Soldiers’ harrowing tales shared at park
Henry Fleming and John Chase risked all simply to buy time.
Both experienced their first combat in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Fleming, a creation of novelist Stephen Crane, turned tail and ran upon confronting unimaginable horrors.
Chase, an actual 20-year-old Maine farm boy and soap boiler, stood his ground until Confederate infantry closed within 150 yards, well within rifle range.
The men’s tales figured prominently in programs that book-ended events at the Chancellorsville battlefield of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Saturday—150 years and one day after the terrors each man described.
That historical moment may have been the bloodiest morning of the entire Civil War. For about 5 hours between 6 and 11 a.m. May 3, 1863, a man fell dead or wounded every second at Chancellorsville—18,000 in all.
In “The Red Badge of Courage,” Crane “lays it all bare for people to see,” John Hennessy, the park’s chief historian, told 172 people from many states on a 9 a.m. special tour of the woods from which the novelist drew his inspiration. “It was provoking and shocking to people at the time. Now, everything is ‘Hollywoodized’; we’re exposed to gore every day.”
Crane’s starkly realistic novel was unlike anything that had preceded it, Hennessy said. The book’s depiction of warfare is more akin to what viewers saw in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” than to the romanticized “Gods and Generals,” Hennessy said.
Penned in 1894–95, it was particularly distressing to Civil War veterans, the men who controlled U.S. politics and commerce. They were accustomed to more genteel, romantic Victorian descriptions of the battles in which they’d taken part.
“Few soldiers wrote about the other side of courage, which is fear,” Hennessy said. “Crane’s book remains among the most important in American literature because he did. Crane wrote about what was inside these men.”
Yet he was born after the war and apparently never set foot in Virginia. How could he know the place so well?
Crane, who was only 24 when he wrote the book, was a good researcher and devoured the soldiers’ battle narratives then being published in Century magazine. But most crucially, he’d heard many a veteran of the 124th New York Infantry who lived in his hometown, Port Jervis, N.Y., tell of their experiences.
The novel had been ruminating in his mind since childhood, one biographer said.
The area where the men of the 124th New York dug in overnight and then held off Robert E. Lee’s advancing Confederates was in the woods of Spotsylvania’s “Wilderness” along Bullock Road near the national park’s Chancellorsville Visitor Center.
Crane’s protagonist, Fleming, initially turns coward and flees, but ultimately redeems himself in subsequent combat. So the novel, while vividly conveying the slaughter and senselessness of war, has a happy ending.
It wasn’t quite that way for Pvt. John F. Chase, the Maine artillerist whose battle moments were sketched out Saturday in an end-of-the-day talk at the Chancellor House ruins by historian Greg Mertz.
After seeing the rest of the 5th Maine Battery’s men be killed or wounded, Chase and a corporal—the only two remaining cannoneers—stuck by its last working gun. Determined not to let the enemy seize their artillery piece, they bought their Union brethren a bit more time to withdraw north to cross the Rappahannock River to safety at United States Ford.
“We could have gone to the rear and carried honors with us, but we had made up our minds to lie there on the battlefield with our dead comrades, and fight the last gun to the death,” Chase wrote in a 1907 account.
Men with the Irish Brigade charged in at the last moment and helped Chase and Cpl. James Lebroke pull the gun off the field as their battery commander lay bleeding to death nearby, urging them on. That officer’s example, of “putting duty before life,” as Chase put it, obviously inspired the Maine private, Mertz said.
On Saturday afternoon, Chase’s descendants came from St. Petersburg, Fla., San Antonio, Texas, and Fort Wayne, Ind., to relive that moment, almost exactly 15 decades later. Chase, who was grievously wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg two months later, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Chancellorsville.
The farm boy from Maine would survive the war and ultimately live out his life in Florida, dying in 1914 at the age of 71. He was survived by his wife and six children.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029