Did God ward off a third strike against Joshua Chamberlain?

This sign just north of Routes 109/460 in Petersburg supposedly marks the approximate site where Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain was shot on June 18, 1864. He was evacuated to a field hospital by stretcher bearers and an ambulance. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Note: This post is adapted from the wartime biography of Joshua L. Chamberlain that I am writing for Emerging Civil War.

Shot down during his brigade’s Saturday June 18, 1864 charge at Petersburg, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain should have bled out on the battlefield. He did not.

Evacuated to a hospital transport after he was badly wounded at Petersburg in June 18, 1864, Joshua L. Chamberlain fell into the hands of a chief surgeon who did not care if he lived or died. (Maine State Archives)

Recivered by stretcher bearers sent into the lead-filled air by Capt. John Bigelow, 9th Massachusetts Battery, Chamberlain and his rescuers had traveled “not 20 yards away” from where Chamberlain lay when an exploding Confederate cannonball struck “the very spot” and dug “a grave large enough for all of us.”

Showered by dirt, the rescuers and rescuee should have died. They did not.

Loaded into an ambulance that “galloped through rough stumpy fields” to the 1st Division’s field hospital concealed in “a cluster of pines” three miles away, Chamberlain went atop an improvised table.

He endured two surgeons running a ramrod “through my body” to probe the wound and find the minié ball. Its conical point split into a vee, it jutted “with a puff of skin just behind my left hip joint.”

The ramrod’s angle indicated that “the ball entered the right hip in front of and a little below the right trochanter major, diagonally backward,” and exited “above and posteriorly to the left great trochanter.” The ball severed blood vessels and nicked the urethra; urine mingled with blood seeping from the hole in Chamberlain’s right hip.

Believing him mortally wounded, the surgeons had him made comfortable and set aside to fade away. Chamberlain should have died quickly.

He did not.

Sometime later the mind-numbing shock apparently wore off, for “a flood of tearing agony” shook Chamberlain, who “never dreamed what pain could be and not kill a man outright.” He gradually slid “into a stupor,” disrupted only when “through the mists” he saw Dr. Abner O. Shaw, 20th Maine Infantry, and Dr. Morris W. Townsend, 44th New York.

The federal government established a major supply base and hospital facilities at City Point, which juts into the James and Appomattox rivers. (National Park Service)

They came with Capt. Tom Chamberlain, who with the surgeons in tow scoured the field hospitals after learning that Joshua had been shot. The doctors “sat down by me” and used a medical instrument to probe for the severed blood vessels from which Chamberlain’s life slowly ebbed.

The surgeons successfully tied off what needed tying. Tom Chamberlain and Ellis Spear, the latter feeding the patient “a good porridge,” stood watch, and Joshua Chamberlain saw dawn on June 19.

Carrying medical supplies, the steamer Planter lies moored at the General Hospital wharf at City Point. The wharf jutted into the Appomattox River. (Library of Congress)

Acting on a request by Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin, Chamberlain’s division commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade arranged for “a stretcher and 8 men to carry me the 16 miles to City Point,” where a hospital ship would ferry him to the Army hospitals at Annapolis, Maryland.

Why detail men to carry Chamberlain so far? “The nature and severity of his wound would not admit his riding in am ambulance,” New York Herald correspondent L. A. Hendrick learned.

The bluffs along modern City Point, which preserved by the National Park Service, overlook the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Chamberlain’s “condition from a pelvic wound rendered transportation by stretcher necessary,” explained Dr. Morris Townsend, detailed to accompany Chamberlain and other “wounded committed to my care” on June 19.

Chamberlain could have died during that long, hot hand haul to City Point. He did not.

When Townsend and his patient arrived at City Point, Dr. Edward B. Dalton ordered Chamberlain placed on the Connecticut, a hospital transport. As “Chief Medical Officer,” Dalton had supervised setting up the 10,000-patient “‘Depot Field Hospital of the Army of the Potomac.’”

Townsend believed Chamberlain’s “life depended on the constant care of an expert.” Carried aboard the steamer, Chamberlain went onto the main deck among hundreds of wounded suffering “for lack of proper care. We were in wretched condition; – broken, maimed, torn, stiffened with clotted blood and mattered hair and beard …”

Learning that Chamberlain was on the Connecticut, Maine nurse Isabella Fogg climbed aboard and “volunteered to attend” him as far as the destination hospital, Townsend noted. A seamstress from Calais, she had followed her son, Hugh, and the 6th Maine Infantry to war and had cared for Maine boys on the Peninsula and after Antietam.

Joining Fogg beside Chamberlain was Joseph Linscott from Co. G, 20th Maine Infantry. Warren had ordered him to accompany Chamberlain as far as Brunswick. Townsend viewed Linscott, a hospital steward, as a qualified “nurse” and left him aboard the Connecticut.

The largest wartime building found at the City Point Unit administered by the National Park Service is the Dr. Richard Eppes house. When he was evacuated to City Point on June 19, 1864, the badly wounded Joshua Chamberlain probably did not notice this house, if he even saw it. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Assistant Surgeon Thomas B. Hood, the ship’s chief medical officer, suddenly kicked Linscott off the hospital transport.

One strike against Chamberlain receiving adequate care on the voyage.

Then, Hood “in impolite language refused to allow” Fogg to stay aboard, Dr. Townsend notified his superior. In fact, Hood profanely barred other women nurses from his ship.

Two strikes against Chamberlain, laying amidst the “hardly breathing bodies.”

He was a Christian, a religious man who saw God’s hand in various moments in his wartime life. Twice now the probably drunk Thomas Hood had denied Chamberlain the medical care needed to keep him alive to Annapolis.

Perhaps God denied Hood a third called strike. Suddenly a friend emerged from all the pain and horror aboard the steamer. Down a ladder scrambled Dr. Thomas Abraham Moses, then “in charge of the upper deck.”

From Bath, Moses had studied medicine at Bowdoin College (’57) and Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia (’61). Knowing Horace Chamberlain (a classmate) and his oldest brother, Joshua (Bowdoin faculty), he found the latter on the packed main deck and stayed with Chamberlain “virtually … all that dismal night.”

Moses took no crap from Hood, if any was offered. Chamberlain reached Annapolis alive.

Sources: Levi W. Baker, History of the Ninth Mass. Battery, Lakeview Press, South Framingham, Massachusetts, 1888, pp. 121-124; George A. Otis, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 2, Part 2, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1877, Chapter VII, p. 363; Julia Colvin Oehmig, Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Joshua L. Chamberlain and his Attack on Fort Hell, Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick, Maine, p. 4; Joshua L. Chamberlain, The Charge at Fort Hell, 1899, William Henry Noble Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University; Mr. L. A. Hendrick’s Despatch, The Fifth Corps, New York Herald, June 22, 1864; Dr. M.W. Townsend report to Surgeon W.R. DeWitt, June 20, 1864, both downloaded from www.Joshualawrencechamberlain.com; Memorial of Edward B. Dalton, M.D., 1872, p. 24; Diane Monroe Smith, Chamberlain at Petersburg: The Charge at Fort Hell, June 1864, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2004, p. 74

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys 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.