HUGH ST. CLAIR, Sr., lives upon a fine farm on section 10, Jackson Township. He is a native of Pennsylvania, born in Indiana County, June 12, 1827. His father, Archibald St. Clair, was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, while his mother, Esther (Alcorn) St. Clair, was born in Huntingdon County, Pa.
Hugh was the third child. He remained at home on his father's farm until eighteen years of age, when he commenced to work at the carpenter's trade, which business he followed until thirty-two years old. At that time the oil excitement sprang up in Pennsylvania, and, living within three miles of where it was first discovered by Col. Drake, he partook of the excitement and at once began prospecting. In two years he drilled fourteen wells, being personally interested in three of the number, the remainder being for other parties. In the oil business he was reasonably successful, clearing in the two years some $6000, and nearly gaining an independent fortune, which he might have secured had he disposed of one of his wells at the right time.
While engaged in the oil business the war broke out, and in September, 1862, Mr. St. Clair enlisted in Co. D, 18th Pa. Vol. Cav., and served three years with the rank of Sergeant. With his regiment he participated in the battles of Hanover, June 29; Gettysburg, July 2, 3 and 4, 1863; Monterey House, on South Mountain, on the night of July 4th and the morning of the 5th, where his division, under Gen. Kilpatrick, captured a train of 300 wagons and took 1,400 prisoners; Smithburg and Cavetown on the 5th. At Hagerstown Gen. Kilpatrick detailed fourteen men out of each company of the 18th Cavalry to skirmish through the city. Mr. St. Clair was one of the fourteen detailed from his company. This force passed through the city, but on the opposite side found the rebels in far greater numbers than was imagined, and were compelled to retreat, closely followed by the enemy. In passing down one of the streets, Mr. St. Clair became separated from his companions, and was nearly surrounded by the rebels. Believing escape almost impossible, he about concluded to surrender, but the thought of Andersonville prison came to his mind, and he felt it were better to die if need be, fighting for his life than by slow starvation, as so many were then doing in that loathsome prison. Noticing in an alley, a few feet away, an open cellar door, he darted down it, unobserved by the enemy. Closing the door, he awaited future events. Hardly had he got in the cellar before the alley and yard were filled with rebels, but he was safe, at least for the time being. In front of the house was a window looking out upon the street, through which he fired at the rebels in front, luckily escaping unobserved. Having been engaged in almost continuous fighting for some days, he was nearly overcome with fatigue, and determined to secure a little sleep. Before lying down, however, he removed a bar which he had placed across the cellar door. Why he did so, he is unable to explain to this day, but presumably his idea was that if an entrance was effected elsewhere by the rebels he might dash out and escape. After a refreshing sleep of some hours, he woke up, hearing a noise as if some one was trying to effect an entrance. Grasping his revolver, he stood ready to fire as soon as the supposed enemy made his appearance. Opening the door slightly, he discovered a woman with a tray of victuals. Speaking to him in a low tone, the woman told him to keep still, that she and her husband were Union people and would endeavor to effect his escape. She told him that her husband was then away from home, but that he would soon return, when they would find him another hiding-place. Mr. St. Clair, it can well be imagined, was rejoiced to know that he was among friends, even if he was surrounded by enemies. Doing justice to the food placed before him, he awaited the return of the woman's husband. On his arrival, after hearing the story from his wife, he went to the cellar, from which he led Mr. St. Clair to the attic of his house, telling him to remain quiet, that he would see what could be done for him. On being asked his name. Mr. St. Clair responded "Hugh St. Clair." "Why," said the woman, "that is the name of relatives of mine in Carlisle, Pa." They gave him a bundle of citizen's clothing and introduced him to the people as her relative. Dressing himself, Mr. St. Clair went downstairs and mingled with the inmates of the house. This was on Monday, July 6, 1863, and for six days he went in and out, discussing politics and the war with the rebels with scarcely any fear of being molested. The house was searched by a detail of rebels for Union soldiers, information having been received at rebel headquarters that Union soldiers were concealed in some of the houses; while the house was being searched, Mr. St. Clair stepped out among the rebel soldiers, and, talking with them, escaped suspicion. The first morning he dined with a rebel Lieutenant, with whom he discussed the situation without exciting any suspicion. On Sunday, July 12, 1863, Gen. Custer charged the city. In his command was the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. As the regiment came through the streets Mr. St. Clair again put on his uniform and soon found his company and saw a comrade leading his horse. He at once jumped on his horse and commenced fighting as though he had never been absent. The war is over, but the recollection of his narrow escape can never be effaced from the mind of Mr. St. Clair. The memory of that good old couple who risked their lives that his might be saved, can also never be effaced. David Williamson and wife will always have a warm place in his heart. Mr. Williamson is yet living, and Mr. St. Clair regularly corresponds with him and occasionally sends him a token of his grateful remembrance. The writer has been shown two letters from Mr. Williamson, written early in 1881, in which he substantiated in every particular the incident narrated above.
