I’m no fan of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain but I understand the appeal. His skillful mastery of controlling the narrative regarding his service in the war has made him a larger than life figure. The topic of his role at Gettysburg and how much control he really exerted over events at Little Round Top has been fiercely debated. But Gettysburg is far from the only battle where his story seems almost unbelievable. His dramatic telling of the events at the end of the war cemented his legacy, while opening himself up to even further scrutiny. March 29, 1865 contained one such tale.
On that morning the Army of the Potomac began extending their lines further to southwest of Petersburg to gain better position to assist Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s strike for the South Side Railroad. At 3:00 A.M., Maj. Gen. Gouveneur K. Warren’s V Corps stepped off along the Vaughn Road, bound for its intersection with Quaker Road south of Gravelly Run. Upon reaching this junction the infantry turned north, intent on cutting the Boydton Plank Road. Major General Andrew A. Humphrey’s II Corps meanwhile moved out of their entrenchments and took up position anchored on the south bank of Hatcher’s Run in support of Warren. Sheridan’s cavalry then would soon be in motion for Dinwiddie Court House with plans to operate past the point where the Confederate earthworks terminated.
Unfortunately the rain once more set in that afternoon, slowing the movement to a crawl. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant frustratingly remembered the delay: “Sometimes a horse or mule would be standing apparently on firm ground, when all at once one foot would sink, and as he commenced scrambling to catch himself all his feet would sink and he would have to be drawn by hand out of the quicksands.” He reluctantly ordered the construction of corduroy roads, a lengthy process that bought time for the Confederates to react.
Hearing news of the looming threat, Gen. Robert E. Lee began gathering all available reserves west of Petersburg. He directed Maj. Gen. George Pickett to bring his division to Sutherland Station on the South Side Railroad and link up with Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to protect the road network leading north from Dinwiddie Court House. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, whose undersized independent corps contained only Maj. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson’s Division, moved south from their fortifications anchored at Burgess Mill to engage Warren.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s brigade led the V Corps advance up Quaker Road as they advanced for the plank road. Just past Gravelly Run they slammed into Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise’s Virginians near a saw mill. The bluecoats pushed the Confederates back toward the Boydton Plank Road before a swift counterattack from Johnson’s reserves stalled their drive. Brigadier General Charles Griffin added more of his division to the fray as both commanders escalated their efforts in the growing battle around the Lewis Farm.
During the combat Chamberlain suffered a painful wound but attempted to rally his men forward. As he spurred his horse back toward the saw mill he outpaced his unit, many of whom continued to withdraw, and suddenly became alone among the enemy. “I found myself surrounded by Confederates, who courteously lowered their muskets and locked their bayonets around me to indicate a reception not easily to be declined, and probably to last some time,” he recalled.
Noticing his coat was nearly gray with mud, Chamberlain claimed to deceive his would-be captors into believing he was their commander. With a slight flourish of his sword he cried out: “Surrender? What’s the matter with you? What do you take me for? Don’t you see these Yanks right onto us? Come along with me and let us break ’em.” The fooled Confederates dashed straight into the waiting hands of newly arrived Federal infantry reinforcements who gladly took them prisoner.
If Chamberlain’s story is to be believed, this was the turning point that clinched the engagement for the Federals. The arrival of the V Corps artillery probably played a great role as well. As soon as they rolled into position, Col. Charles S. Wainwright could recognize their impact: “I did not see it myself, but I realized the scene fully, for as I heard the first report, the rebel yell ceased, and the next moment our men hurrahed.”
After two hours of fighting Johnson’s Division retired back to their entrenchments on the White Oak Road. At the cost of 375 casualties the V Corps now possessed the Boydton Plank Road. The Union army now stretched from the Appomattox River to Dinwiddie Court House. This tactical victory meant Grant only had the capture of the South Side Railroad remaining to isolate Petersburg.
Meanwhile Chamberlain had gained yet another debatable notch in his war record.