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. Dr. Rasbach was kind enough to agree to several posts about his book which will appear here in the next few weeks, one of which appears here.
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain left a series of detailed clues describing the launching point of his June 18, 1864 attack:
- “On an outlying crest”; “drew the men back to gain the shelter of the crest” (Reminiscences of Petersburg and Appomattox)
- “On my right, a deep railroad cut” (Lines before Petersburg)
- “I must advance not less than 300 yards from this point” (The Charge at Fort Hell)
- “In the hollow along my front . . . bad ground, boggy, swampy (Lines before Petersburg)
- “Mink was across the railroad cut firing into the ice house to my right front” (The Charge at Fort Hell)
These points are very revealing, given the topography of the battlefield.
The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad curves as it approaches Petersburg, changing from an east-west, to a north-south orientation. As the track moves northward, it gains proximity to the Harris line of Confederate defenses, which is aligned on an almost vertical north-south axis. At Pegram’s Salient, north of the Baxter Road, the railroad is roughly 400 yards from the railroad cut; at Rives’ Salient, the distance is closer to 1500 yards.
The “Deep Cut” of the Norfolk railroad is primarily north of the Baxter Road, in front of the Taylor house and Pegram’s Salient.
Captain Mink’s artillery battery was positioned to the Union right of the Taylor house, north of the Baxter Road, on the afternoon of June 18, more than a mile north of Rive’s Salient.
There was an ice house at the Taylor plantation, described in multiple primary sources. No such structure is even mentioned in the vicinity of Rives’ Salient
The ground in the ravines near the Baxter Road is low and swampy, at the confluence of multiple tributaries of Taylor’s Branch (Poor Creek), whereas the ground in front of Rive’s Salient is a flat plateau between the Taylor’s Branch and Blackwater Creek watersheds.
In order for Chamberlain’s attack to have originated, as he says, with his right flank simultaneously on the “Deep Cut” of the Norfolk Railroad and 300-400 yards from the Confederate entrenchments, in proximity to an icehouse and Mink’s battery, with swampy ground in the ravine below (which prompted him to order, “Incline to the left,” as he fell), it must have occurred near the Baxter Road and Pegram’s Salient. These conditions are simply not to be found at the Jerusalem Plank Road and Rives’ Salient.
To learn more, go check out Dennis Rasbach’s new book, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered.