In 1837, Christopher S. Luce left Maine, came to Illinois, and settled in Adams County. The 29-year-old shoemaker arrived with his wife and two sons. The couple’s third son, Moses Augustine, was born May 14, 1842 in Payson.
Ordained a Free Will Baptist minister in 1840, Christopher also lectured locally on abolitionism. It could not be said that the Rev. Luce failed to practice what he preached, since in 1840, he purchased two lots in New Philadelphia, a town founded by Frank McWorter, a former slave and now a free black pioneer and entrepreneur.The Rev. Luce was New Philadelphia’s teacher and postmaster.
In 1848, McWorter, known as Free Frank, deeded a number of lots to the Rev. Luce. The men had an agreement that Luce would build a seminary. The project never materialized, and Free Frank sued the Rev. Luce. The ongoing dispute ended in 1853 when Rev. Luce sold out and left New Philadelphia, ending his 13 year tie to the unique community.
Moses Luce spent his early years at New Philadelphia, but three years after leaving the Pike County community, Rev. Luce enrolled his 14-year-old sonin Michigan’s Hillsdale College preparatory school.When the Civil War broke out, Moses, now 19 and still at Hillsdale College, enlisted with twelve fellow students in Company E, 4th Michigan Infantry.
The 4th Michigan left for Virginia on June 25th and was with the army at First Bull Run but did not see action. A year later, during the Peninsula Campaign, the 4th was heavily engaged in the Battles of Gaine’s Mill and Malvern Hill. Moses missed Fredericksburg, but he was with the regiment at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
The Union campaign that kicked-off in May 1864 was different. Overall command of the Army of the Potomac had been givento U. S. Grant, a man not easily deterred. His initial movement into the Wilderness was checked by Lee’s rebels. Rather than retreating to Washington, D. C. as his predecessors had done, Grant shifted the army to the left and renewed the fight. He informed Lincoln: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
When Grant’s offensive began, regiments, like the 4th Michigan Infantry, found themselves in a difficult spot. They were nearing the end of their three year enlistment, and many, but not all, felt they had fulfilled their duty. The 4thwas down to a little over 100 men when the first battle of the Wilderness commenced. The fighting on May 5-6 took 12 more lives.
The night of May 7-8, Union troops marched away from the Wilderness battlefield towards Spotsylvania Court House in an attempt to get around Lee’s right flank. The wily Lee anticipated Grant’s move, and the morning of May 8 dawned with the rebel army thwarting Grant’s move. Grant attacked anyway.
Sgt. Moses A. Luce later explained. “‘The battle of Laurel Hill . . . was in reality part of the battle of Spotsylvania . . . .” And, it “was a slight elevation situated in front of . . . our army, and occupied by the Confederate army . . . .”First light on May 10 found the opposing lines hidden by a heavy fog. For the work ahead this was a good omen. Since this morning, the 4th Michigan and the 22nd Massachusetts were to be the skirmishers leading the attacking blue infantry. With muskets unloaded and bayonets fixed the men awaited the order to charge. Sgt. Luce recalled that as the men ran forward “a light wind suddenly broke the fog in front of us,” leaving the men exposed and in the open. The enemy pickets and artillery immediately fired, but the skirmishers kept going and closed on the enemy’s main breastworks. Now the rebel infantry suddenly rose and let go a volley. The charge collapsed, and the main column fell back in disorder. Of the seven men Sgt. Luce commanded that morning, five were dead or wounded.
Luce had taken cover in a ditch, but realized that if he remained there he “would be taken prisoner, and the horrors of Andersonville were then pictured in dreadful detail.” Fearing capture more than enemy bullets, Luce put it this way: “With all the speed I had I ran down the hillside and across the valley, under the fire of the enemy, and succeeded in reaching the first rifle pit of our pickets and leaped into it.” One bullet had destroyed his rifle, another grazed his forehead.
Hunkered down, Luce now heard the cries of Asher LaFleur, a Hillsdale College classmate and friend. “Luce! Luce, I am bleeding to death! I am bleeding to death!” LaFleur’s leg had been shattered. Not hesitating, Luce left the trench and ran back into the maelstrom of flying lead. He found LaFleur in a bad way; told him to get upon his back; and he would carry him. With LaFleur hanging on, Luce ran, dodging enemy fire, until he reached the safety of the Union line.
LaFleur lived, but lost his leg.
Having survived his three year enlistment, Moses A. Luce was honorably discharged on June 24, 1864. He returned to Hillsdale College, graduating in 1866. He then enrolled in the Albany Law School, where William McKinley was a fellow student, and graduated in June 1867.
Luce next returned to Illinois and practiced law in Bushnell. But after losing a bid for the state legislature, he moved to San Diego in 1873. Luce quickly became a prominent citizen and served over the years as a judge, postmaster, attorney for the Santa Fe Railroad, vice-president of the California Southern Railroad, and a partner in one of California’s leading law firms. He passed away April 13, 1933.
Of his many achievements and accolades, none stands above the unselfish bravery he showed on May 10, 1864. For this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor on February 7, 1895. The citation reads that Moses Augustine Luce “voluntarily returned in the face of . . . the enemy to the assistance of a wounded and helpless comrade, and carried him, at imminent peril, to a place of safety.”
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