1864: “Lying Mortally Wounded The Doctors Think”

[June 19, 1864]

My darling wife

I am lying mortally wounded the doctors think, but my mind & heart are at peace[.] Jesus Christ is my all-sufficient savior. I go to him. God bless & keep & comfort you, precious one, you have been a precious wife to me. To know & love you makes life & death beautiful. Cherish the darlings & give my love to all the dear ones[.] Do not grieve too much for me. We shall all soon meet Live for the children Give my dearest love to father, mother & Sallie & John[.] Oh how happy to feel yourself forgiven

God bless you evermore precious precious one

Ever yours

Lawrence

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, June 19, 1864, field hospital near Petersburg, VA, to his wife, Frances Caroline Adams Chamberlain.

(Source: In The Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The Civil War; Alice Rains Trulock, 1992, page 215)

On To Petersburg?

Lee blocked Grant. It’s that simple – and oversimplified. At each flanking movement Generals Meade and Grant tried with their Union Army of the Potomac, Lee got his Rebels there first. Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor. The Overland Campaign – wished to be that final push to capture the Confederate capital, Richmond – bogged down into seemingly endless deaths and blocked maneuvers.

So, the Union generals decided to try the strategic “backdoor approach.” They moved around Richmond and headed for Petersburg – a railroad hub just over 20 miles south of the capital. By the middle of June 1864, Union troops started battling the Confederate defenders in the earthworks around Petersburg while Lee got word of the new front and rush troops to reinforce that point.

Overland Campaign Map, Spring 1864 in Virginia (no known restrictions)

On June 18, a lone brigade got orders to charge across open ground and attack a strong Confederate position, hoping for a breakthrough. Colonel Chamberlain – a former professor from Bowdoin College, Maine, and one of the defenders of Little Round Top at Gettysburg – commanded that unfortunate brigade. He wrote a masterful letter to headquarters, asking his superior officers to reconsider. (You can find that letter and my notes/analysis on Emerging Civil War Blog HERE.)

When Generals Grant, Meade, and Warren snapped back with a reiteration to attack, Chamberlain had no choice, but he decided to take his usual leadership position: the front. As he had predicted, the attack failed, and the brigade was decimated by artillery and rifle fire. Other attacks on the Confederate earthworks at Petersburg during the next days also failed, forcing the Union army to settle into siege-like conditions. Both sides extended and expanded trenches and fought continual skirmishes for the next 260 days.

According To The Doctors (& Newspapers)

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

One of the casualties from the badly planned attack on June 18 near Petersburg was Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain. Gut shot, with a minie ball shattering part of his pelvis and tearing through vital organs, his chances of survival were almost nonexistant with the military medical practices of that era. Even if bone and organs could have been set or repaired, infection probably should have killed him.

But, Chamberlain didn’t give up easily. He insisted that his surgeons try to repair his broken body, and to some extent, they did. The next morning he penciled that note to his wife who was back home in Maine with their two children and another baby on the way. Then, he endured a stretcher journey to City Point where he started a journey by hospital ship to the Naval Hospital at Annapolis, Maryland.

In the field hospital and base hospital, doctors told him he would die. Newspapers got wind of the injuries and quickly printed Chamberlain’s obituary. Believing the officer was on his deathbed, General Grant pushed through his promotion to brigadier general.

Faith and grit won Chamberlain’s battle, though. By the beginning of autumn, he was released from the military hospital to return home. By spring 1865, he was back in command, leading a division in the Appomattox Campaign. In his extraordinary case, the doctors and newspapers had been wrong – and right. In 1914, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain died from effects of his Petersburg wound, an injury that never fully healed but which he overcame for five decades to live a full life with his family, as a politician, educator, and writer.

Historical Musings

Mrs. Chamberlain, c. 1856

This letter is unique in many ways. In my opinion, it is remarkable because it’s a surviving document scrawled by a soldier who believed he was dying. We find references to letters or last messages written for soldiers in field hospitals, but these missives did not always survive. And if they were dictated, we have to wonder how much raw emotion actually made it into those written words. Chamberlain wrote his letter, uncensored, and without someone else “interpretting” or rewriting his words.

Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain had a history of writing intimate letters. Some of their written words from their courtship days are eye-brow raising; this was a couple that quarreled, debated, flirted, teased, and built a relationship through written words when they were apart. This note – which he probably believed was his last – reveals what was actually important to him: faith, her, family.

I’m working on an argument that Petersburg – not Gettysburg – is Chamberlain’s leadership moment. Paralleling his decisions and examples on the battlefield revealed in his letter to the generals comes the revelation of the man’s heart in this letter written in extreme circumstances in a bloody and painful hospital scene. Fortunately, this note was preserved, and we have a unique example of an officer’s “last” letter home in his own handwriting. And the twist in the story? He survived.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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