Review of Rasbach’s Book

Diane Monroe Smith’s Review of Dennis Rasbach’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered.

The long-winded title Dennis Rasbach bestowed upon his book pretty much says it all. It is that novice historian’s declaration that Joshua Chamberlain’s account of his fight on June 18, 1864, the accounts of many of his contemporaries and those accounts written by today’s historians (including me) are all wrong. In his book, Rasbach makes frequent reference to my book, Chamberlain at Petersburg: The Charge at Fort Hell, which has as it’s backbone a previously unpublished first-person account by Chamberlain regarding his First Brigade’s assault at Rives’ Salient on June 18th at the Battle of Petersburg. I introduced Chamberlain’s account with a context enhancing outline of the 5th Corps and the Army of the Potomac’s role in Gen. U.S. Grant’s badly mishandled Overland Campaign, which culminated in the equally bungled Battle of Petersburg. I then gave Chamberlain’s account extensive annotation, drawing on primary resource material and the accounts of other participants, both Union and Confederate. My husband, Ned Smith, also a Civil War author, after extensive research with period maps and relevant primary sources, provided the maps for my book. By Rasbach’s frequent mention of me, my research and my writing in his book, it is clear that he means his book to be a refutation of my work. Being in the unique position of knowing my own work very well, and having a thorough grounding in Chamberlain and Rives’ Salient resources, after a very thorough consideration of his research and writing, I respond.

Most alarmingly, common sense seems to have been the first thing cast aside in Rasbach’s assertion that Chamberlain did not know where he was or where his brigade attacked on June 18th.

* The first question that presents itself is, since Rasbach insists that the site of Chamberlain’s attack was the future site of the Battle of the Crater, where on earth does he think the 9th Corps was fighting on June 18th? How can he disregard the evidence that shows that the 9th was fighting where Rasbach insists Chamberlain was? The only other source I’ve encountered for this puzzling assertion is a map that Bryce Suderow, Rasbach’s mentor, added to Ed Bearrs’ account of the battle, though nothing in Bearrs’ text supports this eccentric view. While there were several 5th Corps units that fought on Burnside’s left, (Crawford and Sweitzer), Rasbach offers up a map showing the latter units, including Chamberlain’s, with the 9th Corps stacked up like dominoes in front of Crater site. It leaves one scratching one’s head as to why on earth anyone, let alone commanders as experienced as Gens. Warren and Griffin would cram all those troops (a division, and two brigades) into one very short battle line, let alone a line already occupied by another corps?

* There is also the issue of the impossibility of Chamberlain and his men being unable to distinguish between Rives’ Salient, one of the formidable Dimmock Line fortifications (built 1863), and the few piles of earth that the Rebels were able to throw together after their withdrawal in the early morning hours of June 18th.

* Another nonsensical assertion that Rasbach makes regarding identifying the site of the 1st Brigade’s assault, is his denial that Chamberlain was able to identify his Rives’ Salient position after the war by lining up the well-remembered church steeples of Petersburg on the horizon. Rasbach inexplicably insists that the skyline of Petersburg would look exactly the same from a mile and a half to the right, where Rasbach insists Chamberlain fought at the future site of the Crater. Never let some strong but contradictory facts or rules of visual perspective get in the way of a good theory, apparently says Dennis Rasbach.

It seems clear to me that Rasbach and his mentor and researcher, Bryce Suderow, developed their theory by discounting or discarding all primary source material that does not agree with their premises, necessitating their complete dismissal of the testimony and evidence of Joshua Chamberlain, the brigade commander who planned and led the attack. As I see it, Rasbach embraces all accounts that seemingly disagree or can be interpreted as disagreeing with Chamberlain’s, he ignores all that agree- a flaw in the research that, in my opinion, proves fatal to getting at the truth. Rasbach acknowledges that he based his “suspicions” about Chamberlain’s account primarily on the report of one Col.Tilton of Sweitzer’s Brigade, a man considerably disgruntled by Chamberlain’s having been given brigade command in the 5th Corps over Tilton’s head and despite Tilton’s seniority. When the wounded Chamberlain was evacuated to the Division’s field hospital on June 18th, Tilton received the coveted brigade command, an assignment that placed him in the position to describe the actions of the 1st Brigade and Sweitzer’s Brigade on that day. Tilton’s report is a demonstration of obfuscation which thoroughly confuses whose brigade attacked at 3 p.m. as ordered. (Chamberlain’s did, Tilton’s did not). Tilton also makes a confusion of who it was who was actually in command of the 1st Brigade when they made their 3 p.m. assault on Rives’ Salient. [Chamberlain was, and Tilton was not] Tilton’s report makes a mockery of what Chamberlain, his brigade, and Tilton and his brigade actually did on June 18th.

