“Through smoke and fire and shot and shell, unto the very walls of hell, we did stand and we did stay, in that Virginia field so far away”: Thus does a paraphrased verse from John Tam’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” describe the fate that befell the valiant heroes of the 5th Maine Battery on Sunday, May 3, 1863.
The armies of Union Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had collided two days earlier at Chancellorsville, Va. There the armies battled on Friday and Saturday.
Under the command of Capt. George Leppien, the 5th Maine Battery camped north of the Chancellor House on May 2. Among the men stirring in the battery’s camp before daylight on Sunday was brown-haired Pvt. John F. Chase, born in Chelsea in April 1843 and employed as an Augusta soap boiler when the war broke out.
Also up and moving was Corp. James Lebroke of Lewiston. He and Chase probably served in the same cannon crew. At full complement, seven or eight men typically comprised such a crew. Battle and disease had depleted Leppien’s muster rolls, however, so a few men from the 136th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment now filled vacant positions.
Summoned to battle by 8 a.m., Leppien and his gunners promptly vacated their camp.
“The battery was ordered to take position in an open field just to the right (west) of the Chancellor House, the left piece being [placed] near one of the outbuildings,” recalled 1st Lt. Greenlief T. Stevens, Leppien’s second in command. He estimated that Confederate troops were “450 or 500 yards” away.
As the 5th Maine Battery “emerged from the woods” and started to deploy in the field, the enemy infantry shifted position, and Stevens saw “their artillery posted in the rear and partially covered by a slight elevation.”
Just to the north and west, the Irish Brigade had spread out to meet attacking Confederate infantry. Deployed nearest to the 5th Maine Battery was the 116th Pennsylvania.
“We then formed in line of battle, my company being on the extreme left of the brigade, at the edge of the clearing around the Chancellor House,” recalled 2nd Lt. Louis Sacriste. He commanded the 116th Pennsylvania’s Co. D.
Lathered horses whirled Leppien’s six cannons into position; as designated gunners dropped the gun trails, other men hustled the horse teams some distance away to avoid enemy fire. “As we were forming, the Fifth Maine Battery … took up position between our left and the Chancellor House and opened fire at once with excellent effect, which, however, was only temporary,” Sacriste recalled.
Then the 5th Maine Battery’s world exploded.
“The enemy had our exact range,” Stevens explained. “He immediately opened upon us the most galling and destructive fire that the battery ever experienced.”
An estimated 50-to-60 Confederate cannons targeted the 5th Maine Battery and the Irish Brigade. Outnumbered nine- or 10-to-one, the 5th Maine’s gunners loaded and fired at multiple targets.
Hugging Mother Earth, the Irishmen suffered terribly. “The man on my right was literally cut in two by a shell,” Sacriste described the carnage. “The man on my left, had both legs cut off; the man in my front had a piece of his skull carried away, and the ground was covered with the dead and wounded.”
From the saddle, Capt. George Leppien directed his guns crews as “the battery was in full play,” Stevens noticed. Suddenly a Confederate shell exploded beside Leppien; shrapnel “struck his [left] leg not far from the ankle joint[,] nearly severing the foot,” Stevens recalled.
Solid shot bounced and rolled around Leppien’s cannons and crews as shells exploded overhead and sprayed deadly steel shards across the field. “Men and horses of our [5th Maine] battery were mowed down with such rapidity,” Sacriste recalled.
Stevens briefly assumed command of the 5th Maine Battery. Then “he was hit or grazed by a shot or shell which felled him to the ground, tearing the clothing from his [left] side and giving him a severe shock with a slight flesh wound,” Stevens later wrote of himself in the third person.
Command devolved to 2nd Lt. Adelbert Twitchell. Moving from gun to gun, he pointed out targets and helped load and fire individual cannons.
As some soldiers evacuated wounded men to the field hospital set up inside the Chancellor House, Twitchell gradually ran low on men to work the cannons. One by one the guns fell silent — and sometime during that long hour, a bursting enemy shell shattered two of Twitchell’s fingers and wounded a leg.
