Near-Death Experience


Material about John Chase from his pension file at the National Archives.

Private John Chase, a “rugged farm boy” who had been working as a soap boiler in the Augusta area, was with the 5th Maine Battery during the Civil War. He later won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Chancellorsville, but went through a much worse ordeal at Gettysburg

First, though, he underwent a religious conversion. He had never been particularly religious when he had been growing up, but that changed on the night of July 1, 1863, when he heard a chaplain preaching to the men on the Gettysburg battlefield. Chase went behind his cannon, knelt on the ground, and said his first prayer. When he stood up, Chase said, “I was a very different boy than I was when I knelt down. I felt light as a bird; all the darkness and doubts had disappeared, and I was rejoicing in God’s holy light.” Chase’s newfound faith would soon undergo a severe test.


The monument to the 5th Maine (Stevens’s) Battery at Gettysburg. Chase was wounded near here.

On July 2 Chase’s battery was engaged in an artillery duel with the Rebel guns on Benner’s Hill to the north when a shell exploded only three or four feet away from Chase. The effect was violent and terrible. The blast tore the clothes from Chase’s body, nearly ripped off his right arm, tore out his left eye, and riddled his body with 48 other wounds. It seemed that no one could have survived such horrible injuries, and two men carried what remained of Chase to the rear and placed him on the ground near the rock where he had prayed the night before.

Yet Chase wasn’t dead. Years later, he recollected having an out-of-body experience while he lay unconscious on the battlefield. He remembered feeling “perfectly happy” as he looked down on his mangled physical form. “I was taken to a very beautiful place where all was peace and joy,” he said. His visit was all too short.

On July 4 a burial party lifted up Chase’s apparently lifeless and placed it in the back of a wagon for burial. Chase moaned. As he regained consciousness, his first words were, “Did we win the battle?” He was taken to a field hospital at the Isaac Lightner barn on the Baltimore Pike, where he lingered for three more days. No one believed he had a chance to survive. Then he was moved to the Lutheran Seminary, where his wounds became infected. The medical personnel put him in a tent outside to die. A soldier from the 8th Virginia, considered another lost cause, was placed in the tent with him. The two men clasped hands, seeking comfort and hoping for survival, but the Rebel soldier died during the night.

John chase

A photo of Chase, showing the severity of his wounds.

Chaplain J. O. Sloan, who was ministering to the wounded for the United States Christian Commission, said that seeing Chase was “one of the worst scenes that ever came under my observation.” Even though the doctors said Chase could live for no more than a day or two, the chaplain decided to do what he could for the badly wounded man. Twice a day he applied poultices of “pulverized charcoal and flax seed” and tended to him. Whether it was the poultices, an act of God, or Chase’s own will, the wounded soldier defied the odds and was eventually moved to a hospital in Philadelphia, and then home to Maine. He was discharged from the army on November 25, 1863.

After the war, Chase married and had six children. He served as a messenger in the Maine House of Representatives, and became an inventor, with 47 patents to his name. His first was for a hoopskirt with an attached bustle; his last was for a flying machine. Said one newspaper account, “According to Capt. Chase the Wright brothers will have to look to their laurels, for he is more than confident that his ship will sail the balmy air in the near future and will turn all the somersaults that will be required of a faithful flying bird of the mechanical type.” Chase was living in Florida when he died in 1914.

Maine Roads to Gettysburg will be published on May 1, 2018, by Stackpole Books. You can pre-order it here.




“A Breastwork Ready Made”

38.17th MEOne of my favorite monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield is that of the 17th Maine. It stands at the spot on the edge of the Wheatfield where the regiment made a spirited resistance to advancing Rebels on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. The Maine soldiers positioned themselves behind a low stone wall, just as the soldier on the monument—frozen in time—does now.

Here’s an excerpt about the 17th Maine’s fight, from Maine Roads to Gettysburg.

The 17th Maine rose up and made a dash across the wheat field toward the stone wall at the south end. Already “the bullets were whizzing,” said Lt. Charles Verrill of Company C. A sergeant fell dead. Like the wheat field and the peach orchard, the stone wall, under ordinary circumstances, would have been nothing special. It was “just a common old fashioned, thirty-inch stone fence,” Verrill said. On the battlefield, nothing was ordinary. “The stone wall was a breastwork ready made,” Verrill said, and the crucible of battle transformed it into “the best stone wall the 17th Maine ever came across in its travels.”

The Maine soldiers had barely positioned themselves behind the wall when skirmishers from the 20th Indiana came running back through the woods in front. Following right behind them was a mass of Confederate infantry pushing its way through the trees. They belonged to the 3rd Arkansas, the left-most regiment of Robertson’s brigade, and had been bolstered by troops from the 59th Georgia of George T. Anderson’s brigade. Sheltered behind the wall, the 17th Maine poured a destructive, semi-enfilading fire into the advancing Rebels, loading and firing as fast as they could. “And didn’t we yell!” said Whitman. “Couldn’t I yell with a will! As the boy said when he whistled in school, ‘It whistled itself.’ So I could say while fighting behind this stone wall, ‘It yelled itself.’ We kept on loading and firing as fast as we cold. Could hear orders, ‘Fire low, fire low. Fire right oblique.’”

“There was a dreadful buzzing of bullets and other missiles, highly suggestive of an obituary notice for a goodly number of Johnny Rebs, and we could see them tumbling around right lively,” remembered John Haley. The Confederates were thrown “into disorder,” and retired. They regrouped and renewed the attack.

