Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated: Joshua Chamberlain

After Joshua L. Chamberlain was mortally wounded while leading a charge at Petersburg on June 18, 1864, Ulysses Simpson Grant carried out a battlefield promotion and named Chamberlain a brevet brigadier general of volunteers. Chamberlain was believed to be mortally wounded; the promotion was Grant's way of honoring the brave and talented Chamberlain.

After Joshua L. Chamberlain was mortally wounded while leading a charge at Petersburg on June 18, 1864, Ulysses Simpson Grant carried out a battlefield promotion and named Chamberlain a brevet brigadier general of volunteers. Chamberlain was believed to be mortally wounded; the promotion was Grant’s way of honoring the brave and talented Chamberlain.

Selden E. Connor had already earned his brigadier general’s stars when shot and seriously wounded at The Wilderness on May 6, 1864. Back home in Maine, the promotion seemed a proper reward for a man who soon gave his life for his country … according to inaccurate reports.

Despite attempts by generals Gouvernor K. Warren and Charles Griffin to garner a brigadier’s promotion for him, Joshua L. Chamberlain was still a colonel when a Confederate bullet left him mortally wounded him at Petersburg on June 18, only 43 days since Connor had gone down. The telegrams flew to Brunswick, Augusta, and elsewhere in Maine; doctors expected Chamberlain to die — anyone wishing to say “farewell” had better hasten south.

Chamberlain supposedly had only a short time to live, but 10 days later he was still alive at the U.S. General Hospital in Annapolis. The steamer Connecticut had transported Chamberlain and “some sixty officers and four hundred and sixty-five men, all of which were severely wounded,” from City Point near Petersburg to Maryland, noted Rev. H.C. Henries, an Army chaplain.

“Believing that the numerous friends of General J.L. Chamberlain, formerly of the 20th Maine Regiment, would be glad to hear whatever may be of interest in his case[,] I take the liberty of sending these lines for the Whig and Courier,” Henries wrote from Annapolis on June 28.

After detailing the circumstances that had led Chamberlain to “take his brigade and charge a body of the enemy’s infantry from an advanced position,” Henries described for Daily & Whig Courier readers had been “pierced by a Minnie ball while close upon the enemy’s works—the ball entering his right hip and passing through the urethra and left hip …”

The story of Chamberlain’s ostensibly mortal wounding is well known among Civil War buffs. When one surgeon deemed Chamberlain dead in all but reality, another surgeon desperately fought to save the hero of Little Round Top.

Before the successful result of that wild surgical battle became known, the news passed up the chain of command that Chamberlain was dying. Surely if the colonel did not “bleed out” internally, an infection would kill him.

Ulysses Simpson Grant, overall commander of Army troops in the United States, honored Chamberlain by nominating him for promotion to brigadier general. Chamberlain would likely not live to wear shoulder straps emblazoned with single stars, but he would be remembered as a general.

So out went Grant’s message to Chamberlain. Written at “Headquarters Army of the U. States” on June 20, 1864, the telegram read:

“To Col. J. L. Chamberlain, 20th Maine Infantry, in Hospital, Annapolis, Md.”
“Special Order, No. 39
“First—Col. J.L. Chamberlain, 20th Maine Infantry Volunteers, for meritorious and efficient services on the field of battle, and especially for gallant conduct in leading his brigade against the enemy at Petersburg on the 18th inst., in which he was dangerously wounded, hereby in pursuance of authority of the Secretary of War, is appointed Brig. Gen. U.S. Volunteers, to rank as such from the 18th day of June, 1864, subject to the approval of the President.

“U. S. Grant, Lieut. Gen.”

For the first time during the war, Grant had made a battlefield promotion raising a colonel to a brigadier generalship. Reverend Henries was absolutely thrilled at the news.

A combat artist sketched this drawing of Union troops advancing on Petersburg, Va. on June 18, 1864, the same day that Joshua L. Chamberlain was badly wounded while leading a charge against Confederate defenses. (Library of Congress)

A combat artist sketched this drawing of Union troops advancing on Petersburg, Va. on June 18, 1864, the same day that Joshua L. Chamberlain was badly wounded while leading a charge against Confederate defenses. (Library of Congress)

“Intelligence of his promotion reached him soon after his arrival,” wrote Henries in his letter, published in the Daily Whig & Courier on Wednesday, July 6, 1864.

“We have reason to be truly grateful and proud that this high honor of promotion on the field, the first instance of the kind under the recent order from the War Department, has fallen on a gallant son from Maine,” the good reverend opined.

As to Chamberlain’s current condition, he was “at times suffering intensely,” but “his Surgeons report him doing well and have great confidence in his recovery,” noted Henries.

Fanny Chamberlain and “two of her lady friends” were with the newly minted general (in name only until Congress approved his promotion), “and it is not too much to say that he has every attention that it is possible to give,” Henries reported.

Chamberlain would recover and return to the war, of course. Maine had seen other native sons elevated to one-star general, but such promotions had occurred through normal channels. Chamberlain might have similarly made general, but his demonstrable talent and bravery and a purportedly mortal wound gained him that promotion sooner than expected …

… and he proved afterwards that Ulysses Simpson Grant had made a smart decision.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.