December 15, 2018
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Why I question Joshua Chamberlain’s account of a Civil War battle

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

The BDN’s Sept. 26 article on the proper location of a marker showing where Joshua Chamberlain was wounded during an 1864 Civil War battle provided excellent insight into a historical controversy.

Some have said the Chamberlain marker controversy is a dispute between historians, in which each side’s argument is so obscure that both have equal merit.

Actually, this is far from true.

On one side of the debate are author Diane Monroe Smith and Susan Natale, the creator and owner of a Joshua Chamberlain website.

They believe Chamberlain attacked the Confederate defenses at the Rives Salient outside Petersburg, Virginia, on June 18, 1864. They also believe the Confederate defenders belonged to the same division that fought Chamberlain at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg. They base their beliefs on a talk given by Chamberlain more than 40 years after the event and on a manuscript written many years afterward by Chamberlain about the June 18, 1864, attack. They have not checked the accuracy of his claims by examining the Confederate accounts from members of that division.

I remember thinking that one man’s recollections 40 years after the event were mighty weak evidence to base a belief on, particularly because the man had been seriously wounded at the time and, therefore, probably traumatized. So I suggested to Dennis Rasbach, a surgeon from Michigan who has researched the battle as part of his investigation into an ancestor’s military career, that we check the Confederate sources.

I am not questioning Chamberlain’s veracity in general or in this particular case. But I am questioning his memory of a particular event. Was Chamberlain able to recall accurately his position on a battlefield many years later? Such a precise recollection was very difficult for most veterans. In Chamberlain’s case, it ought to have been almost impossible because he likely was traumatized by his near fatal wound.

On the other side of the debate are historians in Virginia and Michigan: Rasbach, David Lowe, Wilson Greene, Jimmy Blankenship, Julia Steele and me. Most of us are scholars of the Siege of Petersburg. We asked ourselves one question: “How can we discover whether Chamberlain attacked the division defending Rives Salient as he claimed?” Rasbach and I decided to check the accounts written by the Confederates defending the salient.

In 1864, Maj. Gen. John B. Hood’s division was commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles Field. It consisted of five brigades: Anderson’s Georgia Brigade, Benning’s Georgia Brigade, Bratton’s South Carolina Brigade, Law’s Alabama Brigade and Gregg’s Texas Brigade.

Rasbach and I emailed four authors who had written books or manuscripts on four of the five brigades and asked them if their particular brigade was engaged on June 18, 1864. The authors — John Schmutz (Texas Brigade), Henry Persons (Anderson’s Brigade), Andy Johnson (Benning’s Brigade) and Gary Laine (Law’s Alabama Brigade) — all said there was no attack on their brigade on that date.

No one has written a book on Bratton’s brigade, so I researched it myself. Bratton’s report is in the Official Records of the Civil War. He wrote, “On the next morning (June 18) we were relieved by troops of Pickett’s division and moved across the Appomattox to Petersburg, and were put into position on the line about Battery 34. At dark we moved to the left and relieved troops on the new line covering the Baxter road, my left resting on the battery under which the enemy afterwards sprang a mine.” Note that he does not mention an attack against his front.

I also researched the comments by Field in his article in the Southern Historical Society Papers, “Campaign of 1864 and 1865.” His writings don’t mention an attack on June 18, either.

To sum up, we asked four researchers whether they think the brigade that they are studying in Field’s division was attacked on June 18. All four say the same thing: Their historical sources mention no attack, and they think there was no attack. I researched the fifth brigade with the same result. Finally, Field’s account mentions no attack, either.

Clearly, Chamberlain was mistaken when he claimed he attacked the front held by Field’s division. This means the narrative advanced by Smith and Natale is incorrect.

Bryce A. Suderow worked as a professional researcher for a range of Civil War authors. He is co-author of “The Petersburg Campaign,” which won the Douglas Southall Freeman Award for best Civil War book of 2014.


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