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.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain commanded an infantry brigade in the 1st Division of General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps. However, his tactical movements were coordinated with those of artillery batteries at the front of Petersburg. The positions of the batteries can be precisely located on the battlefield, and they provide important clues regarding Chamberlain’s whereabouts.
The Artillery Brigade of the V Corps consisted of twelve batteries under the command of Col. Charles Wainwright. Three of these were specifically attached to Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s 1st Division—the 5th Massachusetts “E” Battery, commanded by Capt. Charles Appleton Phillips; the 1st New York Light “D” Battery, commanded by Lt. L. I. Richardson; and the 4th U.S. “B” Battery, commanded by Lt. J. Stewart. Early on the morning of June 18, General Griffin personally directed the placement of his three batteries, just to the south of the Baxter Road. The 1st Division artillery then moved forward in line with Sweitzer’s infantry brigade, which was advancing just to the north of the Baxter Road. Joshua Chamberlain’s first assignment of the day was to protect the three artillery batteries of the 1st Division. In order to do this, he had to stay near the Baxter Road.
Later in the day, after Chamberlain had crossed the Norfolk Railroad and was preparing to launch his attack on the entrenched Rebel line, he called for support from three of the reserve batteries of the V Corps—the 9th Massachusetts Battery, under Capt. John Bigelow; the 1st New York Light, Battery “C,” Capt. A. Barnes; and the 15th New York Light Battery, Capt. P. Hart. Specifics pertaining to the 9th Massachusetts guns are key to discerning Chamberlain’s location, because the colonel’s near-mortal wounding occurred directly in front of Bigelow’s position.
Having spent the morning advancing along the Baxter Road, Bigelow’s battery crossed the railroad on a bridge covered with rough wooden planks (the bridge having been burned by the retreating Confederates), halted in a place that was swept by the enemy’s guns, countermarched, and then sat along the railroad behind a slight ridge until mid-afternoon. When the battery was ordered into battle, they trotted down a wood road one eighth of a mile (220 yards) and up a slope, stopping at a crest that was about 300 yards from the enemy’s works. Chamberlain himself stated that the retreat of his supporting artillery batteries was precluded by the railroad cut immediately behind them. The distances and terrain features are crucial. There is only one location that matches the descriptions–the Baxter Road crossing.
Further evidence against a “Fort Hell” launching point for the 1st Brigade’s attack comes from Chamberlain’s own testimony placing Capt. Charles Mink’s battery on his right front, as well as his claim that he glimpsed Capt. Adelbert Twitchell’s IX Corps battery bastioning the slopes above, as he lapsed into unconsciousness. Both of these artillery placements were to the right of the Taylor house, north of the Baxter Road.
The particulars of the artillery positions at Petersburg provide strong testimony against a Chamberlain attack on Rives’ Salient from “Fort Hell.”
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.