SOPO Editor’s Note: Medical doctor Dennis Rasbach became interested in his ancestor’s unit during the Civil War. In the course of his research, he realized the 21st Pennsylvania (Dismounted) fought in a brigade from the same division as that of Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He figured, naturally enough, that if he read about Chamberlain’s Brigade at Petersburg, he’d also be able to find out where his ancestor’s unit fought. He quickly realized, however, that Chamberlain’s own account from 30 years after the war didn’t really match up with many other accounts from the division as a whole. After some seriously intense research Rasbach knew he had an interesting topic on his hands, and decided to write a book. That book, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered, will be released by publisher Savas Beatie in early September 2016.
I was asked to read an advance copy of the book by the author around this time last year. The book did not yet have maps, but the author’s meticulous attention to detail and copious notes made me stand up and take notice. I’ve already seen some derision on message boards from JLC “fanboys” disparaging this book without ever having read it. Well, I HAVE read it, and it is a FANTASTIC book. In addition to laying out a case as to why Chamberlain wasn’t wounded where he thought he was, Rasbach has created a micro-tactical history of a Fifth Corps division on June 18, 1864 at the Second Battle of Petersburg. This is noteworthy due to the extreme lack of studies on this often misunderstood and pivotal battle.
Dennis was kind enough to grant me an exclusive interview about his new book. Read on. I hope you find his answers as fascinating as I did, and I hope you take the opportunity to pick up a copy of this important new study when it goes on sale in just a few short weeks.
AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS RASBACH:
BRETT SCHULTE: Dennis, thanks for taking the time to (virtually) sit down with me and answer some questions regarding your upcoming book.
- Before we dive right into the details, could you take a moment to describe your interest in the Civil War? How did it start? What led from that spark to your book topic?
DR: I grew up in Pennsylvania and visited Gettysburg as a boy. The artillery, rail fences, monuments, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, and getting to wear a souvenir Union officer’s hat captured my young imagination. In 1993, the Gettysburg movie and its heroic depiction of Chamberlain’s charge raised my interest level. About then I learned my great-great grandfather, Samuel Jewett Smith, was a veteran of the war. He enlisted with the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry at Chambersburg a few days after Gettysburg. This revelation made the war much more personal and sparked my drive to learn more. I was reading Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox when I realized many of the battles he wrote about were listed at the bottom of the military register I found in my dad’s attic. Company F, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry was attached to the Army of the Potomac from Cold Harbor to Appomattox.
I’m a surgeon and had no aspirations to become an author. My primary interest was the 21st Pennsylvania, which never served under Chamberlain. However, when the regiment met up with the army at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864, the dismounted Pennsylvanians were assigned to Col. Jacob Sweitzer’s brigade [Griffin’s division, V Corps]. Just five days later, Colonel Chamberlain was promoted to command Griffin’s newly-constituted 1st Brigade in the same division. For the next twelve days, the two units shared a common experience; they disengaged from the Confederates at Cold Harbor, snuck across the James River, and marched south to Petersburg.
My ancestor, Corporal Smith, and his commander, Colonel Sweitzer, are relative nobodies among Civil War luminaries, but Colonel Chamberlain is something of a rock star! I believed studying Chamberlain would help me better understand my ancestor’s history. But the more I read, the more I uncovered major discrepancies that seemed irreconcilable. That changed my focus to Chamberlain. My quest to understand where he was and what he was doing at Petersburg grew into this book.
- BRETT SCHULTE: The main focus of your book is the charge of Chamberlain’s Brigade during the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 18, 1864. Can you provide a little background as to how Chamberlain found himself attacking Confederate earthworks in front of Petersburg that day?
DR: After Cold Harbor, the army moved south across the James to attack the Confederate communications and supply center at Petersburg, where five railroads converged just south of the capital at Richmond. Petersburg was well protected by the Dimmock Line, a series of fifty-five artillery batteries along a ten-mile arc of works constructed earlier. These works were only thinly manned by some of Beauregard’s troops because General Lee was holding back the main force of the Army of Northern Virginia being unsure of U. S. Grant’s intentions.
Over the course of three days, five Union corps arrived outside Petersburg, one after another, and slowly pushed the outnumbered Rebel defenders back just east of the city, first from the Dimmock Line to a secondary line along Harrison’s Creek, and then, on the night of June 17-18, to a shorter third and final line that had been marked out by Beauregard’s chief engineer.
General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was the last Union corps to arrive. The V Corps was sent to the left flank of the Army of the Potomac. On June 18, 1864, a general attack was ordered. Joshua Chamberlain was part of that attack against Petersburg.
- BRETT SCHULTE: The traditional view of Chamberlain’s attack, promulgated by Chamberlain’s own recollections, appears to be that he attacked the Confederate lines at Rives’ Salient, near the Jerusalem Plank Road and near the future site of Fort Sedgwick. A competing view is that Chamberlain attacked to the north, near the Baxter Road. Can you briefly summarize the evolution of those views over the years?
DR: Chamberlain was severely wounded (many thought mortally) at Petersburg. He was taken to Annapolis, survived, and returned to the army nearly six months later. Because he was removed from the context of his attack, he was confused about the details and location. Decades later, he devoted considerable time trying to piece it all together, but he made some significant mistakes doing so. Chamberlain biographers picked up the narrative from their primary source (Chamberlain), and ran with it. Their writings and the power of the Internet entrenched this view as historical “fact” in the popular consciousness.
- BRETT SCHULTE: As I mentioned above, Chamberlain’s own writings mention that he attacked near “Fort Hell” (the future site of Fort Sedgwick) on June 18, 1864. What led you to start questioning Chamberlain’s recollections with regard to this matter?
DR: I read Col. William Tilton’s official report. He was serving as a regimental commander in Sweitzer’s brigade that morning, and was promoted to the command of Chamberlain’s brigade that evening after Chamberlain fell. The report places Sweitzer’s battle line north of the Baxter Road, which is about a mile away from “Fort Hell”— and he placed Chamberlain on his immediate left!
- BRETT SCHULTE: Explain to interested readers how you started to collect evidence that Chamberlain’s assault occurred at Pegram’s (Elliott’s) Salient, i.e. what became the Crater, rather than Rives Salient to the south.
DR: In reading The Petersburg Campaign: The Eastern Front Battles, I was struck by the authors’ vivid characterization of the attack of Griffin’s division. Their description clearly linked Chamberlain’s attack with that of my great-great grandfather’s regiment. In an attempt to flesh out the details, I telephoned the office of the publisher, Savas Beatie, and spoke to Yvette Lewis, who connected me with Bryce Suderow. In Yvette’s words, “Bryce is awesome—he knows everything!” She is not far off the mark!
I established a connection to Bryce and outlined my interest and the dilemma I had discovered. The network of connections later established through Bryce and the help he provided in locating key primary source materials opened a floodgate for me.
The second major piece was during the fall of 2014 when I met Julia Steele, the National Battlefield’s Cultural Resources Manager, on a bus tour commemorating the 150th anniversary of Grant’s Fifth Offensive. Besides a hands-on knowledge of the terrain, Julia turned out to have a deep personal and professional interest in the events of June 15-18, 1864. She is a veritable living catalogue of reports, maps, sketches, and photographs, all of which she was only too happy to help me. The pieces just started falling into place.
- BRETT SCHULTE: Did you have an “aha!” moment or two, one where you became convinced that Chamberlain’s Brigade attacked the future site of the Crater?
DR: Maybe a dozen! The evidence just kept mounting, from physical structures to other official reports, to various terrain features, and even Confederate activity and reports—it all fit together in only one way: Chamberlain attacked the future site of the Crater, not a mile away as nearly everyone believed. It was and is very compelling.
- BRETT SCHULTE: One of the reasons the actions of Griffin’s Division, V Corps might be so misunderstood today is the lack of reports by the two brigade commanders for June 18, 1864. However, William S. Tilton WAS there, assumed command of Chamberlain’s Brigade that evening after Chamberlain’s wounding, and wrote a report of the action that day. What was so important about Tilton’s Report?
