Byron E. Hess was born on December 28, 1836, in Corning, Steuben County, New York, the son of Diocletian (1810-1851) and Lydia A. (Gaylord).
Diocletian was born in New York and possibly married his first wife Lydia there. Byron was the oldest of six children when his family moved from New York in 1837 and settled on 240 acres of land in Boston, Ionia County in 1838. In 1848 his father sold the Boston farm and purchased another farm near Saranac, Ionia County, and in 1850 Byron was attending school and living with his family in Boston and near Saranac. By 1850 Diocletian had apparently remarried (it is unknown what became of Lydia) to one Sarah A. (b. 1817 in Connecticut and who may have died in 1887)
His father died on May 12, 1851, at the age of 41, and, Byron being the eldest, the responsibility for running the farm and family fell to him. By 1859 he was also actively involved in promoting education in his Township and by the late 1850s was reportedly teaching school in Boston Township. In fact, according to one account, he struggled to “improve all opportunities for education provided by the district schools and devoted to study what time he was able to take from home duties.” By 1860 he was still working as a farmer in Saranac.
Byron also took an interest in the growing militia movement in western Ionia County and just before war broke out became Second Sergeant of the “Boston Light Guard,” the prewar militia unit from Saranac, Ionia County which served as the nucleus for Company D.
Indeed, Byron was 24 years old and still living in Saranac when he enlisted as First Sergeant in Company D on May 13, 1861. (Company D was composed in large part of men who came from western Ionia County and Eaton County.) He was promoted to Second Lieutenant on August 1, 1861. By July of 1862 he was reported absent sick “without proper authority,” although in fact he was a patient at the U.S. General Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland. In any case, he soon returned to the Regiment.
Although initially reported as killed in action on August 29, 1862, at Second Bull Run, Byron was in fact wounded in the left arm and taken prisoner. According to a postwar account,
Hess lay on the battlefield wounded and helpless for five days. When he first became conscious he found he was lying on the top of a small grade, with the enemy on one side and the Union forces on the other. Very heavy firing was going on; he managed to crawl down the embankment to a little safer place. In a short time the Union forces were driven back and the enemy came rushing over the grade at the foot of which lay a large number of dead and wounded. The enemy stopped and asked many of them if they were wounded, and on proof of that they would pass along, but unprincipled stragglers in the rear made raids upon the dead and helpless men, taking from them their valuables. One man took from our suffering friend his boots and hat. Next it was the turn for the rebels to be forced to retreat. The wounded men were faint with loss of blood and parched with thirst.
During the retreat of the enemy one Southern soldier heard the cries of the helpless ones for water, and amidst the fire of the Union forces stopped to see what he could do for his suffering enemies; the bullets were flying like hail. This noble soldier laid down his gun and gathering up a number of canteens which were strewn upon the ground brought them filled with water to the thirst-stricken sufferers. Soothed by this act of kindness and the health-giving water our subject became more quiet; he soon became unconscious again and knew nothing of the events of the night. Early the next morning he saw approaching him a small detachment of Southern soldiers in command of an officer. He called to him and begged to be taken to the Union lines, which were only about 60 rods away. The wounded man promised the officer $100 if he would do this, as he could see that there were preparations on foot for another day of warfare, and he knew that he was on the ground which would be run over by both armies. The rebel officer answered him kindly and promised to attend to him. He returned very soon with four men and a stretcher, upon which they carried Lieut. Hess, not to the Union lines but half a mile in the rear where they laid him down in the woods and bade him good bye.
