Let’s stick to verifiable evidence, not discredit Joshua Chamberlain

This article originally appeared in the Bangor Daily News and is a response to the article by Bryce Suderow, Why I question Joshua Chamberlain’s account of a Civil War battle

Some 150 years have passed since Joshua Chamberlain’s near fatal wounding at Rives’ Salient, Petersburg, Virginia, on June 18, 1864. Chamberlain not only survived the terrible wound he received but managed to return to the army at Petersburg several months later, a fact that Bryce Suderow, in his Oct. 1 BDN OpEd, is either unaware of or chooses to ignore.

Since Suderow and his research partner, Dennis Rasbach, disregard all of Chamberlain’s testimony and writings, they also choose to ignore the account of his visit to Petersburg in 1882 — 18 years after his wounding — where he met a number of Confederate veterans whom he faced at Rives’ Salient. Not only do Suderow and Rasbach dispute the place of Chamberlain’s attack, they deny that any federal attack occurred at Rives’ Salient that day. As Susan Natale, who created and runs the online Chamberlain archive JoshuaLawrenceChamberlain.com, points out, Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, the Confederate commander at Rives’ Salient, stated unequivocally he was attacked at the time and place Chamberlain states.

You may think the battles of the Civil War are but distant echoes of a terrible time in our nation’s history, but the battles still rage. Suderow of Washington, D.C., and Rasbach of Michigan have apparently decided they know better than Chamberlain and other soldier witnesses just where Chamberlain fought at Petersburg on June 18, 1864. They believe they know better than many other historians, past and present. But Suderow chose, in his rewriting of history in a recent interview with and OpEd for the Bangor Daily News, to include an assault on only two of the many authorities who disagree with him: Natale and me.

Why would Suderow and Rasbach want to discredit other historians’ work? They deluged us with requests to look at their “new” sources, which we commented we had already seen. When they insisted we agree with and endorse their views, they received a firm no. It all has the makings of controversy, manufactured or otherwise, and controversy sells books.

Another of this duo’s prepublication efforts includes demanding that Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources dig up and move the recently installed historical marker honoring Chamberlain and his brigade’s attack on June 18, 1864, to a location that matches their research. But before DHR made a final decision, Suderow announced to this and other newspapers that DHR agreed with him, that my and Natale’s work was wrong and the bulldozer was the way.

Suderow, in the interview and in his OpEd, presents “evidence” that is easily proved unreliable. Meanwhile, the BDN provided Suderow with another platform, an OpEd piece, accompanied by George Danby’s flashy picture of a Chamberlain statue crumbling — artful damage — ensuring that even those people who don’t bother to read editorials would be tempted to read that one.

My own research journey on this subject began more than 20 years ago, when I found an unpublished Chamberlain account of Petersburg. Thomas Publications of Gettysburg published the account with my extensive annotation and well-researched maps by my husband, Civil War author Ned Smith. Chamberlain at Petersburg was not my first experience with research and writing on Chamberlain; I also wrote a well-received Chamberlain biography, “Fanny and Joshua,” first released in 1999. I wrote the biography in spite of several existing works because I felt that the previous works leaned too heavily toward hero worship in their consideration of Chamberlain. I am proud of Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson’s statement that my book “humanizes” Chamberlain. Through many years of research, I found Chamberlain to be an honest witness, yet it has become quite fashionable to bash Chamberlain, much as other outstanding historical figures have been sensationally attacked.

Let’s make one thing clear: Suderow and Rasbach disregard and reject every word of Chamberlain’s statements concerning Petersburg. They also reject or ignore a number of other historians’ research and writings that don’t agree with theirs. Suderow’s attack on Natale is particularly reprehensible. A careful and unbiased historian, Natale receives praise from the historical research community for her discovery of and unselfish sharing of primary source archival material.

Suderow and Rasbach, after consideration of only a year in which they turned up no significant new research, apparently think they know more about Joshua Chamberlain and the Battle of Petersburg than those of us who have spent the last 20 years on careful research and consideration.

Well, good for them.

But my primary reason for responding to their unreliable assertions is their explicit attack on Chamberlain’s intelligence and veracity. They think they know better than he where he fought and came close to dying on the battlefield at Petersburg 151 years ago. I suggest Chamberlain knew better than they.

Diane Monroe Smith of Holden is the author of three books on the Civil War.