Yet Rasbach’s fierce embrace of Tilton’s report seemingly offers us a key to the author’s incentive and inspiration. With his assurances that his status as a outsider and a novice historian gives him real advantages, Rasbach expresses pride in the fact that it took him only a year from from his discovery of a Civil War ancestor, to his completion of his research and writing of what his publisher describes as a ground breaking book. It seems to me that that’s mighty fast work, given the complexities of the subject. Rasbach found that one of his grandfathers fought as a cavalry trooper in the Civil War… exciting, yes? But then the ancestor turned out to be a humble dismounted cavalryman (Grant’s favorite cavalry commander, Sheridan, was using up horses and equipment at an alarming rate, so he just stripped incoming green troops of theirs). Not only was great great grandfather suddenly transformed from a dashing horseman to an untrained infantryman, he was also unfortunate enough to have been assigned to a lackluster brigade led by two commanders, Gen. Sweitzer and Col. Tilton, who had previously failed to cover themselves with glory in battle as Chamberlain had…. for Tilton & Sweitzer had, in fact, embarrassed themselves at the Battle of Gettysburg. But is it really possible to polish Rasbach’s Granddad’s legacy by attempting to tarnish that of the real deal, the “Hero of Little Round Top,” Joshua Chamberlain, or “St. Joshua” as Rasbach laughingly refers to him? Tilton, with help from author Rasbach and from researcher Suderow, are apparently just the men to try it!

Let it be known that I am more than willing to have my work challenged. I have made challenges to the status quo myself. Ironically, I researched and wrote my Chamberlain biography, Fanny and Joshua, because I found previous books on him more hagiography than biography. I succeeded in the eyes of Pulitzer Prize winning historian, James McPherson, who described that my work “humanizes” Chamberlain. Also, my latest book, Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign asks and answers many previously uninvestigated questions regarding U.S. Grant’s conduct of his spring campaign of 1864. I’ve been a researcher, author and historian long enough to be no stranger to challenges, to my own work and to Joshua Chamberlain’s accounts as well. But in such challenges, I expect to find a quantity of well-documented evidence, including new material rather than rehashing or misinterpreting of the previously known. I therefore took it upon myself to find and consider every one one of Rasbach’s points and sources when reviewing his book. As a result, it is my opinion that legitimate evidence is sadly lacking in Rasbach’s work, thereby preventing it from offering a logical, let alone compelling challenge. The supposed “new” research Rasbach offers is merely a close examination of an area a mile and a half away from Rives’ Salient, at the Crater site where Suderow and Rasbach insist Chamberlain fought. This material is relevant only if you agree with Rasbach and Suderow’s premise that the site they have chosen is correct, and all of Chamberlain’s testimony and those who agree with him are mistaken. Thereby, Rasbach’s “evidence,” (archaeology and LIDAR reports) of the Crater area where another 5th Corps division and brigade and the 9th Corps fought on June 18th, while flashy and impressive sounding, does nothing whatever, in my view, to prove where Chamberlain’s 1st Brigade fought.

It isn’t an everyday occurrence for an historian to have someone devote an entire book to attempting to disprove one of their own. While it is very common for there to be honest, even heated disagreements among historians over details, there is an aspect of Rasbach’s refutation that stands out rather startlingly, and places it outside the usual boundaries of civil discourse among historians. Savas Beatie’s promotion, known for its use of hyperbole, makes such statements when describing Dennis Rasbach’s book as, “This remarkable study is throughout a cautionary tale to historians and other writers who ignore terrain, skip through primary sources, and rely on the work of others.” Since Rasbach’s book is primarily designed to refute my work, should I assume that such damning accusations (ignoring the terrain, skipping primary sources and relying on the work of others), are being directed at me? I rather think so. I respond by calling the readers’ attention to my book Chamberlain at Petersburg, to it’s extensive annotation and bibliography, in which one finds the primary sources and numerous testimonies of Chamberlain’s contemporaries, both Union and Confederate that Rasbach implies I neglected. In addition, Ned Smith provides the sources he utilized for the maps he created for my book, whereas Rasbach’s cartographer’s work seemingly reflects only Rasbach’s theories as opposed to contemporary testimony and resources, for the sources used by the mapmaker are not provided. Ned’s maps also offer such essential details as directional compasses, something Rasbach’s mapmaker apparently deems unnecessary. This serious flaw in all the Rasbach book’s maps is compounded by the additional error of the omission of the all important information of the time of day for some of the maps, making them all but irrelevant. Where Chamberlain’s 1st Brigade was, or Rasbach thinks they were, at 7 a.m. in the morning, does not prove where they were at 3 p.m. that afternoon.