DR: Chamberlain was removed from the field and Sweitzer was mustered out with his regiment just a few weeks later. Neither filed a report. Colonel Tilton’s report is especially significant because he was affiliated with both attacking brigades from Griffin’s division on June 18, and his descriptions are very clear and unambiguous. Of course, his account was written close in time to the event in question.
- BRETT SCHULTE: Talk a little bit about extant Confederate reports. You mentioned these contributed to your understanding of where Chamberlain’s Brigade was on June 18, 1864? How so?
DR: Bryce Suderow taught me (remember, I am not a trained historian) that you don’t have a complete picture of any battle until you’ve studied it from both sides. He provided copies of reports from a division commander named Bushrod Johnson. Johnson’s report (which was published in the Supplement to the Army Official Records) complements the Unpublished Report on the superb Brett Schulte Siege of Petersburg Online website (www.beyondthecrater.com), and filled in a large void because some of the text from the Unpublished Report was missing. Taken together, the accounts give us a fairly comprehensive picture of the attacks of Chamberlain and Colonel Hofmann in mid-afternoon, and of Sweitzer and others in the early evening—both from the Confederate perspective. The strong parallels with the Union accounts are very compelling.
- BRETT SCHULTE: In reading your book, there do seem to be several explanations for why someone recalling Chamberlain’s fighting on June 18, 1864 years later might have mistakenly believed they had been facing Field’s and/or Kershaw’s Confederate divisions that day. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
DR: Chamberlain claimed in his “Reminiscences” that he confronted Kershaw’s Mississippians, Georgians, and South Carolinians, as well as Alabama “friends” from Longstreet’s Corps—“companions of the symposium at Round Top the year before.” In other words, he fought troops from Lee’s army. Furthermore, he claimed these units had replaced Johnson’s division in the trenches early the previous evening, June 17.
However, Confederate sources make it clear that Johnson division of Beauregard’s department held the Harris Line until after dark on June 18; that Kershaw and Field were still at Bermuda Hundred on the evening of June 17; and that Field’s infantry moved from near Battery 34 on the south side of Petersburg on the morning of June 18 to the Baxter Road vicinity on the evening of June 18 without having seen any major action.
- BRETT SCHULTE: So if these two divisions didn’t see any major combat, as you claim in the book, is their evidence to support your claim?
DR: Yes, and plenty of it. I devoted an entire chapter to the subject.
- BRETT SCHULTE: Another way to prove Chamberlain did not attack at Rives’ Salient on June 18, 1864 is to pinpoint the locations of Ayres’ and Cutler’s Divisions of V Corps, and THEN pinpoint Chamberlain in relation to them. Could you tell us a little about that line of approach?
DR: Ayres’ 2nd Division of the V Corps held the left flank of the Army of the Potomac on June 18. He was opposite Rives’ Salient, but facing it from the east, not from the south. Ayres refused his line along the abandoned Confederate works at Batteries 21-24. Ayres never mounted an attack on June 18 because the terrain was flat and the distance was overwhelming. Things were even worse in those respects as you moved farther south.
Cutler’s 4th Division was to the right of Ayres. Henry Gawthrop, 4th Delaware, part of Hofmann’s brigade, drew a very elegant and precise map indicating the position of the regiments in his brigade on June 18. The right side of that brigade was opposite what later came to be known as the Otey battery, which was just south of the Baxter Road. This is very significant, because Chamberlain was to the right of Hofmann, which means that Chamberlain’s brigade was near the Baxter Road when it assaulted the Confederate line, and that was about a mile away from Rives’ Salient.
- BRETT SCHULTE: The location of the Union IX Corps on June 18, 1864, and more specifically Twitchell’s Battery, and its subsequent relief of Griffin’s Division of the V Corps (including Chamberlain’s Brigade, also seems to support your thesis. Can you talk a little bit about this?
DR: In The Passing of the Armies, Chamberlain claimed he spotted the battery of his old friend Twitchell on the slopes above Rives’ Salient as he lapsed into unconsciousness after his wounding. Twitchell’s battery, however, was attached to Burnside’s IX Corps, which was operating north of the Taylor ruins which were north of the Baxter Road. Twitchell was nowhere near Rives’ Salient on June 18. If Chamberlain truly did see him, then he had to be in the vicinity of the Baxter Road and Pegram’s Salient. There is much more, and it is absolutely fascinating.
