"My Brave Young Brother: Tom Chamberlain"

Chapter Three:

"Tom is finely" - From Gettysburg to Appomattox
and Beyond

notes at end of chapter

There was a pleasant break from camp life for Tom Chamberlain in March 1864, when he obtained a ten day leave of absence to go to New York to purchase musical instruments for the regimental band.(1) But as soon as the Spring campaign commenced, such considerations were far from his mind. The 20th Maine saw constant action throughout the series of battles which started at the Wilderness on May 5-7, and culminated in the siege of Petersburg. In the Cold Harbor confrontation, the men were placed at Bethesda Church, near the northern end of the line, so did not take part in U.S. Grant's disastrous attack at Cold Harbor itself on June 3, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers in just a few minutes. Instead the Fifth Corps, with the First Division including the Mainers on its far right, held off periodic challenges from Robert Rodes' Division of Jubal Early's Corps. On June 2, the Confederates took advantage of a gap between the Fifth Corps and the skirmishers of the Ninth Corps on its right to attempt a flanking manoeuvre. This was successfully resisted, but at some point during the day Tom was slightly wounded. The exact nature of his injury is not recorded, although it was clearly very minor: if it took him out of action at all, it must only have been for a short time. For his gallant performance at Bethesda Church, Tom again drew the attention of his superior officers.(2)

On June 18, during the Federal attack on Petersburg, the 20th Maine was in reserve, while Lawrence (against his better judgement) led his Pennsylvania Bucktail brigade in a charge on a section of the Confederate defences known as Rives's Salient. Turning to direct his troops, Lawrence was struck by a minié ball which entered just below his right hip, nicked his bladder and urethra, and stopped at his left hip. Such a devastating wound should have been fatal, and when he arrived at the First Division hospital, three miles behind the lines, his life was despaired of. But Tom, back with his regiment, eventually got wind of the dreadful news. Quickly gathering up the surgeon of the 20th Maine, Dr Abner O. Shaw, he searched for some time before finding the hospital where Lawrence lay. As Tom waited, Dr Shaw, with Dr Morris W. Townsend of the 44th New York, worked all night to try to save him and more than once came to the point of giving up. Thirty-five years later, Lawrence wrote that, after the surgeons had finished: "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."(3) Remarkably, Lawrence survived to enjoy his "on the spot" promotion to Brigadier General, although he never returned to full fitness. Thus, his first biography, which was written in his lifetime and almost certainly vetted by him, says with justification that: "his life was saved through the activity of his brother, Thomas."(4)

While Lawrence convalesced, Tom and the regiment participated in the various attempts in late 1864 to undermine the supply system to Petersburg, by the capture and destruction of sections of the Weldon and Southside Railroads. In one of these, at Peebles' Farm on September 30, Tom's performance as Captain of Company G was again noted favourably by his superiors. During this period, however, he received some tragic personal news: on September 29, fifteen miles north of Petersburg, his maternal cousin and great childhood friend was killed. Captain Billings Brastow was leading the 9th Maine in one of the Tenth Corps' assaults on Fort Gilmer when he was cut down. Apparently Tom told his sister that he and Brastow had often discussed the likelihood of their being killed in the War, and he had been convinced that one of them would die.(5)

On a happier note, Tom obtained a new and highly agreeable position: on December 4, he became Provost Marshal of the First Division.(6) He wrote to Sae and John in that month, telling them he liked it "very well indeed, although it is a responsible position, but there is no fighting to do. I can do the business just like a book." He could, he said, have the appointment of Division Inspector, but "I hardly think I will take it as I would stand a good chance to get killed and a Pro. Marshal never gets killed as his duties in battle are to deploy his men as skirmishers in rear half a mile and keep up all stragglers." Tom took his responsibilities seriously, nevertheless, and added to John that he had been to a hanging, "for I may have to do it myself soon, as it is the Pro. Mar who has to do it." The execution had been conducted by the Second Division's Provost Marshal, who "made such a blunder that he was dismissed from his position".(7) Whether or not Tom ever needed to put into practice what he had learned from the mistakes of his Second Division counterpart, he seems to have handled the Provost Marshal's job well, holding it until the close of hostilities.