While it is not pleasant to have my research and writing seemingly characterized by Rasbach, Suderow and publisher Ted Savas as careless and lacking in scholarship, I am more disturbed by what I see as an attack on Joshua Chamberlain’s character and integrity. One glaring reason for Rasbach’s apparent misjudgment of Chamberlain’s integrity, is his apparent failure to consider the life of the remarkable man he maligns. Rasbach chose to consider just one day of that service, and as a result he was unaware of the politics that existed within the 5th Corps, and the likely grudges held by commanders such as Gen. Sweitzer and Col. Tilton, whose own military reputations came off looking very bad compared to Chamberlain’s. And while Rasbach professes his supposed admiration for Chamberlain, contrary to much available evidence he also insists that Chamberlain consulted no one, nor any resource but his own faulty memory. Rasbach refuses to acknowledge that Chamberlain, having returned to the 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac at Petersburg within months of his near-fatal wounding, most certainly would have engaged in discussion with the other participants of his Rives’ Salient assault. Nor does Rasbach acknowledge that Chamberlain, in preparation for a history of the 5th Corps he wished to write, sent out circulars immediately after the war to many other participants asking for their accounts of June 18th. Rasbach actually lists one of the participant’s replies to Chamberlain’s circular in his notes, but he chose not to acknowledge this evidence of Chamberlain’s extensive correspondence with other witnesses.

The assertion that Rasbach makes at one point, that Chamberlain’s account, “The Charge at Fort Hell,” was purposely written after most of the other participants were dead, is nothing more than irresponsible and mean-spirited conjecture. But there’s more evidence of what starts to feel like the author’s invective. Rasbach, though a surgeon himself, also calls into doubt the seriousness of Chamberlain’s Petersburg wound. While most historians, as well as a good number of medical doctors from Chamberlain’s time and today, have agreed that Chamberlain’s survival after his Petersburg wound was remarkable, Rasbach cites a Journal of Urology article about bladder injuries. In an effort to suggest that Chamberlain’s injury was no big deal, Rasbach quotes from an article that asserts that 79% of Civil War wounded with bladder injuries survived. What Rasbach fails to supply us with is this journal article author’s caveat that “survived” in this case means that they did not die on the table, or in the hours immediately following their surgery. Then, too, the reference Rasbach makes to this article on bladder injuries ignores the full extent of Chamberlain’s wound, for the minie ball that damaged his bladder traveled from just in front of his right hip all the way through his abdomen to lodge just behind his left hip. Chamberlain described that path of the ball as having cut a wide path through him, a pathway that, as his medical records show, remained an open conduit for both leaking urine and infection throughout Chamberlain’s postwar years. Rasbach takes exception to Chamberlain’s description of the pathway that the ball made through him as “wide,” but it was wide enough to make a normal probe of no use, for the surgeons in the field hospital used a musket’s ramrod to probe Chamberlain’s wound in their search for the illusive ball. It seems another clumsy attempt by Rasbach to imply that Chamberlain exaggerated the seriousness of the injury that would plague him periodically with recurring infections for the rest of his life. In fact, it was one of these infections that eventually caused his death in his 84 year.

It is this sort of casting of aspersions on Chamberlain’s honesty and integrity that I found most uncalled for, in that they are unsubstantiated by what I consider to be any reliable or responsibly reported evidence. Having spent more than 20 years considering Chamberlain’s writings and orations, I have come to believe him to have been a careful and honest historian, and one who does not deserve the sort of treatment that Dennis Rasbach has given him in this book.