Special thanks to Brian Swartz for discussing the primary source quote with me and confirming that there should be a blog post about it!
It had been a while since I’d seen a new Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain anecdote that I wasn’t already familiar with, but I found an interesting one the other day in Jane Gray Swisshelm’s memoirs! She was a volunteer nurse (Union), and she wrote an autobiography which was published in 1880, titled Half A Century. (More about her and her writings later this year!) The following incident occurred as Swisshelm was en route to Fredericksburg during the opening days of the Overland Campaign in 1864.
“After some time this surgeon brought and introduced Col. Chamberlain, of Maine, evidently an invalid, and a man of the purely intellectual type. Two other surgeons were with him, and all three endeavored to persuade him to return to Washington, as his lack of health made it very dangerous, if not quire useless, for him to go to the front. I thought the surgeons right; and told him I feared he was throwing away his life, in an effort to do the impossible.
He explained that he was in command of a brigade of eight regiments; that in them were hundreds of his neighbors and pupils, for he had resigned a professorship in a college to enlist. Said he knew his own constitution better than any one else could know it; knew he would be stronger when he reached his post, and that the danger would be in any attempt to keep out of danger — the danger which his men must face.
Turning to me he said: “If you had eight children down there, you would go them, if you could!”
We arranged that if he should be wounded so as to suffer a thigh amputation, he should let me know, that I might nurse him through.”[i]
There are some questionable points in this dialogue/interaction, and it’s not quite clear if perhaps Jane Swisshelm misremembered when she wrote her memoirs or if Chamberlain was exaggerating. For example, Chamberlain was not going to take command of a brigade of eight regiments. At the beginning of June, he would take command of the 1st Brigade in the 1st Division of the V Corps which had six regiments from Pennsylvania. The “hundreds of his neighbors and pupils” is certainly a stretch, though a few members of the 20th Maine Regiment would qualify for his hometown locals, and the 20th would have been the unit he knew he was returning to during this incident in May.
Chamberlain returned to the 20th Maine on May 17, 1864, which does make sense with the vague timeline that Swisshelm uses in her recounting of the Overland Campaign through the field hospital sagas. It makes sense that they could’ve crossed paths. Chamberlain had been very ill during the autumn of 1863 and had spent the winter and early spring on court martial duty while trying to regain his health.
Swisshelm’s agreement to care for Chamberlain if he had “to suffer a thigh amputation” is connected to her acknowledged skill of taking care of patients with that particular injury. She practiced a method of positioning the amputation stump that eased the muscles, relieved pain, and helped the patient be able to relax. As far as I can tell at the moment, Swisshelm and Chamberlain did not cross paths again during the Civil War years. Chamberlain did not lose a limb, though he was severely wounded in the upper thighs and hips a few weeks in the early days of fighting around Petersburg in June 1864.
So, if there are issues with some of the claims in this anecdote when compared to the historical record, why highlight it? A few reasons…
- It’s “new.” It might be a piece of a puzzle for someone else’s research project. (I reached out to Brian Swartz who has studied Maine during the Civil War and Joshua Chamberlain extensively, and he said, “This is a very strange anecdote” and then suggested further exploration.)
- There’s enough that can be verified against other historical records to make it an interesting incident to find and further explore, being wary of some of Chamberlain’s claims.
- It’s a very candid moment about Chamberlain and how he felt it was his duty to return to the army.
- And there’s just something on point with Jane Swisshelm’s description of Chamberlain: “A man of the purely intellectual type.”