Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered

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Dennis A. Rasbach
Pub Date:
September 2016
Hardcover, 6 x 9
Images, maps, 243 pp.
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About the Book

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain earned the sobriquet “Lion of the Round Top” for his tactical brilliance leading his 20th Maine Infantry on the rocky wooded slopes of Little Round Top at on the evening of July 2, 1863. Promoted to brigade command, he was presumed mortally wounded during an assault at Petersburg on June 18, 1864, and bestowed a rare “on the spot” battlefield promotion to brigadier general. He survived, returned to the command in 1865, and participated in the surrender of Lee’s veterans at Appomattox.

Chamberlain went to his grave a half-century later believing he was wounded while advancing alone from the future site of “Fort Hell.” His thrust, so he and others believed, was against the permanent fortifications of the Dimmock Line at Rives’ Salient, near the Jerusalem Plank Road, through a murderous flank fire from what was soon to become Confederate-held Fort Mahone. This narrative has been perpetuated by Chamberlain scholars and biographers over the past century. Chamberlain’s wounding and Rives’ Salient are now fused in the modern consciousness. This interpretation was given an additional mantle of authority with the erection of a Medal of Honor Recipient’s placard near South Crater Road by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on November 8, 2014.

In fact, author Dennis A. Rasbach argues, a careful review of the primary evidence left by Chamberlain and his contemporaries suggests that Chamberlain was mistaken regarding the larger context of the engagement in which he fought and fell. An overwhelming body of evidence, much of it derived from Chamberlain himself, demonstrates he actually attacked a different part of the Confederate line in the vicinity of an entirely different road. This part of the Petersburg campaign must now be rewritten to properly understand the important battle of June 18, 1864, and Chamberlain’s role in it.

Richly illustrated with photos and original maps, and documented with extensive primary accounts, Rasbach’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign dispels a well-established Civil War myth, and sets the historical record straight.



"Rasbach's deeply researched polemic persuasively revises the conventional wisdom regarding the circumstances surrounding Joshua Chamberlain's wounding on June 18, 1864."-- A. Wilson Greene, Pamplin Historical Park, author of The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign


"Dennis Rasbach's work is a masterful example of what can be accomplished in Civil War studies when all possible primary sources are joined with serious terrain analysis. The site of Joshua Chamberlain's charge at Petersburg on 18 June 1864 has finally been established definitively and the historical record corrected. Rasbach's work represents a strong addition to the growing literature on the Petersburg Campaign."-- William Glenn Robertson, author of The First Battle for Petersburg: The Attack and Defense of the Cockade City, June 9, 1864


"Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign is another stepping stone to better understanding the Battle of Petersburg, one the biggest, bloodiest, and most misunderstood of the war. Rasbach's work is backed by excellent research and admirable attention to detail."-- Sean Michael Chick, author of The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864


"Just where was Gettysburg hero Chamberlain wounded on June 18, 1864 at Petersburg? Chamberlain himself, writing decades later, seems to have been confused as to his whereabouts. Dennis Rasbach takes a methodical, comprehensive, and ultimately convincing approach to show exactly what happened to Chamberlain and his men that day."-- Brett Schulte, The Siege of Petersburg Online


"Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign is a textbook case of how a Civil War book should be researched and written. It is an outstanding example of scholarship. It is my hope that aspiring and established historians alike will read it and appreciate how better to pursue their craft."-- Bryce A. Suderow, author (with Edwin C. Bearss) of The Petersburg Campaign:The Eastern Front Battles, June-August 1864, Vol. 1, and The Petersburg Campaign:The Western Front Battles, September 1864-April 1865, Vol.2


"Using testimony from multiple observers on both sides of the battlefield, and sophisticated modern topographical imaging data unavailable to Chamberlain, Rasbach accurately portrays Federal V Corps assaults on June 18, 1864, the day Chamberlain received his nearly mortal wound. Rasbach makes a convincing case Chamberlain's brigade advanced with the rest of Griffin's division near the Baxter Road, despite Chamberlain's assertions late in life. This book should be read by everyone to better understand the events of June 18, 1864, and by all students of Joshua Chamberlain."-- Julia Steele, Chief of Resources and Historical Archaeologist, Petersburg National Battlefield


"It has been said people remember 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 30% of what they see. In that case, readers are in for a satisfying and memorable experience when they see the maps Hal Jespersen created for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign."-- George Skoch, Civil War cartographer, graphic artist, and writer


Dennis A. Rasbach, MD, is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As a busy practicing surgeon, he is an unlikely author of a micro history of the Civil War experience at the Front of Petersburg on June 18, 1864. The inception of the book was pure serendipity. While investigating the movements of his great-great-grandfather’s regiment, the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, his focus was suddenly and unexpectedly diverted to Joshua Chamberlain and his famous charge. Glaring contradictions emerged as the popular narrative of that event was compared with the historical record. Those inconsistencies prompted an intense search for clarification and resolution, which, over the course of a year and with help from a network of new Civil War friends, grew into the present work. Dennis is a member of the Civil War Round Table of Southwest Michigan. The father of two sons, he resides with his lovely wife Ellen in St. Joseph, Michigan. Coincidentally, his birthday is June 18, the day of the Petersburg charge.