“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 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. Named for the Chancellor House and the nearby intersection of the Orange Plank Road and Orange Turnpike, Chancellorsville lay within the tangled forest called The Wilderness.
There the armies battled on Friday and Saturday. Under the command of Capt. George Leppien, the 5th Maine Battery came late to the fight; late on May 2, Leppien ordered his six-cannon battery into camp between the Chancellor House and U.S. Ford, to the north on the Rappahannock River.
Earlier that Saturday, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had swung his troops west and north on the famous flanking maneuver that would be his last. Screaming the Rebel yell, Confederate infantry poured from the woods in late afternoon to shatter the Eleventh Corps commanded by Maine Gen. Oliver Otis Howard.
Despite isolated resistance offered by some well-led troops, Howard’s men skedaddled. Howard rallied whom he could, but refugees fled east past the Chancellor House — and Hooker realized his peril.
Darkness ended the fighting and led to Jackson’s friendly fire ambush by North Carolina infantry. Lee named James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart to command Jackson’s troops; an experienced cavalry leader, Stuart capably resumed the infantry attack against Hooker on Sunday.
He launched a three-division attack east along the Orange Plank Road about 5:30 a.m. Not far to the southeast, Confederate infantry probing the elevated terrain at Hazel Grove discovered it almost abandoned; Hooker had ordered Union artillery withdrawn from the one key position that he needed to hold.
Confederate troops filled the Hazel Grove vacuum, deployed 30 cannons along the crest, and with a clear field of fire northeast as far as the Orange Plank Road, opened fire.
Leppien and his men likely heard the battle din by dawn on Sunday. A Pennsylvanian stuck at the boring Fort Ethan Allen in Arlington, Va. 18 months earlier, he had lobbied Gen. William F. Barry, artillery chief for the Army of the Potomac, “for a captaincy” in a heavy artillery battery that would garrison forts being built “on the line of the Potomac.”
Leppien cited as his qualifications the 10 years that he spent “at a college in the city of Luneburg, Kingdom of Hanover” in northern Germany. “There [I] received an idea of military sciences.
“Since the beginning of the war here, I have improved, through study and practice, my military knowledge, which makes me feel competent to sustain the commission applied for with honor,” he informed Barry.
Rather than keep Leppien inside the Washington defenses, Barry immediately shipped him north to Augusta as the captain and commander of the 5th Maine Battery. Leppien took the outfit to war in April 1862; the 5th Maine Battery subsequently fought in several battles.
Among the men stirring in the battery’s camp before daylight on May 3 was Pvt. John F. Chase, born in Chelsea in April 1843 and employed as an Augusta soap boiler when the war broke out. The brown-haired Chase spent about eight weeks with the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment before receiving a medical discharge in June 1861.A sickly individual, he joined the fledgling 5th Maine Battery that November and spent the winter camping in Augusta.
Sickness continued to plague Chase; he missed Fredericksburg and the “Mud March” while home on medical leave. He rejoined the 5th Maine Battery on March 5.
Also up and moving on May 3 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, and now a few men from the 136th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment filled vacant positions.
By 8 a.m., a horse-mounted aide from Col. Charles Wainwright pounded into the battery’s camp. Wainwright temporarily commanded all Union artillery at Chancellorsville; he ordered Leppien to hurry to Chancellorsville.
Leppien and his gunners promptly vacated their camp.
“On arriving and [Leppien] reporting” to Wainwright, “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 realized that “the enemy’s line extended along the southerly edge of the field and into the woods at an estimated distance of 450 or 500 yards.”
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 east, the Irish Brigade had deployed to meet attacking Confederate infantry. Deployed nearest to the 5th Maine Battery was the 116th Pennsylvania; its sister regiments were the 28th Massachusetts Infantry and three New York infantry regiments — the 63rd, 69th, and 88th.
Comprised primarily of emigrant Irishmen, the brigade had survived slaughters at Antietam and Fredericksburg in 1862. Now the Irishmen maneuvered onto another killing ground.
“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.”
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.”
“General Stuart placed thirty cannons in position” to the west along the Orange Plank Road “and opened again upon us with telling result,” Sacriste remembered. Confederate gunners at Hazel Grove also targeted the Maine battery and the Irish Brigade.
