Sunday, July 21, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain & the Petersburg Campaign

If there is a Civil War general (other than the biggies) that casual enthusiasts recognize by name, it's Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Thanks to his actual impressive war record, his ability to self-promote, the book Killer Angels, its movie version Gettysburg, and Ken Burns's PBS documentary, Chamberlain's story (especially his Gettysburg story) is quite well known. However, his experience as a brigade commander during the Petersburg Campaign has received significantly less coverage.

Years after his severe wounding of being shot though the hips on June 18, 1864, he left accounts about his brigade's actions and his combat injury. He noted that his attacks on the Confederate Dimmock Line protecting the city of Petersburg that day occurred in a charge from the part of the Union line that later became the site of Fort Sedgwick (aka Fort Hell) toward Rives' Salient on the Dimmock Line. Chamberlain even returned to the site years decades after the Civil War and proclaimed that specific location as the proper one. That account and where it happened had been accepted by historians for 150 + years. But, with his book Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered, author Dennis A. Rasbach provides a wealth of primary source evidence to refute Chamberlain's claim for the location of his wounding.

Rasbach does not attempt to deny Chamberlain the glory he deserves for his brave action in leading his men that June day, but Rasbach piles up a haystack of evidence that shows perhaps Chamberlain's critical wounding, the passage of time and thus the cloudiness of his memory, along with a changed geography prompted the gallant leader to unintentionally misremember the location of his wounding.

A medical doctor by trade, Rasbach incorporates the deft skills of a veteran historian by gathering battle reports, soldiers' accounts, period geographical descriptions, and even modern topographical technology to locate Chamberlain's wounding near Elliott's (aka Pegram's) Salient and later site of the Battle of the Crater as the true site where Chamberlain fell wounded. Originating the attack from the Union lines near the Taylor House and Deep Cut of the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, Rasbach details the assault and its results. Rasbach's location is about a mile north of where it was long situated by Chamberlain and previous historians at Rives' Salient.

This impressive piece of battlefield detective work draws rather high praise from some of the Petersburg Campaign's best historians for its meticulous review of source material and how the author presents his argument. Bonuses I found significant to this book are the wonderful maps provided by Hal Jesperson, and the appendices; one giving a thorough order of battle, another a medical explanation of Chamberlain's wounding and treatment, and a third about period maps concerning the discussed locations.

In my opinion, Rasbach provides a very convincing case. This book is an important read, not only for students of the Petersburg Campaign, but also for any historian. It serves as an excellent example for how one makes a sound argument using evidence to overturn previously accepted accounts based mainly on memory. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the book.