The chances for life seemed very small to our hero. He lay on the ground all day, at times conscious and watchful of what was going on about him, but often entirely unconscious of his surroundings. The booming of cannon and the rattle of musketry came to him from without the woods. He slept at night and on the following morning found that many of his own comrades lay wounded and dying about him. During the day he was picked up by a comrade, Christian Berringer, who had been searching for him by special permission from the officer of the field, he being a prisoner at the time. Bringing a stretcher and some more men he carried him as gently as possible to the stream. They met a man who had in his hand some hoe cake and broiled fish. He kindly gave a part of his food to the wounded man who was too weak to eat it. He had swallowed no food and almost no water for three days and had lost much blood by his wound. They laid him down near the stream of Bull Run with nine other officers whom they had found, and there they remained until Wednesday night, being for five days with no protection from the storm except a blanket.
On the evening of Wednesday they were picked up by the ambulance wagons and Lieut. Hess taken to Emery Hospital at Washington, where he remained about four weeks, during which time his wounds received most skillful attention. But his condition was indeed a serious one. The prolonged exposure following upon the serious flesh wound had induced complications which were difficult to meet. The flesh of his arm on the under side from near the shoulder to the elbow had dropped. In the Armory Square Hospital to which he was removed, they tried the experiment of drawing flesh around from the front side, hoping to make it grow over the bone. Dr. D. W. Bliss had him transferred to his house where he remained for nearly two months. He was then comfortable enough to go home and received a leave of absence. He went to his mother who resides at Como, Ill., where he remained about six weeks.
Byron was paroled in October of 1862, and in December was absent sick and wounded in Michigan, although he had been officially returned to the Regiment on December 20, 1862, at Camp Pitcher, Virginia.
While absent sick in Michigan he was commissioned First Lieutenant, on January 1, 1863, replacing Lieutenant Elisha O. Stevens, but Hess remained absent sick and wounded through April. In April Dr. H. H. Power in Saranac amputated his left arm. He resigned his commission on May 20, 1863, on account of his disability.
On March 25, 1864 Byron reentered the service in the Veterans’ Reserve Corps. (The VRC was made up of men who while ambulatory were generally incapable of performing regular military tasks due to having suffered debilitating wounds and/or diseases and were assigned to garrison the many supply depots, draft rendezvous, camps, forts, prisons, etc. scattered throughout the northern cities, thus freeing able-bodied men for regular military duty.) By July of 1864, he was commanding the One hundred and fifth company, Second Battalion, VRC, Department of the Susquehanna, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He served in this capacity until he was honorably discharged on October 6, 1866.
While home on sick leave in 1863 Byron married New York native Mary E. Champlin (1833-1898) on February 21, 1863, and they had at least 6 children: Edwin J. (b. 1864), Willard (1867-1904), Nellie W. (b. 1867), Frederick R. (b. 1869), Allie E. (b. 1873) and Iva E. (b. 1877).
After Hess left the army, he returned to Saranac and took up the study of medicine with Dr. Power of Saranac. In 1870 he was listed as “without occupation” (although he owned some $2000 worth of real estate) and he was living with his wife and children in Saranac. During 1876-77 he attended St. Louis medical College and the following year was enrolled in the Missouri Medical College in St. Louis. He then returned to the Saranac area where he was practicing medicine and living with his wife and children in 1880. Later that year he reportedly moved to Bonanza (now Lake Odessa), Ionia County where he was living and practicing medicine in 1883 and drawing $24.00 per month for the loss of his arm (pension no. 22, 235).
After three or four years he moved to Clarksville, Ionia County, where he lived the rest of his life, and engaged in both the practice of medicine and operating a drugstore. For three years he was Postmaster of Clarksville, during which time, in 1887, his son Frederick, who had apparently been serving as an assistant postmaster for his father, was arrested and charged with having robbed the mails. He was found guilty and sentenced to one year in the house of correction in Detroit.
Byron attended the 1887 annual reunion of the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association, although he was not a member at the time. He did eventually join the association, however, as well as the Grand Army of the Republic Fitzgerald Post No. 251 in Clarksville. While he had started out early in life a Republican, by the end of the nineteenth century he had switched to the Democratic Party.
Byron was probably a widower when he died of pneumonia in Grand Rapids on December 5, 1906, and was buried in Clarksville cemetery.