Medal of Honor: John Lilley

Grave of John Lilley, First Methodist Cemetery, Lewistown

The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.

First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.

This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.


Making my way around the cedar tree that protected the grave of Medal of Honor recipient John Davidsizer from the blowing rain, I scanned the cemetery, looking for the resting place of a second recipient who slumbered nearby. Roughly fifty yards away, I could see the stone marking his grave and carefully made my way among the stones and uneven terrain towards the tombstone. Note: More about John Davidsizer can be found here: John Davidsizer.

Having moved five rows westward and slightly closer towards Business Route 22, I respectively closed the distance towards the second Medal of Honor recipient resting within these sacred grounds. I humbly paused at the grave of John Lilley, a Medal of Honor recipient from Mifflin County. In this moment, only the sound of the wind blowing through the garden of stone and the occasional vehicle broke the silence.

John Lilley was born in Mifflin County in February 1826. The son of William and Cathy Lilley, John worked alongside his brothers on the farm operated by his parents in Granville Township, located west of Lewistown.

Lilley did not enlist at the beginning of the war. It would not be until August 27, 1864 when he answered Lincoln’s call for more volunteers and entered the service at Lewistown. On September 1, 1865 Lilley was mustered in as a Private in Company F 205th Pennsylvania Infantry.

The 205th  Pennsylvania was shipped southward and mostly did picket duty for the Army of the James before transferred to the Army of the Potomac for railroad defense. The unit would not see action until the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia when they participated in the Battle of Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865. Note: In some places, the Battle of Fort Stedman is referred to as the Battle of Hare’s Hill and in some histories it is written as Steadman.

The Siege of Petersburg had weakened the Confederate Army and residents of the city – the lack of supplies caused disease ran rampant. The Confederate forces under Major General John B. Gordon made one last attempt to break the Union lines. The pre-dawn attack on March 25 failed and the Union Army drove the Confederate Army back. The attack was the last serious attempt by Confederate troops to break the Siege of Petersburg.

In the early morning hours of March 25 the Confederate Army attacked Fort Stedman and captured it, but only managed to hold it for a short time. Due to several issues, including miscommunication and the starving soldiers stopping to eat the abandoned Union rations, the attack quickly fell apart. The Union forces at Fort Stedman fled to nearby Fort Haskell. The Confederates holding Fort Stedman began firing upon Fort Haskell and, believing Fort Haskell had fallen, Union forces began firing upon it too. The men at Fort Haskell quickly reorganized and recaptured the fort and drove the Confederate forces back.

On April 2, 1865, the 205th Pennsylvania was among the Union forces waiting along the Plank Road south of Fort Sedgwick. At daylight, the forces charged the fort. In Samuel Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, the attack on the fort is described in the report of Captain Joseph Holmes as: “The order was given to charge the enemy’s works at daylight, which was gallantly accomplished. The regiment captured Battery 30, with a number of prisoners; also one battle-flag fell into our hands, being captured by private John Lilly, (sic) of Company F, who acted very gallantly throughout the engagement. This flag was forwarded to General Hartranft’s headquarters, with a statement of its capture. Our colors were planted on the works, and remained there until the regiment was relieved.”

While Captain Holmes’ report mentions the capture of the Confederate flag, his citation reveals more about his bravery. Lilley continued forward, even after his regiment faltered, took the battle flag and several prisoners before realizing his unit had fallen back. Despite being alone Lilley brought the battle flag and prisoners to his commanders.

On May 20, 1865, Lilley was presented the Medal of Honor for his actions. The citation for his medal reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private John Lilley, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 2 April 1865, while serving with Company F, 205th Pennsylvania Infantry, in action at Petersburg, Virginia. After his regiment began to waiver Private Lilley rushed on alone to capture the enemy flag. He reached the works and the Confederate Color Bearer who, at bayonet point, he caused to surrender with several enemy soldiers. He kept his prisoners in tow when they realized he was alone as his regiment in the meantime withdrew further to the rear.”

The following day, April 3, the 205th Pennsylvania entered Petersburg and then continued to Burkesville Junction repairing the South Side Railroad as they went. After the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee they were sent to Alexandria where they remained until being mustered out on June 2, 1865.

Lilley returned to Mifflin County after being mustered out of service and resumed farming. On May 12, 1902, at the age of 77, John Lilley passed after being paralyzed for over a year. Sadly, legislation had passed in the state legislature to provide him $30 per month for his service only days before his death. His body was taken to Lewistown and buried within the sacred grounds of First Methodist Cemetery.

I finished paying my respects as a cold wind passed over the garden of stone. I left him on the hillside as I made my way down the hill to the warmth of the vehicle where mom waited to continue our journey.

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