"Our Division Had a Rude Field Hospital"

Joshua Chamberlain at Petersburg - June 18, 1864

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was severely wounded on June 18, 1864, while leading a Union charge near Petersburg, Virginia. Against the odds, he survived his injury. He wrote this account of his night at a field hospital years after.


I lay now straight out on my back, too weak to move a limb; the blood forming a pool, under and around me—more blood than the books allow a man. I had not much pain. It was more a stunning blow, the kind of dull tension, my teeth shut sharp together hard, like lock-jaw. So I lay looking, thinking, sinking, the tornado [of battle] tearing over and around. Dull hoarse faint cries in the low air: hisses, spatters, thuds, thunderbolts mingling earth and sky, and I moistening the little space of mother-earth for a cabbage-garden for some poor fellow, black or white, unthinking, unknowing. I had lain here an hour, perhaps, when I was aware of some men standing over me, with low-toned voices debating with themselves what to do. I spoke to them. They brightened up, and said they were sent to bring me off the field. I told them it was of no good; I was not worth it, emphasizing this in such terms that they replied that had positive orders. I told them I would give orders for them to go back. "Begging pardon," they said "but you are not in command now." This rather roused me, which only seemed to prove to them that I was worth saving. I told them they could not get up that slope without getting killed, every one of them. But they took me up, put me on their stretcher, and started. Not 20 yards away when came one of those great shots from the Fort on the left striking in the very spot from which they had lifted me, and digging a grave there large enough for all us, scattering the earth and gravel all over us, with rather unpleasant force. The next minute a musket ball broke an arm for one of my carriers. Another took his place, and they steered for the right of the batteries, around which they managed to pass and set me down behind the batteries, below the range of shot skimming overhead. Captain Bigelow gave me all the attention possible, which was more relief to him than practical avail to me, a limp mass of bloody earth.

After a while an ambulance came galloping up to the foot of the hill, and I was put into it, and galloped through rough stumpy fields to a cluster of pines where our Division had a rude field hospital. Most of the surgeons there had been or were attached to my headquarters, and I knew and loved them, for they were noble men. The first thing done was to lay me upon a table improvised from a barn-window or door, and examine the wound. I remember somebody taking a ram rod of a musket and running it through my body—it [the wound] was too wide for any surgeon's probe—to discover the bullet, which they did not at first observe sticking up with a puff of skin just behind my left hip joint. This they soon cut out, and closed the cut with a bandage. Some slight dressing was put upon the round hole on the right side, and I was gently laid on a pile of pine boughs. Several badly wounded officers both of our army and of the Confederate were [around me]. On my right, his feet touching mine, noble Colonel Prescott of the 32 Massachusetts, with a bullet in his breast; on the other side, a fine-faced, young Confederate officer, badly wounded and suffering terribly. The whole little space was strewn thick with such cases as these. As the shadows grew thick , a group of surgeons stood not far off earnestly discussing something, looking at me now and then. I knew what it was. One of them said to another, "You do it." "No, I can't" was the reply. But I beckoned one of them to me and said, "I know all about it. You have done your best. It is a mortal wound. I know this, and am prepared for it. I have been for a long time." "Yes, there is no possible chance for you. We could not tell you. You can not live till morning." "So be it, you can't help me. But you can save poor Prescott; look to him. We won't leave you, Prescott," I turned to say—with voice rather feeble for such stout proffer of aid. "And here is this poor fellow, this rebel officer, suffering much. Help him all you can. He is far from home. He is ours now."

I had got a leaf from a field order book and written with a pencil a brief letter to my young wife, telling her how it was; bidding her and our two little ones to God's keeping, and folded my hands with nothing more for them to do.

It was a lurid, wild, cloud-driven sunset—like my own. Griffin came over to me with Bartlett and I think Warren and some of the Corps staff. Griffin did not know what to say. Indeed there was nothing to say, of the future, or of the present—and what avail now, of the past. I think I spoke first, and it may seem strange in such circumstances that I should begin almost playfully; "Well, General, you see I was right. Here I am, at the end. And here you are, as I knew you would be. But it is time to report. I have carried the crest."

"You are going to pull through" he says. "In spite of them all, you will pull through. It will come out all right," he says.

"Yes, but I would have had some things otherwise," I answered.

"Do you know," he eagerly returns, "Grant has promoted you! He has sent his word! He will write an order about it."

"Has he? That will not help me now. But it will do good. I thank the General. I thank you, and all of you for this kindness."

They spoke of my promotion and the manner of it. they did not know how narrowly I had escaped cashiering, as I did. They all spoke gentle words, some praisingly.

But Griffin came up near, took my hand and said: "Now keep a stiff upper lip. We will stand by you. Meade knows all about it. It will be all right."

"Yes, General."—"Good Night."—"Good Night."

But I saw in the glimmering twilight his hand drawn across his eyes and his shoulder shiver and heave quite visibly, even to my fading eyes. Then I folded my hands again across my chest.

After a while of this stupor suddenly came a flood of tearing agony. I never dreamed what pain could be and not kill a man outright. My pity went back to men I had seen helpless on the stricken field. The pain wore into a stupor. Then through the mists I looked up and saw dear, faithful Doctor Shaw, Surgeon of my own regiment [20th Maine] lying a mile away. My brother Tom had brought him. He and good Dr. Townsend sat down by me and tried to use some instrument to establish proper connection to stop the terrible extravasations which would end my life. All others had given it up, and me too. But these two faithful men bent over their task trying with vain effort to find the entrance to torn and clogged and distorted passages of vital currents. Toiling and returning to the ever impossible task, the able surgeon undertaking to aid Dr. Shaw said, sadly, "It is of no use, Doctor; he cannot be saved. I have done all possible for man. Let us go, and not torture him longer." "Just once more, Doctor; let me try just this once more, and I will give it up." Bending to his task, by a sudden miracle, he touched the exact lost thread; the thing was done. There was a possibility, only that even now, that I might be there to know in the morning. Tom stood over me like a brother, and such a one as he was. True-hearted Spear with him, watching there like guardians over a cradle amidst the wolves of the wilderness. . . . 

At times the agonizing pains would get the better of my patience. But sufferings of those lying around me, particularly of the poor forlorn southerner close to me, were some counterpoise. "A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind." At dawn dear brave Prescott was dead, and I alive.



Excerpts from Joshua L. Chamberlain's "The Charge at Fort Hell, June 18, 1864."

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Related Battles

City of Petersburg, VA | June 15, 1864
Result: Confederate Victory
Estimated Casualties