Enemy soldiers to the right seemed to threaten the regiment’s flank, but the Rebels did not advance, perhaps stymied by the thick undergrowth. The volleys of musketry and the roar of George Winslow’s 1st New York Battery B on the rise at the north side of the wheat field combined to make a “fearful din,” said Verrill. He was also startled by bullets that came from the rear; given permission to investigate, he found Union soldiers—perhaps from the 110th Pennsylvania—who had taken shelter behind some rocks and were trying to fire over the heads of the 17th Maine. Verrill suggested they take up a position on the threatened right but they declined his offer.28

Lt. Col. Charles Merrill realized he had to deal with the threat on his right. He protected his flank by bending his line at an angle. The three companies at the end of the line, C, H, and K, wheeled from the regiment’s south-facing position until they were lined along a wooden rail fence, facing west. Such a maneuver was difficult to make while under fire, but it was done, though not without loss. Two captains, one lieutenant, and several enlisted men fell mortally wounded by the time the men formed their new line.

“We had scarcely finished this new formation when the dogs of war were let loose again,” said Verrill. On the right, the 8th and 9th Georgia pushed forward out from the tangled growth of alder trees that had been hanging them up, while the 11th Georgia approached from in front of the wall. According to Verrill, “never was loading and firing of muzzle-loaders done more rapidly than by the 17th at that time.” Charles Mattocks had three men loading muskets for him while he “blazed away” from behind the wall. Two men were shot and killed beside him. Franklin I. Whitmore, a sergeant in Company D, loaded and fired his gun while lying on his back behind the wall. Somehow a Rebel bullet still managed to tear Whitmore’s cap. George Whitman fired until his musket became clogged, so he found another one lying on the ground. Its barrel was stuffed full of bullets, evidently by an overexcited soldier, so Whitman picked up a third gun and resumed firing. Despite the storm of lead from the Maine troops, the Rebels pushed forward. A plucky handful nearly planted their flags on the wall before the color bearer broke and ran. Lt. Joseph Perry accepted the surrender of another, and pulled him over the wall.30

“It was a horrid place to be in, with bullets flying like hailstones,” said Whitman. “But one thing helps us; we are actively engaged. I always feel better when I have something to do. Yes, I could think even in battle; a fearful reminder of the dangerous situation in which we were exposed was in seeing the dead and wounded around us.”

MRGCoverMaine Roads to Gettysburg will be published on May 1, 2018, by Stackpole Books. You can pre-order it here.


A Tale of Two Covers

MRGCoverYou are bound to hit some bumps along the road as a book makes its way toward publication. Sometimes you find mistakes that need to be corrected; hopefully you spot them before the book is in print. Or you may locate some new information that would be really helpful if you could just squeeze it in.

Sometimes other things happen.

For instance, take the cover of Maine Roads to Gettysburg. While preparing the dust jacket, my editors at Stackpole Books found a striking image at the National Archives. It was clearly identified as the 6th Maine. The entire title reads, “Company of Infantry on parade. Part of 6th Maine Infantry after battle of Fredericksburg. At time of the charge across stone wall at foot of Marye Heights Gen. Hooker in command of Federals, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee in command of Confederates.”


This is the photo on the first version of the cover. The National Archives identified these soldiers as belonging to the 66th Maine.

That seems straightforward enough, to a point. The Fredericksburg battle mentioned had to be the fight in the town during the Battle of Chancellorsville, because that was when the 6th Maine stormed Marye’s Heights. Joseph Hooker was in command of the Army of the Potomac at the time, so that makes sense. Now, the identification of “Fitzhugh Lee” as the Rebel commander is problematical. Fitz Lee was the nephew of Robert E. Lee, and he was not “in command of the Confederates” (that would have been his Uncle Robert), nor was he involved in the fight for Marye’s Heights during the Chancellorsville battle. Jubal Early commanded the defenses on this part of the battlefield. Perhaps this reference to Fitzhugh Lee should have warned me to look closer at this photo—but everyone makes mistakes, right? I knew the 6th Maine had, in fact, stormed up Marye’s Heights on May 3, 1863, so I accepted the identification and Stackpole used the photo to create a nice-looking cover.


This is the original cover.

Still, something nagged at me. Once they had taken the heights, the 6th Maine had quickly begun to march up the Orange Plank Road toward Salem Church. When had there been time to take a photograph? After the fighting at the church, the regiment, along with the rest of John Sedgwick’s force that had moved up from town, consolidated its position around the Rappahannock River, and then crossed to the other side of the river early on the morning of May 6. The 6th Maine did not make a return visit to the heights for a photo-op.

The tents in the background should have triggered more alarms. The Maine soldiers certainly did not have time to set up tents in town, although it is possible that the photo was taken after they had crossed the river and returned to their camp. Still, there was something about this photo that just seemed too good to be true.

When double checking the photo information for the dust jacket, I went back to the picture on the National Archives’ site. This time I noticed that some people had added tags to the photo’s page, noting that the soldiers pictured were, in fact, from the 110th Pennsylvania, not the 6th Maine. Yikes! A little bit of research confirmed it. We were about to feature a Pennsylvania regiment on the cover of a book about Maine soldiers!

Fortunately, we had time to make a change, and I already had a good photo that would work. It was a shot of officers from the 10th Maine standing in a field after the battle of Cedar Mountain. (I featured it in this blog entry.) One of the officers—the one in the center with the pipe—is Lt. Col. James Fillebrown, whom I mention in the book. Fillebrown was Jim the adjutant who featured prominently in John Gould’s account of Nathaniel Jackson’s “speech,” which I wrote about here. At Antietam, Fillebrown was taken out of the battle by the ferocious kick of a horse.)

10thME at Cedar Mountain

This is the image we used on the new cover.

Whew! That was a close one. But all’s well that ends well. We ended up with an equally fine cover, one that has soldiers from the right state to boot. The moral of the story: double check everything!

Stackpole Books will publish Maine Roads to Gettysburg in May 2018.