Finally Twitchell relinquished command. A regular Army artillery officer, 1st Lt. Edmund Kirby, rode out to take charge of the battery, where five cannons now stood silent.
At the sixth cannon, Lebroke and Chase loaded and fired repeatedly. Of all the men whom Leppien had brought into that bloody field, only they remained standing. Watching as “another [enemy] shell exploded one of the ammunition chests” belonging to the 5th Maine Battery, Sacriste saw that all “but two noble fellows … remained at their posts.”
Behind Lebroke and Chase, Confederate bullets and shells had struck all 43 battery horses; the two soldiers lacked even a mule to hitch to a cannon.
Kirby appeared beside Chase and Lebroke; moments later a spherical case shot exploded, and a shard busted his thigh. Kirby collapsed beside the cannon. Asked by Chase if he should be evacuated to a Federal hospital, Kirby replied, “No, not as long as a gun can be fired.”
Confederate infantry started across the field to capture the 5th Maine cannons. Chase and Lebroke switched to canister. They fired repeatedly — then a solid shot struck and busted the cannon’s muzzle.
The 5th Maine Battery fell silent.
Chase realized the game was up. While Lebroke ran to the nearby 116th Pennsylvania to find help, Chase again offered to remove to safety the broken Kirby, who replied, “No, not until the guns are taken off.”
Responding to Lebroke’s plea, Sacriste, after “seeing the enemy’s infantry advancing, called on my comrades to follow me.” He led his men “into the face of Stuart’s men” to retrieve Chase’s cannon. The Pennsylvanians tied ropes to its front and, with Chase and Lebroke lifting its rear, dragged it to safety.
Other Irish Brigade soldiers took the hint. Bringing ropes as they scrambled across the field, the infantrymen hauled away the remaining cannons and caissons.
Twenty-six years later, Sacriste received the Medal of Honor for rescuing Chase’s cannon.
After pushing his cannon from the field, John Chase ran across the human- and horse-strewn field to retrieve the badly wounded Kirby. As the field hospital, Kirby confirmed Chase’s and Lebroke’s identities.
“If ever two men have earned a Medal of Honor, you have, and you shall have it,” Kirby promised Chase.
The 5th Maine Battery lived to fight another day. “With great exertion the battery was brought [across the Rappahannock River] to White Oak Church, refitted, and a large detail obtained from the infantry was drilled and made efficient” in cannon handling during the next few weeks, Stevens recalled.
On Friday, May 8, he sat down in the battery’s camp to write the “Monthly Returns for the month of April” and “a list of killed and wounded … in the recent action of May 3, 1863.” In his report to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon, Stevens listed the butcher’s bill by rank, name, and KIA or WIA status.
Stevens tallied six men killed and 18 men wounded. Leppien lost his left leg, Adelbert Twitchell his shattered fingers. Four privates lay dead, and four lost limbs. Sgt. William Locke lay dead, as did Corp. Benjamin Grover.
Leppien lingered in agony before succumbing to his gangrenous wound on Sunday, May 24. Not long before Chancellorsville, he had received a lieutenant colonel’s commission; had he survived, he would have shifted to brigade staff.
Evacuated to an Army hospital in Washington, D.C., after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Edmund Kirby suffered terribly from his wound. On Saturday, May 23, President Abraham Lincoln toured the hospital and met Kirby.
Gangrene led doctors to amputate Kirby’s leg; the toxins overwhelmed the young hero’s immune system. Before dying on Thursday, May 28, Kirby kept his promise to Chase by telling Army officials — and perhaps Lincoln — how Chase and Lebroke had saved their cannon at Chancellorsville.
The war-battered Chase received the Medal of Honor on Feb. 7, 1888, almost 25 years since he was about the last man standing when Confederate troops finished with the 5th Maine Battery.
The citation read: “Nearly all the officers and men of the battery having been killed or wounded, this soldier with a comrade continued to fire his gun after the guns had ceased. The piece was then dragged off by the two, the horses having been shot, and its capture by the enemy was prevented.”
Lebroke never received his Medal of Honor.
Read the full version of this column at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.