The next battle in which Mr. St. Clair participated was that of Culpeper, Va., Sept. 13, 1863. In a charge on the picket line of the enemy his horse fell and rolled on him, but at the time he did not realize that he was hurt. Mounting again, he continued to fight until the close of the battle. When the excitement was over, he began to feel the effects of the fall, and to this day it troubles him greatly. He was sent to the hospital, where he remained three months, and was then sent to Columbus, Ohio, as one of the number to guard prisoners. From Columbus he was ordered back to Washington, and soon after sent to Ft. Stephens. The night after his arrival the rebels commenced an attack on the fort, and on the following day made a final charge, from which they were repulsed, with a loss to the Union troops of about 500. After the battle Mr. St. Clair was sent to Ft. Bayard, where he remained about two months, and was then placed on guard duty at the medical department at Washington, where he remained until he was discharged. On the night of the assassination of Lincoln, he was in command of his company, its commissioned officers being present at the theater where the dastardly act was committed. The news quickly spread, and he at once ordered out the company, having them ready for duty before the officers arrived, although they were on hand fifteen minutes after the fatal shot was fired. Mr. St. Clair thinks he heard the clatter of the horse's feet which bore Booth away. He saw the body of Lincoln lying in state at Washington. Mr. St. Clair was discharged from the service June 29, 1865, and returned to his home in Pennsylvania, where he remained two years and then came to Benton County, Iowa, arriving here in April, 1867, locating on section 10, Jackson Township, where he yet resides.
Hugh St. Clair and Mary C. Kerr were united in marriage Dec. 26, 1850. She is a native of Pennsylvania, a daughter of Matthew and Mary (Crawford) Kerr, her father a native of Pennsylvania and her mother of Ohio. Mr. and Mrs. St. Clair have five children living — Mary A., wife of William Graham, a farmer in Jackson Township; James A., engaged in the grocery trade at Longmont, Col.; Esther R., at home; Archie E., a farmer, residing in Jackson Township; Murry M., with his brother, at Longmont, Col.; Maria Belle was born some two months after Mr. St. Clair's enlistment in the army, and died when about fourteen months old, when Mr. St. Clair was at home on a furlough.Mr. and Mrs. St. Clair are members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Jackson Township. Politically he is a Republican and a strong Prohibitionist. Success has crowned his efforts in this fair State, he now owning over 600 acres of land, a handsome, well-furnished dwelling-house and a fine barn, and he is contented and happy.
Source Citation: "1887 Benton County, Iowa Biographies" [database online] Benton County IAGenWeb Project. <http://iagenweb.org/benton/>
Original data: "Portrait and Biographical Album of Benton County, Iowa." Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1887, p. 234-236.
Transcribed by: Sue Soden. Submitted to the Benton County IAGenWeb Project on January 28th, 2009. Copyright © 2009 The IAGenWeb Project.