance was about ten hundred yards; I had 12 shots at them with my gun at that distance.

This morning early, our Regiment, deployed as skirmishers, went down into the hollow or ravine, went through old dead trees, boughs, brush, and so forth. The ground was almost impassable. There was a hill on the left, and one on the right, and a deep hollow in the center which ran up pretty near the Fort. I was on the right hand hill, and seeing I could shoot to better advantage, I made a rush for it, and reached a cover near the Fort. I got behind the butt of a tree, when whiz-a-whiz came the rebel bullets striking the tree butt, which I was behind, making the bark fly in all directions. If I had attempted to pass the tree-butt, the ball would have struck me in the forehead or breast; that is the second stump that has saved my life.

Well, a miss is as good as a mile, and I kept on firing. The rebels then commenced throwing shells [firing artillery]. The first shell went clear over us and busted; the second shell was fired still closer to my stump, and the third shell was fired so as to strike my stump, but lucky for me, it burst about 30 steps or so before it reached me. The pieces flew in all directions, but paid no attention to my lucky stump.

I fired my gun at them again. Hardly had I pulled the trigger before, whiz-z-z came a couple of bullets very close to my left arm and head. I was then aware that a couple of them had made up their mind to pop me off.

I loaded and shot my gun about 20 times at them from behind that tree butt, and still they kept throwing their [shells] around me. By this time the 14th Illinois came up and relieved us. Then the order was given for skirmishers to “fall back.” I was, I’m sure, more exposed to their fire than any other man on that side of the hill. There was none more closely watched than I was–so I thought, I had my mind made up to be hit in any direction I would go. If I went to the right, up on the side hill, I would be entirely exposed. If I turned back, it was just the same way, and down into the hollow would be worse! I must die sometime I thought. So grasping my gun tightly, I rose, turned, and after a few hasty steps, I was at the top of the hill, the bullets, all the while, buzzing around me–but I was not hurt, and now my rebel friends in the fort could whistle. Vicksburg will stand in the rebel hands yet for about 20 days. In haste, I close this letter. Give my best respects to all inquiring friends. Goodbye for the present.

As ever, your affectionate son, Wm. Hines

Billy survived the war and in 1868 he enrolled as a “preparatory” student at Notre Dame. He later enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he received a law degree. He continued working in the newspaper business for several years, however, developing a reputation as an outstanding storyteller and promoter in Chicago. He practiced law only sporadically.

The law department at Notre Dame had been founded in 1869, and by 1883 it was struggling to fill seats. The program needed a boost of publicity and energy. Billy was just the person to provide what Notre Dame needed.

Of course, by then he had changed the spelling of his name: Billy Hines was William Hoynes. You know him as the first person to hold the title of “dean” of Notre Dame Law School. Surprise!

Good luck during the last few days of classes. As always, please let me know whenever I can support you.


For sources and additional reading see p. 2

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