- BRETT SCHULTE: Proponents of the Rives’ Salient theory like to point to Chamberlain’s observation of a large fort on his left manned with heavy guns, saying this must be Fort Mahone. What’s your reaction to this?
DR: A close reading of Chamberlain’s own words contradicts that—but you have to understand ALL the terrain in that sector. In Lines before Petersburg, which Chamberlain wrote on June 18, 1864, he says: “I am advanced a mile beyond our own lines and in an isolated position. On my right a deep railroad cut; my left flank in the air, with no support whatever. In my front 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 to my left enfilades my entire advance. . . . In the hollow along my front close to the enemy’s works, appears to be bad ground, swampy, boggy.”
Fort Mahone certainly has the potential to fit the bill as a large fort on the left, but there was no deep railroad cut anywhere near the southern front of Rives’ Salient, nor was there swampy ground to the front of a position 300-500 yards south of the Confederate line along the Jerusalem Plank Road. The terrain there is more of a flat plateau. The description fits quite well if the projecting salients are taken to be the future site of the Otey battery and Pegram’s Salient, the large fort to the left is Rives’ Salient.
- BRETT SCHULTE: The Taylor House, opposite what was to become the Crater, seems to have been a very busy place on June 18, 1864. How many Union units were there, and how were they positioned?
DR: Parts of three divisions of two Union corps found themselves clustered around Taylor’s chimney, one of the few 19th century archaeological ruins remaining today on the battlefield. The historical records give very satisfying explanations of how these units managed to simultaneously traverse and occupy this prime piece of battlefield real estate.
- BRETT SCHULTE: A person reading your book is logically going to wonder how successful you were at pinpointing the site of Chamberlain’s wounding. What degree of accuracy did you achieve, and how far off is the modern day marker in a Petersburg subdivision from where Chamberlain really fell?
DR: Chamberlain claimed he located the site of his wounding with a margin of error of 20-30 feet by using the railroad and the well-remembered church spires of the city to guide him when he revisited the battlefield for the first time eighteen years after his charge. Sadly, both he and the marker that purports to memorialize his wounding and promotion appear to have missed the mark by about a mile. I don’t pretend to be able to precisely pinpoint the spot, but I have a high level of confidence that the wounding very likely occurred at the bottom of a ravine between the current Winfield Road and Siege Road, within the National Battlefield boundaries. I have a lot of evidence for this in the book.
- BRETT SCHULTE: Near the end of your book, you mention a gathering of Petersburg students to help you in your research. Who was there, and how did they help you explore the Petersburg battlefield?
DR: I would prefer to characterize this gathering more as an assembly of professors without academic appointment, than as a group of “students.” The group consisted of Bryce Suderow, “the General,” who marshaled the troops, and kept the big picture before us; Julia Steele, archaeologist and Cultural Resources Manager at Petersburg, the scout with an intimate knowledge of the local terrain; Phil Shiman, technical specialist with expertise in photographic image enhancement and analysis, with his faithful sidekick, Lila the dog; David Lowe, historian and National Park Service GIS specialist, who discovered with GPS something very surprising about the location of the Chamberlain marker; and my wife Ellen, and sister-in-law Mary, both novice historians along for the Appomattox Sesquicentennial celebrations.
- BRETT SCHULTE: How long have you been working on collecting and sifting through primary sources on the events of June 18, 1864 at the Second Battle of Petersburg? You have an impressive bibliography, one that is needed for a micro-tactical account such as this one.
DR: The research, writing of most of the first draft, and map-making (Hal Jespersen crafted amazing maps for me) were completed in about a year, but I had been doing a lot of general reading for some time. I know that a year seems very fast—and it is. There are three reasons for this. First, I had an intense, almost all-consuming focus that drove me to spend countless hours in single-minded pursuit, as my wife will ruefully attest. Second, the subject is also very narrow—like my friend, an ophthalmologist, who knows everything there is to know about one square inch of the human body, I like to think I have achieved nearly complete mastery of the events in a sector of a single battle on a single day in the Civil War. Finally, I was privileged to work with an outstanding group of collaborators who provided a rich and virtually constant stream of primary source materials for my consideration. It would have taken me many years without their help.
