June 22, 2018
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Lieutenant caught a bullet in his eye at ‘The Crater’: Part II

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

The charging 32nd Maine Infantry boys reached the mounded earth left after a Union mine exploded beneath Confederate lines at Petersburg, Va. on July 30, 1864.

“We at once took shelter in the deep crater … some jumped in, some tumbled in, others rolled in,” said Lt. James J. Chase, commanding Co. D. He jumped into the crater, where “beneath our feet were the torn fragments of men, while upon every side could be seen some portion of a man protruding from the sand.”

Chase and his comrades sheltered within the crater’s depths; the Maine boys, like too many other Union troops participating in the attack, went to ground rather than advance beyond the crater. If the soldiers had kept moving, they could have sliced through the gap and taken the war into Petersburg itself.

Sensing inactivity’s danger — Confederate gunners already hurled shells into the crater —  Mark Wentworth yelled, “Forward, Thirty-second Maine!” He pointed to where the crater protruded into Confederate territory; get up and get going, he urged his men.

They went, even as Chase saw “the sand constantly dropping before the enemy’s bullet’s” along the crater’s lip. Chase “hesitatingly … took a step forward to ascend the steep side … climbing over the fallen victims before me.”

Other 32nd Maine boys swarming around him, he crossed the lip; a Confederate bullet wounded Wentworth and then struck a Maine sergeant, leaving him with a wounded arm. “We now took shelter in a trench just outside of the fort, and returned the enemy’s fire, being our first shot during the battle,” Chase noticed.

Confederates suddenly “ceased firing”; Chase vividly remembered “the prolonged silence.” For a few minutes the battle’s outcome hung in the balance; Confederate reinforcements rushed to plug the shattered line, and if the Union boys could just move one more time, they could break the siege of Petersburg for good.

But terrible high-level leadership — Generals Ambrose Burnside and George Meade deigned to direct the attack from the actual battlefield — doomed the assault. Chase soon “climbed up a pile of earth … thrown up by the explosion.” He immediately spotted “a large body of the enemy forming in a deep ravine at the foot of the hill.”

Chase slid into the trench to warn Sargent, who had started crawling up “a pile of earth similar to the one I had climbed.” Chase stood still too long watching the captain. A Confederate “sharpshooter from the pine grove on our left” placed the young lieutenant in his rifle’s crosshairs.

“The bullet struck me near the left temple and came out through the nose at the inner corner of the right eye, throwing out the left eye in its course,” Chase reeled in agony. “Staggering and reeling I walked across the trench, the blood spurting before me from my wound.”

Vaguely seeing Capt. Joseph Hammond beside him, Chase said, “Captain, I must die.”

“Yes, Chase, you have a death shot,” Hammond replied.

As comrades checked on him, Chase begged “for a looking-glass.” Gazing into it, “I could see no resemblance to my former self. My left eye lay upon my cheek, while my nose appeared to be shot off.”

He asked for Sargent, then busy directing the defensive fire against the approaching Confederates. Chase reached for the captain’s hand and muttered, “I could not die without bidding you good-bye.”

Grasping the offered hand, Sargent assured Chase that “why, Lieutenant, you are going to die. Your wound is not as severe as it looks.” He ordered soldiers to pass “your water and whiskey” to him and “poured a canteen of water on my face, and placed another to my lips and told me to drink.

“At his command I drank the whiskey,” Chase admitted. “The blood from my wound ceased to flow so rapidly” after Sargent cared for him; then Sargent used a penknife to extract “some loose pieces of bone projecting from my nose into my remaining eye.”

“I want to save that eye, for it is a great blessing to have one if you can’t have two,” Sargent said.

He ordered Chase evacuated; Hammond and a sergeant “instantly seized” Chase and carried him across the bullet- and cannonball-flecked battlefield. Stopping briefly in “the ruins of the fort,” the two men wrapped Chase in an old blanket; “taking hold of” it, “one at each end, they redoubled their speed.

“Wrapped as close as I was, I could hear the bullets as they whizzed past,” Chase sensed. “Thus were my brave comrades running a great risk of their own lives to save mine.”

Soon “the blanket train arrived “at our lines in safety,” and his comrades transferred Chase to a stretcher. Carrying him to a waiting ambulance, they placed him in it — and “broke down from exhaustion.”

His right eye filled with blood, the blinded Chase learned from the ambulance’s driver that the time was about 8 a.m., slightly more than three hours since the mine’s explosion. “The driver started his horses,” Chase recalled; where only “my head was sore” moments earlier, “I shrieked with pain” as the ambulance jolted and careened toward a field hospital.

Seventeen-year-old James J. Chase would never rejoin the 32nd Maine Infantry. Neglected by the doctors, he lay in that hospital “within a few yards of an amputating table” through the afternoon and past sunset. “The hot sun poured down upon me; a swarm of flies covered my bloody face to add another straw to my misery.”

Finally, well after dark, a surgeon said, “Take that fellow with the wounded face.”

Chase passed out atop the operating table. He awoke to find his head bandaged “and the blood … washed from my face.” Evacuated to City Point on the James River, he was carried onto a steamer bound for Washington, D.C. With Chase went “all my earthly possessions”: his sword and “the bloody shirt and trousers I wore.”

Chase’s father soon arrived at the Army hospital where the wounded lieutenant received excellent medical care. The Chases later left for Maine; after arriving in Auburn by train on Thursday, Aug. 18, they went to board a carriage for the final journey home.

A woman passenger vehemently protested, “Don’t let him come in here; I can’t ride with such a horrid looking creature.” The Chases shifted to a Turner-bound stagecoach; the next day, friends gathered around the wounded James and watched as he examined his face in a mirror.

He saw the same “horrid looking creature” denied transportation by the shrieking passenger — and Chase did not blame her.

Within three months he had “recovered rapidly.” Though “the scars were still plainly visible,” he had “been endowed by nature with a nose of monstrous size,” and “it stood the test much better than I had anticipated.”

Chase joined Maine’s “Coast Guards” in January 1865 and served in Rockland until mustered from the ranks that July. He returned home, married, and had children.

But the explosion at The Crater followed him home. In the morning on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1872, “I was attacked with severe pain in my [right] eye, which increased through the day.” Having experienced similar bouts in the past, Chase expected the pain would subside.

“At sunset … all objects before me began to fade from my vision,” a frightened Chase realized. He called for a doctor too late; “before he reached me all nature was to me a blank.

“I had looked upon my wife (Drusilla) and little ones (daughters Jennie and Ella) for the last time.” Chase admitted. He groped to find and pick up his 3-year-old daughter (Ella), whom he would never “see” again.

Now permanently blind, “my burden seemed more than I could bear,” he commented three years later. “But … I now appreciate the many blessings bestowed upon me, which I am permitted to enjoy.”

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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