To most of those who study the Civil War, the mention of Joshua L. Chamberlain conjures images of the 20th Maine’s stand atop Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. Chamberlain’s bayonet charge has certainly made him famous, but a new book seeks to address another of Chamberlain’s attacks—one that almost killed him.
By 1864 Colonel Joshua Chamberlain had been given a new assignment away from his Mainers. His new role put Chamberlain at the head of a brigade of Pennsylvanians during the Overland Campaign, Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody series of battles against Robert E. Lee. After failing at Cold Harbor Grant turned his sights on the key city of Petersburg to the south of the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond. If Grant could capture Petersburg, he would sever Richmond’s railroad links to the south. The Army of the Potomac swept down to the James River and approached the Cockade City.
On June 16 and 17, a series of attacks were launched against the Confederate defenses, manned by soldiers under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard. Though coming close, the Federals never could quite breakthrough. Final assaults were planned for June 18, including Chamberlain’s brigade of Pennsylvanians.
In his attack on June 18, Chamberlain was shot in the groin, a wound that many at first thought a mortal injury and which would plague him for his entire life until his death in 1914. That much, historians have agreed with. But where the debate begins is where exactly did Chamberlain’s attack occur.
The traditional narrative of Chamberlain’s attack is that his brigade moved against Confederate works at Rives’ Salient, known later as Fort Hell. That narrative held enough sway that a historic sign was put in to mark the general area where the attack supposedly took place.
Author Dennis A. Rasbach, however, disagrees. In researching the actions of an ancestor, something was not adding up to Rasbach, so he decided to dive deeper in Chamberlain’s attack. Though not a trained historian, Rasbach’s methodology to reach his conclusions can be held up as a perfect case study of how history should be done. Rather than parroting what historians and Chamberlain biographers have said before, Rasbach returned to the source materials. His conclusions prove, rather definitively, that Chamberlain did not attack at Rives’ Salient, but rather further to the north, near what would become the famed Crater about a month after his attack. Though short in pages, this book is packed with information.
Through each of his chapters Rasbach presents more evidence of why Chamberlain could not have attacked at Rives’ Salient. Other historians have claimed this prior thesis because Chamberlain himself believed he had attacked Fort Hell. But Rasbach’s research proves that the Mainer misremembered his actions—not surprising with the traumatic wound he suffered.
Towards the end of his book, Rasbach summarizes his research by boiling his narrative down to fourteen points of why Chamberlain could not have attacked at Rives’ Salient. I believe this to be one of the book’s strongest points; Rasbach did not just pick one or two facts to nitpick about the traditional narrative, but rather found the entire overarching story not adding up, and sought to find his own answers.
Especially welcomed in this book are the number of maps that accompany the text. The Siege of Petersburg has been a campaign that, until recently, really didn’t get the credit it was due, and the maps included in this text will greatly enhance the study of the early operations against the city.
Rasbach’s book is a welcomed addition to libraries of the Siege of Petersburg, of Chamberlain, or just people interested in how history should be done. Because, as Rasbach concludes, “If history is to be meaningful, it must be accurate” (160).
Dennis A. Rasbach, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered.
Savas Beatie, 2016.
254 Pages, footnotes, bibliography, index.