Maine native seeks to place historical marker at Virginia site where Joshua Chamberlain was shot

Posted June 27, 2014, at 1:33 p.m.
Last modified June 27, 2014, at 5:40 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Joshua Chamberlain surveyed the scene at Petersburg, Virginia, where he had been ordered to help launch one of the last key battles of the Civil War, and knew the siege could kill him.

His concerns would turn out to be justified. Now, 150 years to the month after the gunshot wound that would eventually cause Chamberlain’s death, a Maine native wants to post a marker in Petersburg commemorating the site.

“He saw a high bluff to the west. He saw bayonets gleaming in the light — 3,000 of them in front of him,” described Dean Clegg, a guide at the Chamberlain House Museum in Brunswick. “There were cannons lined up to the left and to the right. It was so serious — so suicidal — that a lieutenant wrote that it was enough to ‘freeze your blood.’”

Chamberlain nonetheless led the First Brigade, First Division, V Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac in a charge through the open ground surrounded on all sides by Confederate firepower.

Chamberlain, a Brewer native and Bowdoin College graduate who’s buried in Brunswick, was hit in the right hip by a musket ball, which grazed his bladder and exited the left side of his body.

He propped himself up with his sword as his fellow soldiers charged by him and were gunned down, but ultimately lost too much blood and collapsed on the battlefield.

“This was what they called a ‘gut wound’ back then, and you didn’t survive gut wounds,” Clegg said. “They thought he was dead. An obituary was sent home from this.”

Thinking the war hero’s death was a foregone conclusion, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become president, gave Chamberlain a battlefield promotion from colonel to brigadier general. But while this year marks the 150th anniversary of the gunshot that killed Chamberlain, it’s only the 100th anniversary of his death.

“He ultimately died from complications from the bullet wound 50 years after he suffered the wound,” said Clegg, a Standish native who now lives in Rochester, New Hampshire. “He lived in a lot of pain the rest of his life.”

In part because Chamberlain went on to accomplish much more after the wound — he was shot twice more before the end of the war, spent four years as Maine’s governor and 12 as president of Bowdoin College, among other accomplishments — that fateful moment on the Petersburg battlefield has often been overshadowed.

But Clegg argued the gunshot was a crucial pivot point in the history of Maine and the United States.

Chamberlain would go on to order his soldiers to salute their Confederate counterparts during the South’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, a moment Clegg said “began the healing of the country.”

He visited Paris to learn about European advancements in education and brought those lessons back to America in 1879, and in 1880, quelled an uprising over a disputed Maine gubernatorial election which Clegg said could have easily boiled over into a state civil war.

“If he hadn’t survived that [gunshot at Petersburg], things could’ve been very different,” the historian said. “There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ out there, but this is a big one.”

Remembering Chamberlain

This being the 100th anniversary of his death, Chamberlain has returned to the news in multiple ways — some planned, some not. Brunswick’s Maine State Music Theatre revamped and reopened the grandiose production “ Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance” this week, 18 years after it was originally unveiled on the organization’s stage.

And Chamberlain’s long-lost 1893 Medal of Honor is now in the hands of the Pejepscot Historical Society, which runs the Chamberlain House Museum, after an anonymous donor discovered the artifact in the back of a book at a church yard sale in Massachusetts.

Clegg hopes to add to the anniversary highlights by raising the $1,630 necessary to place a historical marker at the Virginia location where Chamberlain suffered what would ultimately become his fatal gunshot wound.

Chamberlain died in Portland in 1914 from an infection in the lingering wound, the last Civil War veteran to die as a result of wounds suffered in the war.

Clegg said 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, which would be made of aluminum.

“The Petersburg battle lines were huge,” he said. “They were miles long. Trenches were dug and shells were lobbed for nine months.”

Chamberlain wrote he was hit shortly after crossing a creek bed in the June 18, 1864, charge, Clegg said, and historians can use that reference to zero in on approximately where he would have been when he fell.

But where cannons once boomed and musket balls zipped through the air, though, there’s now little indication that anything of historical significance happened where Chamberlain was shot.

That location can be found near the intersection of modern-day Petersburg’s Warren Street and East South Boulevard.

There now is a convenience store across the street from a local school administration building, buffered by otherwise nondescript residential neighborhoods, Clegg said.

Clegg successfully lobbied the marker editorial committee of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources to OK his proposed sign, then the larger board.

Now, Clegg said he’s simply awaiting word from the Virginia Department of Transportation to say where, exactly, the agency will allow the marker to be planted.

And there’s that matter of raising money for the marker. Clegg set up an online fundraising page in an effort to drum up the $1,630 necessary to pay for the sign, which people can find links to by searching for “ Joshua L. Chamberlain Highway Marker Fund” on Facebook.

“I thought, ‘People have got to know where this happened,’” he said. “It’s kind of a shame it’s now just a convenience store.”