“My Responsibility For These Men”: A Leadership Letter from Petersburg

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, c. 1864 or 1865

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has received criticism in recent decades for some of his writings which have been questioned for accuracy, purpose, and perspective. As a professor, educator, and gifted writer, Chamberlain seemed to seek a refuge in post-war writings – perhaps a way to deal with “soldier’s heart” and reinvent his memories.

Looking at his primary source letters and military correspondence written during the war can provide valuable information about his service and experience without the later lens of memory. One of my personal favorites from the Chamberlain war letters was penned on June 18, 1864, at Petersburg.

It reveals all the fine qualities of Chamberlain the man, the leader, and the writer. Written on the battle lines and not penned at leisure, the letter actually questioned the commanding generals’ judgement and orders. And that’s where it really fascinates me. Colonel Chamberlain, commanding a brigade, writes a respectful, questioning letter that gives benefit of doubt and implores his superiors to reconsider their orders. It mixes reproof and a request from a subordinate to those higher on the chain of command. It’s a mini-study in leadership and followership. Here is the full text of that letter:

Lines before Petersburg

June 18, 1864

I have just received a verbal order not through the usual channels, but by a staff officer unknown to me, purporting to come from the General commanding the army, directing me to assault the main works of the enemy in my front.

Circumstances lead me to believe the General cannot be perfectly aware of my situation, which has greatly changed within the last hour. I have just carried a crest, an advance post occupied by the enemy’s artillery, supported by infantry. I am advanced a mile beyond our own lines, and in an isolated position. On my right a deep railroad cut; my left flank in the air, with no support whatever. In my front at close range is a strongly entrenched line of infantry and artillery with projecting salients right and left, such that my advance would be swept by a cross fire, while a large fort to my left enfilades my entire advance, (as I experienced in carrying this position.) In the hollow along my front, close up to the enemy’s works, appears to be bad ground, swampy, boggy, where my men would be held at a great disadvantage under a destructive fire.

I have got up three batteries and am placing them on the reverse slope of this crest, to enable me to hold against attack. To leave these guns behind me unsupported, their retreat cut off by the railroad cut – would expose them to loss in case of our repulse. Fully aware of the responsibility that I take, I beg to be assured that the order to attack with my single brigade is with the General’s full understanding. I have here a veteran brigade of six regiments, and my responsibility for these men warrants me in wishing assurances that no mistake in communicating orders compels me to sacrifice them. From what I can see of the enemy’s lines, it is my opinion that if an assault is to be made, it should be by nothing less than the whole army.

Very respectfully,

Joshua L. Chamberlain

Colonel Commanding 1st Brigade, 1st Division. 5th Corps.

Several leadership and followership points come to mind as I’m reading this letter again on the eve of the fight’s anniversary:

  • First, beware of verbal orders when life and death (or other important matters) are at stake. Get it in writing…
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
  • Respectfully apprise the leader/boss of the full situation. Don’t assume they know all the details and remember that situations can change quickly.
  • Remind the leader of the available resources.
  • Don’t just provide a complaint or concern without presenting a possible solution.
  • A leader must ask the questions that his followers are not in a position to ask. (Chamberlain almost seems to write on behalf of his men.)
  • A leader who has a superior on the chain of command must sometimes take the followership duty of respectfully questioning and informing of a potential problem. Don’t be a “yes” follower when you’re seeing a problem.

Back to the history… As well-crafted as Chamberlain’s letter appears, it did not alter the orders from Generals Grant and Meade’s headquarters. Desperate to attack the lines around Petersburg, the original orders stood.

The colonel commanding the 1st Brigade tried to coordinate with other brigade officers for additional protection, but ultimately realized he was most likely making this attack with his command alone. Then, Chamberlain called together his regimental officers and explained the attack plan, particularly emphasizing the boggy ground in their front. Orders arrived from Meade to attack at 3 p.m.

Chamberlain had informed and protested. He had tried to gather flank support. He had conferred with his officers. Now, nothing remained except to wait until the moment to attack. He walked along the lines of his soldiers, most lying prone on the ground. Later, observers remembered the former professor turned soldier saying:

“Comrades, we have now before us a great duty for our country to perform, and who knows but the way in which we acquit ourselves in this perilous undertaking may depend the ultimate success of the preservation of our grand republic. We know that some must fall, it may be any of you or I; but I feel that you will all go in manfully and make such a record as will make all our loyal American people grateful. I can but feel that our action in this crisis is momentous, and who can know but in the providence of God our action today may be the one thing needful to break and destroy this unholy rebellion.”

Chamberlain’s leadership had tried to arrange for the charge to be avoided. But when that did not happen, he made a sincere effort to give the attack every chance of success – focusing on his men’s morale. Giving them something to hope and fight for. Based on his earlier letter to headquarters, Chamberlain fully doubted the charge’s success, but he did not say that to the men in the ranks. Once their fate had been signed, he focused on making their near-suicidal attack have the best possible chance for victory, if that were at all possible.

In the end, Chamberlain led his brigade on foot toward the Confederate fortifications. As he reached the dreaded boggy ground and turned to motion his followers to a safer route, a bullet slammed into his lower body, creating his most devastating injury from the war. The colonel paid part of the price for his commanding officers’ decisions that day at Petersburg. Still, he went “manfully,” and through both the battle accounts and his written letter to headquarters, made “such a record as will make all our loyal American people grateful.”

Sources:

(For a complete study with groundbreaking research on Chamberlain’s attack on June 18, I’d recommend Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered by Dennis A. Rasbach, Savas Beatie, 2016.)

Primary Sources copied from Trulock, Alice R. (1992.) In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War. (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.) Pages 202-207.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to “My Responsibility For These Men”: A Leadership Letter from Petersburg

  1. Ed Sargus says:

    Very good article.

  2. Michael Ryland says:

    A very good analysis. I have always found Chamberlain to be one of the most interesting of Civil War characters. The reserved, stuffy professor from a reserved, stuffy New England college who found a second calling as an astute military commander and strategist. Fully cognizant of the perils of war, he nevertheless knew that this war was necessary for the survival of the country he loved. I truly believe he hated war, but he did his duty.

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