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.
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.
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.
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