As Leppien’s gun crews worked their cannons, solid shot and shell crashed around them. Perhaps outnumbered nine or 10-to-one in terms of Confederate artillery, 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 fell, some killed instantly, others wounded so severely that they screamed or neighed in agony.
“Men and horses of our [5th Maine] battery were mowed down with such rapidity,” Sacriste witnessed the horror engulfing his supporting artillery.
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 cannon to cannon, he pointed out targets and, as Maine and Pennsylvania gunners piled up around the guns, helped load and fire individual cannons.
Recent rains had soaked central Virginia. Each recoil hurled a cannon 10 feet backwards, and the heavy spoked wheels furrowed the muddy soil. Gunners struggled to push their cannons into firing position for the next shot; this inherent delay provided additional time for enemy sharpshooters and artillerists to target specific guns and men.
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 they fell silent – and sometime during the long hour that he battled about 60 Confederate guns, a bursting enemy shell shattered two of his fingers and wounded a leg.
Finally Twitchell relinquished command. A regular Army artillery officer, 1st Lt. Edmund Kirby, rode through exploding shells to take charge. As he reached the beleaguered 5th Maine, a cannonball tore a fore leg off his horse; after the poor beast collapsed, Kirby borrowed a pistol from a 5th Maine gunner and shot the screaming animal dead.
So many 5th Maine Battery gunners lay dead or wounded by now that five cannons stood silent. At the sixth cannon, Lebroke and Chase loaded and fired, loaded and fired, and loaded and fired.
Of all the men whom Leppien had brought into that bloody field perhaps 75 minutes earlier, only Chase and Lebroke remained standing. Watching as “another [enemy] shell exploded one of the ammunition chests” belonging to the 5th Maine Battery, Sacriste saw that only “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; he spoke perhaps only a few words before 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, an ordnance that turned their cannon into a giant shotgun. They fired repeatedly, perhaps several canister shells that likely wreaked havoc amidst the enemy troops.
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 Infantry to find help, Chase again offered to remove the broken Kirby to safety; declining any evacuation, Kirby replied, “No, not until the guns are taken off.”
Responding to Lebroke’s plea for help, Sacriste, after “seeing the enemy’s infantry advancing, called on my comrades to follow me.” He led the men from Co. D through enemy bullets and shells and “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.
With Confederate artillery fire thinning their ranks, too, many Irish Brigade soldiers witnessed Sacriste’s valiant gun-saving effort — and 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 body- and horse-strewn field to retrieve the badly wounded Kirby. As Chase left him with hospital attendants, Kirby confirmed his identity and Lebroke’s.
“If ever two men have earned a Medal of Honor, you have, and you shall have it,” Kirby promised Chase.
Hard-fighting Confederates would force Hooker to withdrew his Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock after dark on May 5, but 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.
Anticipating the promotion, Leppien had recommended in an April 8, 1863 letter to Gov. Abner Coburn that Stevens should command the 5th Maine Battery — and that he should receive a captaincy. “Through his studious habits, knowledge and due appreciation of military discipline he is worthy of trust and command,” Leppien wrote.
A hard-luck officer disliked by more than a few comrades, Stevens would forever immortalize the 5th Maine Battery as Stevens’ 5th Maine. The name stuck at Gettysburg, where the battery suffered 22 casualties: three killed, six missing, and 13 wounded.
Among the wounded was John Chase. As the 5th Maine Battery shelled Confederate positions on Thursday, July 2, a shrapnel shell exploded almost atop Chase. The detonation sprayed him with steel shards, blew off his right arm, and blinded his left eye. Doctors who later examined him — his comrades left Chase “dead” where he lay for two days — found 48 pieces of shrapnel in his body.
Surviving on the knife’s edge between life and death for the next few weeks, Chase eventually recovered. While other men died from lesser wounds, John Chase refused to join the ranks of the nation’s hallowed dead.
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. Lincoln expressed his concern about Kirby’s wound; Kirby shared with the president his worries about his sisters and their mother, a widow.
Gangrene led doctors to amputate Kirby’s leg; the toxins overwhelmed the young hero’s immune system. Kirby died on Thursday, May 28, the same day that Lincoln nominated him for promotion to brevet brigadier general of United States volunteers.
Before dying, Edmund Kirby kept his promise to Chase by telling Army officials — and perhaps Lincoln — how Chase and Lebroke had served 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 a Medal of Honor.
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.