Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Booknotes: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign

New Arrival:
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, His Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered by Dennis A. Rasbach (Savas Beatie, 2016).

On June 18, 1864, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was grievously wounded during an assault on the Petersburg defenses. Not expected to live, he was rewarded with a field promotion to brigadier general, but he and his mustache survived (of course) to finish out the war and contribute to the JLC legend. The traditional interpretation, with an assist from Chamberlain himself, is that his command attacked the sector of the Dimmock Line called Rives' Salient. In 2014, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources erected signage on the supposed spot of Chamberlain's wounding, which has since sparked controversy over the accuracy of its location [there are some debates online, which you can google search and find yourself].

Using primary sources from both sides (including Chamberlain's own writings) and claiming to finally set the record straight, Rasbach's book exhaustively argues for a different location, nearly a mile away from the modern placard. In addition to the narrower focus on Chamberlain's role in the battle, the volume additionally serves as a broader history of the Fifth Corps involvement in the June 18 attack itself (at least that's what it looks like at first glance). Typical of the publisher, the text is accompanied by many photographs and 33 maps. A detailed walking tour of the ground is also included. Unfortunately for authors with the best of intentions, these kinds of books tend to draw knee-jerk reactions from those that have only read the title. One might imagine some JLC admirers carelessly assuming that Rasbach is impugning Chamberlain's honor by accusing him of untruthfulness, but the author really does claim that the general's mistake was an honest one.

If this stuff still sounds interesting to you, be sure to check out Brett Schulte's extended interview with the author on his fine website The Siege of Petersburg Online.


  1. Thanks for the write-up, Drew. I hope you will consider reading and reviewing this one. It is . . . fascinating.


  2. I should like to comment on that as I guess it was my knee that did the jerking. That my problem was first of all that I helped pay for the marker that was moved and had a lot emotionally invested in it. If he had simply written a book without moving the marker there would have been a lot less controversy.

    And secondly I also believed that Chamberlain made a mistake, that's not what I'm mad about, nor what I think impugned Chamberlain's honor, the author has continually accused me of only using Chamberlain as a source and using what Chamberlain said above all others, and that is not true, if you look at my argument you will see that not everything Chamberlain says I buy into, but I look at what everyone says as a whole and try to make sense of it.

    But yes indeed I do think Rasbach is impugning Chamberlain's honor. And I don't think Rasbach fully understands what he himself is saying and why it would be impugning Chamberlain's honor.

    If you look at Rasbach's map page 67 you will see that Sweitzer (along with Rasbach's great great grand relative) has saved the day at 3pm and not the 9th Corps, nor Crawford nor Chamberlain had yet to do much of anything to help out the grand old Sweitzer. According to this map, with Sweitzer out in front Chamberlain only had to move up next to him, and here is when Chamberlain would write this,

    Lines before Petersburg
    June 18, 1864
    I have received a verbal order not through the usual channels, but by a staff-officer unknown to me, purporting to come from the General commanding the army, directing me to assault the main works of the enemy in my front. Circumstances lead me to believe the General cannot be perfectly aware of my situation, which has greatly changed within the last hour.
    I have just carried a crest, an advanced post occupied by the enemy's artillery supported by infantry. I am advanced a mile beyond our own lines, and in an isolated position. On my right a deep rail-road cut; my left flank in the air, with no support what-ever. In front of me at close range is a strongly entrenched line of infantry and artillery, with projecting salients right and left, such that my advance would be swept by a cross-fire, while a large fort on my left enfilades my entire advance, (as I experienced in carrying this position.) In the hollow along my front, close up to the enemy's works, appears to be bad ground, swampy boggy where my men would be held at a great disadvantage under a destructive fire.
    I have got up three batteries and am placing them on the reverse slope of the crest, to enable me to hold against expected attack. To leave these guns behind me unsupported, their retreat cut off by the railroad cut, would expose them to loss in case of our repulse. Fully aware of the responsibility I take, I beg to be assured that the order to attack with my single Brigade is with the General' full understanding. I have here a veteran Brigade of six regiments and my responsibility for these men warrants me in wishing assurance that no mistake in communicating orders compels me to sacrifice them. From what I can see of the enemy's lines, it is my opinion that if an assault is to be made, it should be by nothing less that the whole army.

    Reading that while looking at Rasbach's map I do not understand how people are failing to understand that
    Chamberlain's reputation has been impugned. According to Rasbach Chamberlain is refusing to move up next to Sweitzer and lying about being alone and in front. This is not at all what I think happened you can see what I think here:

    PS the original marker placement was not meant to be the exact spot because they didn't want it in residential neighborhoods. The new spot is about the same distance away from where I think it should be but my problem with the second spot is now there is a highway in the way of getting from the marker to the spot.

    1. Hi Susan,
      Thanks for the comment. Be advised that this Booknotes post is nearly seven months old by now so you probably won't get any responses from the readers. For me, the topic lies outside my areas of interest, so I never did end up looking into it closely.

    2. No worries, I'm worn out from debating it anyway. I mainly wanted to clarify my thoughts on the matter in case people were thinking you were speaking of me.


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