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.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was one of the best known figures of the American Civil War and a Medal of Honor recipient. His name is most closely associated with Little Round Top at Gettysburg, where he famously refused his line on the extreme left flank of the Union line, making a courageous bayonet charge that saved the day for the Union army.
During the course of the war, Chamberlain served in twenty-one battles, had five horses shot from beneath him, and was wounded six times—most seriously at Petersburg, while leading a charge as a brigade commander on June 18, 1864. In that engagement, he was shot through the pelvis with a Minie ball, an injury that was expected to end his life. To recognize his service to the Army of the Potomac before his death, General Grant honored Chamberlain with a rare “on the spot” promotion to the rank of brigadier general.
Chamberlain was evacuated from the field at Petersburg in shock, spending several months at the U.S. General Hospital in Annapolis, before returning to military service five months later. He went on to serve honorably in numerous engagements, and was granted the honor of presiding over the formal surrender of the Confederate infantry at Appomattox.
Joshua Chamberlain did not publicly reflect on his experience at Petersburg until 1899, thirty-five years after his engagement there, when he wrote “The Charge at Fort Hell.” In that manuscript, and in a subsequent newspaper interview, he claimed to have initiated his assault from the future site of Fort Sedgwick, more familiarly known to the “boys” as “Fort Hell.” The target of his attack was supposedly Rives’ Salient, the point where the newly-constructed Harris line of Confederate trenches linked up with the Dimmock line of fortifications surrounding the city of Petersburg on three sides. There, Chamberlain claimed to have advanced against hardened veterans of General Robert E. Lee’s army, under heavy enfilade fire from Fort Mahone, coming within twenty feet of breaching the Rebel works on a bayonet charge.
Chamberlain’s spellbinding account of his involvement at Petersburg was picked up and passed down by numerous biographers, including Diane Smith, who wrote Chamberlain at Petersburg: The Charge at Fort Hell, June 18, 1864 (2004). Smith’s narrative has Chamberlain attacking “isolated” and “on his own” along the Jerusalem Plank Road, a mile away from the rest of the Army of the Potomac.
On November 8, 2014, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources erected a Medal of Honor Recipients marker at the intersection of East South Boulevard and Fort Mahone Street near South Crater Road in Petersburg to commemorate Chamberlain’s wounding and “on the spot promotion.” But, did the marker miss the mark?
Now, 150 years after the charge, details of Chamberlain’s narrative are being seriously called into question, as analysis of primary source documents from Chamberlain himself, and from others on both sides of the battlefield, are brought to bear, along with LIDAR imaging, GIS technology, and sophisticated topographical mapping. As it turns out, Chamberlain probably never set foot on the ground of “Fort Hell” during the entire Civil War, and his attack was more likely a mile to the north, near the Baxter Road.
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.