Lawrence returned to the front in November, in time to join four divisions of the Second and Fifth Corps (including his brother in his new post), with cavalry and artillery supports, on a raid on the Weldon Railroad near Hicksford, close to the North Carolina border. Although some miles of track were successfully torn up, the raid is most noted for the poor behaviour of the men, who foraged and set fire to houses as they passed. The new Provost Marshal had his work cut out trying to deal with the regiments in the First Division, who found copious supplies of apple jack and became very drunk. The weather was appalling during the march and, on the evening of December 9, a "storm of sleet began about 8 p.m., and lasted through the night, causing men and animals much suffering." In the morning, some could not be roused from their drunken stupor. Amos M. Judson of the 83rd Pennsylvania (Third Brigade) wrote in his regimental history that a "number were left behind and have not been heard of since." Presumably many of them froze to death. Fifteen men (plus one officer) in the Second Brigade and forty-three in the Third were reported as still missing on December 15.(8)

When he arrived back in camp, Thomas avoided the embarrassing details in his letters home, telling the family only that it had been the Corps' "greatest raid of the War", with "very hard campaigning" and "much property" destroyed. Lawrence, he said, had "stood the march well and is very well now"; indeed that "he looks and certainly appears better than ever."(9) But no doubt Tom meant only to stop them from worrying, for he must have known Lawrence was still suffering.

Nor was Tom well in himself. During a previous attack on the Weldon Railroad on August 18, he had caught a cold that had left him with a bad cough. The terrible weather on the December raid resulted in another cold and a worsening cough which deteriorated into severe bronchitis, weakening him for the rest of his life and eventually disabling him.(10) In January 1865, he was granted a leave of absence, initially for twenty days to "visit my Mother...who is in extremely feeble and precarious health, and owing to recent deaths in the family, it is very necessary that I should pay her a short visit as soon as possible" (probably he was referring to the death of Billings Brastow). The leave was extended when Tom was examined by a doctor and found to have "symptoms of Diphtheria and General debility".(11) Meanwhile Lawrence too had returned home to recuperate after further surgery in Philadelphia; he reported back for duty towards the end of February 1865, hardly able to ride but determined to be present as the War drew to its close. Soon afterwards, he was able to tell his sister that Tom was back at his post, and feeling better:

"...Tom is finely. He has been making a great dash with his horsemanship today at a grand Review in the presence of distinguished spectators, ladies &c. His horse 'slumped' into the treacherous ground while he was going on the 'wings of the wind,' & fell & rolled over & over; but Tom alighted on his feet as light as a cat & won great praise from all."(12)

Everything now looked set for the final push to force Lee's Army from the Petersburg and Richmond defences. Tom's part in the Battles of Quaker Road and Five Forks may not have been so central as his brother's, at least as recounted by the latter so spectacularly in his The Passing Of the Armies, but the younger Chamberlain performed bravely, especially at Five Forks on April 1.(13) This must have been a strange time for him and the other First Division staff officers for they saw their much-loved division commander, Charles Griffin, translated to a higher realm during the fight - specifically to charge of the entire Fifth Corps, when Philip Sheridan unfairly removed Gouverneur K. Warren from office. Eight days later, Lee had surrendered after what Lawrence appropriately called a "Week of Flying Fights", as the Confederates abandoned Petersburg and Richmond, and attempted to link up with Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. The War for the Chamberlain boys was then all but over, as Tom wrote to Sae from Appomattox Court House on April 11:

"Lee has surrendered his Army of Northern Va. to Genl Griffin and General Gibbon and our Division rec'd the surrender of the Infantry.
"The war is virtually at an end. The Officers are shaking hands and the men are talking and chatting pleasantly together.
"I suppose you have seen accounts of nearly everything but it was the most beautiful sight you ever saw. Campfires of one hundred thousand men and no picket firing - everything all quiet and peaceable...
"I suppose I shall be home for good very soon. How queer it seems - no artillery firing - no musketry firing - all is quiet."(14)

On April 14, in a letter to brother John, he allowed a degree of delightfully boyish enthusiasm to colour his description of the enemy officers:

