PETERSBURG, Virginia — A marker to show where Joshua Chamberlain was wounded during a fierce Civil War battle will be moved in light of additional historical research on the subject.
But the decision is not welcomed by all parties.
The decision to move the marker honoring one of Maine’s most historic figures was made last week by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The marker was originally erected last year after an effort by Dean Clegg, a guide at the Chamberlain House Museum in Brunswick, to raise the $1,630 necessary for the sign. The dedication was Nov. 8.
The marker indicates the place where Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, believing Chamberlain’s wounds were mortal, promoted him on the spot to brigadier general.
Clegg said in a news story last year he relied heavily on the writings of Bangor-area historian and author Diane Monroe Smith and the counsel of National Park Service historian Patrick Schroeder in locating a spot to place the sign.
Since then, however, Michigan surgeon Dennis Rasbach has researched the career of an ancestor who fought his first battle at Petersburg. Bryce Suderow, who published a book in 2014 that won an award for the best Civil War book of the year, said he talked with Rasbach on the research.
Based on that research, Rasbach in August petitioned the Virginia Department of Historic Resources that a better location for the marker would be on Business U.S. 460 near the Poor Creek crossing.
The distance between the current location and the proposed site is approximately 4,000 feet.
The date of the move will depend on when the Petersburg public works department can get around to the job, according to Randy Jones, public information officer for the Virginia department.
Rasbach and Suderow submitted detailed, well-documented reports to support their position, according to a letter from Jennifer Loux of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. H. Edward “Chip” Mann, a Petersburg native and Civil War enthusiast, and chairman of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, who worked with Clegg to select the marker’s original site, suggested that the state agency contact two independent authorities to evaluate the Rasbach-Suderow materials.
The agency solicited reports from Julia Steele, cultural resource manager at Petersburg National Battlefield, and Wilson Greene, director of Pamplin Park. Steele conducted her own research and concluded that moving the marker to the north would be ideal, according to Loux’s letter.
Greene was a bit more skeptical but acknowledged the value of Rasbach’s research and was fine with the idea of moving the marker, Loux said. Mann also became convinced moving the marker was warranted, she said. In addition, Jimmy Blankenship, the former historian at Petersburg National Battlefield, and David Lowe, a Civil War mapping expert with the National Park Service, expressed their support for the move.
The recommendations of the National Park Service professionals carried a lot of weight with the state Department of Historic Resources, Loux said.
She said the new location is in an area still very much within the “vicinity” of where Susan Natale (who maintains the website JoshuaLawrenceChamberlain.com) contends that Chamberlain was wounded.
Natale countered, however, in an email Saturday, that the decision to move the marker was a stunning blow to people who disagree with Rasbach and Suderow. Natale said she learned about the proposed move only after the Historic Resources Committee had met. She said she held out hope the department would change its mind when presented with overwhelming evidence that Rasbach and Suderow were wrong.
“If the [Department of Historic Resources] considers it such an insignificant distance then why waste what I presume are tax dollars to move it?” Natale asked.
Diane Monroe Smith said the present placement of the Chamberlain marker was made with careful consideration of her and many other researchers’ work and writing, most importantly that of Joshua Chamberlain himself.
“[The Department of Historic Resources] recognizes that intelligent, thorough researchers will continue to debate Chamberlain’s exact placement on the field on June 18, 1864,” Loux stated in her letter. “By moving the marker, [the department] does not intend to issue an authoritative statement on where Chamberlain’s attack took place, Loux stated in her letter.”
The new site is a more central, more visible location than the original, which is to the south and east of where anyone thinks Chamberlain was wounded, she said. The site better encompasses the viewpoints of both sides in the debate. (Placing the marker between its original location and U.S. 460 — within a residential neighborhood — is not a viable option, nor is placing it within the boundaries of Petersburg National Battlefield.)
The marker’s heightened visibility on U.S. 460 will enhance its educational value, Loux said.
“The marker’s primary purpose, after all, is not to provide an exhaustive account of troop movements at Petersburg, but rather to commemorate Chamberlain’s important contributions and to educate the public about them,” she stated in her letter.
Though Grant feared Chamberlain would die from his wounds, Chamberlain recovered, returned to duty and was wounded again in March 1865. On April 12, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, he commanded the ceremony at which Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia formally surrendered its arms.
A Brewer native, Chamberlain returned to Maine and served as governor from 1867 to 1871. He served as president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick from 1871 through 1883 and received the Medal of Honor in 1893. He died in 1914.