Wounded at Petersburg

In November 1863, Chamberlain was forced to give up his command when he came down with malaria, an infectious disease. Transferred to Washington, he performed light duties during his recovery. In May 1864, his doctors said he was ready to resume his command of the Twentieth Maine. He promptly rejoined the Army of the Potomac, which was engaged at the time in a bloody stalemate with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

But Chamberlain's return to active duty lasted only a few weeks. In June 1864, he took part in a Union assault on Petersburg, Virginia, where Lee's army had erected strong defenses. The Union offensive failed, and Chamberlain was seriously wounded in the attack. A single Confederate bullet smashed through both of his hips and his pelvis. As the bul let continued through his body, it also tore into important arteries and nicked his bladder. Yet Chamberlain stayed on his feet despite his wound. He leaned on his sword with one hand and waved his men forward with the other until they had passed him by. He then collapsed in a bloody heap.

When Chamberlain was dragged from the field of battle, nobody thought that he would live. His doctors believed that his wounds were mortal, and Chamberlain himself dictated a farewell letter to his wife. Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885; see entry) immediately promoted him to brigadier general as a way of honoring him before he died. Obituaries mourning Chamberlain's death even appeared in several Northern newspapers. But the former language professor stubbornly refused to die. As the days passed by, he delighted his doctors and superior officers by beginning a slow but remarkable recovery.

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