"I saw Lee - Bushrod Johnson - Gordon - Longstreet - Pickett & all of their great Generals... They are as well dressed as our Generals and certainly better looking. Gen'l Gordon is the best-looking soldier I ever saw in my life."(15)

Two days previously, Major General John B. Gordon had led the men of his Confederate Second Corps in the formal laying down of arms of the Army of Northern Virginia's infantry. Lawrence was chosen to command the ceremony, and for the occasion was in temporary charge of all the brigades of the First Division. What could have been a chance to rub salt into wounds was turned into a bridge-building exercise when Lawrence instructed his lines to shift from "order arms" to "carry" as a mark of respect to the defeated men. He later painted a stirring word-picture of the ensuing scene, showing that he shared his brother's impression of the tall, imposing Rebel General:

"General Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes, and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped, and his decimated brigades, as they reach our sight, respond to the 'Carry'."(16)

Tom may have witnessed the events from amongst the party accompanying the official First Division commander, General Joseph J. Bartlett, who, feeling a little redundant, "contented himself by mounting his whole staff and with the division flag riding around our lines and conversing as he found opportunity with the Confederate officers." Or perhaps Tom was with "Ellis Spear of the Twentieth, and other officers, on staff service" who formed the escort for the Confederates as they marched up.(17)

Tom was now a brevet Major for his gallantry at Bethesda Church and Peebles' Farm, a belated honour received only after both Colonel Gilmore of the 20th and General Griffin had personally written letters of recommendation, the first saying that Tom was "a gentleman in camp and a brave and gallant officer in the field", and the latter that "there is no officer in the command more deserving."(18)

Tom may have thought his position as Provost Marshal a safe option, but it held hidden dangers even after peace had been declared. For towards the end of April, if Lawrence is to be believed, Tom lost his heart! The First Division of the Fifth Corps, now under the permanent command of General Chamberlain, was assigned the task of policing the area to the west of Petersburg. Any local citizens willing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States could be issued with food and provisions, and it was the Provost Marshal's job to keep the oaths. When a particularly attractive young lady appeared at headquarters, asking for food, the requirement that Tom should hear the oath and witness her kissing of the Bible was explained. What happened next is best left to Lawrence to tell, in his own glorious style:

"To both of these suggestions she opposed a very firm determination. Indeed, considering the aspect of these two respective objects, I would not have blamed her if she preferred to reverse the directions, swear to the book and kiss the officer [i.e. Tom]. Her charming and coquettish ways, indicating a habit of easy conquest, caused an aesthetic efflorescence among the emotional susceptibilities of this personage, and so melted the firm face of his official habit, that he did not consider himself wholly fit for duty, and came to me stating the case, and asking if he might bring the reluctant petitioner for a hearing before me."(19)

Lawrence, who was not immune to the lady's charms, being "not then on the superannuated list myself", sat the couple down: "...it was a comical sight when in their presentation of the case, they exchanged glances. Her air was that of an injured party, and he the aggressor. At every soft impeachment his color rose to the Jacqueminot."(20)

Fortunately Lawrence was able to persuade this "belle of Dinwiddie" to take the oath, and Tom escaped his embarrassment unscathed, although:

"There was, however, a lingering twilight of the transaction in the fact that there was immediately a daily unaccountable diminution among the finer delicacies of our private headquarters' mess-stores; and that on moonlight evenings there was as item of the report, 'present but not accounted for,' concerning the horse and also the material personality of our provost marshal; both of whom had undoubtedly passed into a state which science taking refuge in electrical metaphysics denominates 'the fourth dimension'."(21)

