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Petersburg Medals of Honor: Language More Forceful Than Elegant




Private, Co. F, 205th Penn. Inf.
Born in Oliver Township, Mifflin County, Pa.

As a soldier Private John Lilley, of Company F, Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania Infantry, was as good a fighter as he was emphatic in his speech. When there was an act of daring to be done on the field of battle, Lilley was certain to volunteer; when a bit of repartee or a cuss-word more expressive than choice passed around among the members of the regiment it could always be traced to Lilley as the original source. Both of these qualities gave him a certain standing among his comrades, and served him well in an incident at Petersburg, Va., April 2, 1865, which won for him unstinted praise.

The signal to charge had been given and the troops, among them the Two hundred and fifth Pennsylvania, rushed forward. Three fortifications were taken with great impetuosity and in quick succession. The Two hundred and fifth charged on a fourth fortification. Presently the discovery was made that all of the commissioned officers were remaining behind and the men at once fell back, but Private Lilley who was in the lead, refused to follow suit.

“What?” he shouted, “Go back? Not by a damned sight! I don’t care whether there are any officers with us or not. See that flag? I’m going to have that or croak.”

The colors he referred to were those on the rebel works, and, suiting the action to his words, Lilley rushed on until he found himself at the side of the rebel color-bearer. In an instant the private had his bayonet pointed at the rebel’s breast.

“You damned reb, surrender, or I’ll blow you to hell! ” The suddenness of Lilley’s appearance and attack amidst the smoke of the rifle fire so completely unnerved the rebel that he stammered out:

“Yank, for God’s sake, don’t shoot!”

Several others who were near by were also awed by Lilley’s sudden appearance and emphatic command, and when he said: “Give me that flag, and the rest of you throw down your guns, or I’ll make you think hell has broke loose,” the color-bearer and his companions wilted and complied with his request.

Lilley then stepped to their rear, and, with the captured flag in hand, said:

“Now march, and if you all don’t keep up a step that will be a credit to you and your lost cause, I’ll fill you full of Yankee lead!”

By a running fire of his choicest cuss-words Lilley kept the men going at a lively gait in the direction of the fortification last captured, when presently and to his surprise he found that there was not a Union soldier to be seen. The rebels, too, noticed the absence of Union soldiers, took courage, stopped and refused to go on.

“What?” exclaimed Lilley raising his gun, “You think you can monkey with me?” Here Lilley again brought into play his whole battery of oaths, and they rolled from his mouth with such ease and vehemence that this fire of oaths rather than his raised rifle cowed the poor rebels into submission and they again sullenly resumed the march.

“Now,” said Lilley, “don’t you damned rebs try to monkey with me again, or by thunder I’ll shoot every one of you!”

This last speech had its effect upon the men and no further rupture occurred until they had gone about half way to the fort, when a Union officer, coming out from his shelter, commanded Lilley to hand over the flag.

“Like hell I will!” exclaimed the plucky private, suspecting that credit for capturing it was coveted by the lieutenant.

“I am your superior officer and demand that flag,” repeated the lieutenant, with a supercilious air.

Flushed with anger and losing his temper, Lilley pointed his gun at him and said: “I’ll be damned if you get this flag!” and without further ado he marched his prisoners past the lieutenant to the fort, where he turned the captured trophy over to his colonel. He was about to make a little speech in his characteristic fashion, but the colonel, anticipating a flow of language punctuated with choice oaths, waved his hand and smilingly said: “That’s all right, Lilley, you’re a brave fellow; you are relieved from duty for the day and you shall be otherwise rewarded for your brave conduct.”


Read about even more Medal of Honor winners at the Siege of Petersburg:


  1. Beyer, Walter F. and Keydel, Oscar F. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor…, Volume 1 (The Perrien – Keydel  Company: 1901), pp. 521-522
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