- BRETT SCHULTE: What did you find most enjoyable about the researching and writing of this book?
DR: The thrill of repeated Eureka! moments, the making many new friends and the joy of collaborating with people who shared my interest and who eventually affirmed my work.
- BRETT SCHULTE: In books like this one, the terrain is critically important, so good and frequent maps are a necessity. You’ve mentioned to me that the maps were done by the always excellent Hal Jespersen. Can you describe what it was like working with him, especially when such detail is required?
DR: You’re right-on with your comment about the critical importance of the terrain and the maps! I think good maps are absolutely essential to understanding the issues that I was trying to resolve in this book. I often struggled to comprehend words in printed format, only to have the clouds magically disappear when I looked at a map. And the making of maps takes things to a whole new level.
Hal is amazing. He completed and delivered 20 original, highly detailed topographical maps in less than four months—despite my frequent requests for revisions and corrections, which must have been very trying to his patience. Hal preferred working visually, from mark-ups of base maps and prior drafts. I liked sending complex verbal descriptions and explanations. Fortunately, he stuck with me. Everyone who sees them is blown away. I think they are his finest, but I am a bit biased.
- BRETT SCHULTE: How can readers learn more about your book? Do you have a blog or web site dedicated to the book and its topic?
DR: In all seriousness, there is no better way to learn about this book than to read it. It unfolds like a detective story, one fact built upon another, with lots of graphics supporting the effort. My publisher has a great website [www.savasbeatie.com] and there are (or will be) an excerpt and sample maps there.
- BRETT SCHULTE: You’ve done a superb job sifting through primary sources to pinpoint the locations of the Union V Corps brigades on June 18, 1864 along with their Confederate counterparts. Have you considered extending this line of research to the entire Second Battle of Petersburg? If that’s not in the cards, what else do you have planned in the future? I for one would definitely like to see more of your work, especially if it focuses on the Siege of Petersburg in some way. I can count the number of micro-tactical histories of the Siege of Petersburg on one hand, with fingers to spare.
DR: At this point, I am unsure what lies ahead. When I finish this, I’ll be spending more time with my wife. After I retire from medicine, I might continue to follow the trail of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, unless General Suderow directs me elsewhere!
- BRETT SCHULTE: To end this interview, I’ll ask a question that I often hear asked by those not interested in traditional military history. Why should readers care about exactly where a single brigade attacked on a single day during the Siege of Petersburg? In other words, why should readers buy your book?
DR: Another great question, Brett. First, a single brigade did not attack alone. It was a much larger and much more complicated effort, and a lot of the things I turned up your readers will have never read, so there is much here that is fresh and new. But I think more importantly—and Bryce stresses this in his Foreword—this is as much about the historiography of the Civil War as it is about where Chamberlain attacked and fell. What we think happened at various times and places often isn’t so, and many writers simply copy what others wrote before them, compounding mistake after mistake.
As a non-historian, I was struck by the lack questioning, and the surprising willingness of many just to accept something as true. I think we have a responsibility to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism in all walks of life. We need to reexamine primary documents with a critical eye and carefully evaluate them against previously unpublished reports, new archaeological discoveries, GPS data, and aerial or satellite images. If history is to be meaningful and real, it must be accurate. Facts do matter, and we should always care enough to be willing to exert ourselves to uncover truth, and then hold it high.
One final lesson is the power of cooperation. This book was written by a physician, not a historian or an author. It was serendipitously conceived and brought to completion in about a year with the cooperation of a collegial group of interested and willing collaborators. We need more of this spirit, in medicine, history, politics, and business—in all fields of human endeavor.
If you made it this far, we must have hooked you! 😉 Be sure to check out my permanent page for the book at The Siege of Petersburg Online and of course go buy the book!