back to top


1. Tom to Lieutenant Holman Melcher, February 24, 1864 (Tom Chamberlain's Military Records, National Archives).
2. Tom Chamberlain's Military Records (National Archives). Lawrence to Colonel Fred. T. Locke, Fifth Corps Assistant Adjutant-General, April 27, 1865 (OR, series 1, vol.46, pt.3, p.971).
3. Eugene Arus Nash, A History of the Forty-fourth Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1911, Morningside Press reprint 1988), p.201. Chamberlain Association of America, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: A Sketch (1905, reprint by Brian L. Higgins 1995), pp.15-16. Diane Monroe Smith, Chamberlain at Petersburg: The Charge at Fort Hell, June 18, 1864 (Thomas Publications, 2004), p.71.The badly misshapen minié ball, believed to be that which injured Lawrence, is now in the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum in the Chamberlain House at Brunswick, Maine. One author, Allan Levinsky in At Home with the General: A Visit to the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum (Thomas Publications, 2002), has stated that it was Tom who brought the bullet from Petersburg and later gave it to the Museum, but I have found no specific evidence for this claim.
4. Chamberlain Association of America, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: A Sketch, p.15. Golay (p.6) says, "Chamberlain himself may have written - certainly he heavily edited - the Sketch."
5. Lawrence to Colonel Fred. T. Locke, April 27, 1865 (OR, series 1, vol.46, pt.3, p.971). OR, series 1, vol.42, pt.3, p.173. Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.156.
6. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Newly promoted 2nd Lieutenant James C. Rundlett took over command of Company G (Rundlett's Military Records, reproduced in Carlotta Wells, ed., Rundlett's War).
7. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, December 13, 1864, and to John Chamberlain, December 18, 1864 (Bowdoin College). Being Provost Marshal was not quite as safe as Tom maintained. Less than four months previously, the Provost Marshal of the Fifth Corps' Fourth Division, Captain Dennis Dailey, had been shot "through the body" (though not fatally) by an enemy General at Globe Tavern (William H. Powell, The Fifth Army Corps (Army of the Potomac): A Record of Operations During the Civil War in the United States of America, 1861-1865, 1896, Morningside Press reprint 1984, pp.718-720).
8. Official Report of Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, December 14, 1864 (OR, series 1, vol.42, pt.1, p.445). Amos M. Judson, History of the Eighty-Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (1865, Morningside Press reprint 1986), p.236. Official Report of Brigadier General Charles Griffin, December 15, 1864 (OR, series 1, vol.42, pt.1, p.460).
9. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, December 13, 1864, and to John Chamberlain, December 18, 1864 (Bowdoin College).
10. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives).
11. Tom to Colonel Fred. T. Locke, Jan 16, 1865 (Tom Chamberlain's Military Records, National Archives). Certificate of Disability (extending Tom's leave of absence), Feb 3, 1865 (Bowdoin College).
12. Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire, p.152 (Lawrence to Sae Chamberlain, March 9, 1865).
13. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.508.
14. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, April 11, 1865 (Maine Historical Society).
15. Pullen, The Twentieth Maine, p.268 (Tom to John Chamberlain, April 14, 1865).
16. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "The Third Brigade at Appomattox", in Norton, Army Letters, p.354.
17. Chamberlain, The Passing Of The Armies, p.259. Maine Gettysburg Commissioners, Maine at Gettysburg, p.286. Some doubt has been cast on Lawrence's version of events by recent writers such as William Marvel in A Place Called Appomattox (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp.259-262, 358-359: "Chamberlain was the only original source of the claim that he commanded the surrender ceremony; he offered no witnesses or documentation, and none has been found... Circumstantial evidence points to Bartlett commanding the parade formation, including Chamberlain's own reference to Bartlett retaining the division flag" (p.358). That Lawrence took some important part in the ceremony seems certain, but if he had played quite such a starring role in the proceedings as he claimed, Tom might perhaps have been expected to mention it in letters home.
18. Lawrence to Colonel Fred. T. Locke, April 27, 1865 (OR, series 1, vol.46, pt.3, p.971). Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.65 (Charles D. Gilmore to Captain Morgan, February 20, 1865; Charles Griffin, February 22, 1865).
19. Chamberlain, The Passing Of The Armies, p.293. Lawrence does not actually mention Tom by name in this anecdote, calling him simply "our young provost marshal."
20. Ibid, p.294. The Jacqueminot is a deep red rose: Lawrence was a very keen gardener!
21. Ibid, p.296.

back to top

back to Tom Chamberlain Home Page
back to Chapter Two
on to Chapter Four

Copyright (c) 1998, 2004 Rosemary Pardoe