One of the most important artifacts on display in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center is the Medal of Honor awarded to John F. Chase. This prestigious decoration was awarded to Chase for his heroic actions on May 3rd, 1863, the most terrible day of fighting at Chancellorsville.
Chase was only 19 years old when he volunteered to join the Union Army. He was part of the first wave of soldiers to answer Lincoln's call for volunteers, and only expected to serve 90 days. He fought in the first battle of Bull Run with the 3rd Maine Infantry, and when his term of service ended, he reenlisted for three years and was assigned to the 5th Maine Light Artillery. He fell ill with typhoid and missed the fighting at Antietam and Fredericksburg, but returned to his unit in March of 1863. Shortly after his return, the Union Army set out on campaign to attack the Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces again at Fredericksburg. While maneuvering through the Wilderness, the Union Army was attacked by the Confederates, which ignited a three-day battle at Chancellorsville.
The battle culminated on the morning of May 3rd with an artillery barrage of the Union position around Chancellorsville. As the Confederate Army closed in around the Federal position, an artillery line was thrown together around the Chancellorsville tavern in an attempt to hold off the attackers. The 5th Maine Artillery was ordered to take a position in the orchard by the Chancellorsville tavern, but while they maneuvered into place, half the horses pulling the cannon were killed, until only three of the six guns could be used. Chase wrote later of the battle, "We had to place our guns by hand, and open fire on the enemy's batteries, which were masked on a wooded ridge about 200 yards in our front, and on several regiments of Confederate infantry to the right and left. Our orders were, 'Fight your guns to the death!'"
Over the course of the fight, more and more men from the battery were killed or wounded, until only two of the six guns could be fired. The commander, Captain George Leppien was mortally wounded and carried off the field, to be replaced by Lieutenant Edmund Kirby from the 1st US Battery, who lost his leg shortly after taking command. He refused to be carried off the field, insisting he stay to watch as the last two gunners of the battery, Private John Chase and Corporal James Lebroke continued firing their single cannon. "We fired our cannon several times alone. The enemy was charging up to capture our guns, but we kept up the fire of that one gun."
Seeing the vulnerable battery alone on the field, General Winfield S. Hancock ordered several Pennsylvania regiments forward to rescue the guns and prevent their capture by oncoming Confederates. While being evacuated from the field, Lieutenant Kirby told Chase and Lebroke, "If ever two men have earned a Medal of Honor, you have, and you shall have it." Lt. Kirby made his report in the ambulance, and died shortly after from his injuries.
Twenty-eight members of the 5th Maine Artillery were killed or wounded during the fight around Chancellorsville on May 3rd, 1863. Chase survived the battle unscathed, but at the next battle in Gettysburg, he was badly injured on Culp's Hill on July 3rd, 1863. Chase lost his right arm, left eye, and sustained 48 shrapnel wounds from an artillery shell that exploded close to him. After the battle his body was loaded onto a wagon for burial, but he was later discovered to still be alive. Upon regaining consciousness, he reportedly asked, "Did we win the battle?" Chase surpassed all expectations, survived the war, and lived to the age of 71. He is often described as having more wounds than any surviving soldier of the war.
Chase's original Medal of Honor was the 1862 design featuring a five-pointed star and eagle hung from a red, white and blue ribbon. When the 1904 "Gillespie" design of the medal was released, recipients of the original medal were invited to exchange theirs for the new design. Chase made this exchange, and his descendants donated his new medal to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on the 146th anniversary of the battle of Chancellorsville.
Text by Maureen Lavelle
Last updated: July 16, 2016