Moments after a Confederate bullet struck him in the face, 2nd Lt. James J. Chase tumbled downslope to sprawl among his 32nd Maine Infantry Regiment comrades.
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 Capt. H.R. 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 not 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 too late for a doctor; “before he reached me all nature was to me a blank.
“I had looked upon my wife (Drusilla) and little ones (daughters Jenny 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.”
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.