Saturday, May 27, 2023

“A Horrid, Hellish Dream”

George E. Chamberlin (1838–1864)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

“Bomb-Proof Rifle-Pit in Front of Petersburg,” sketch by American artist Andrew W. Warren (1823–1873) for Harper's Weekly Magazine, November 5, 1864. Between June 1864 and April 1865 Union troops camped outside Petersburg, Virginia, and constructed trench lines thirty miles long from which they conducted attacks in the area around the city. Image via Son of the South.
“Has father told you about my war fever? What does mother think of it?” George Chamberlin wrote to his sister Mary in June 1862. He had just graduated from Harvard Law School and in less than a month he would turn 24; his prospects were uncertain because of the ongoing war. “I wonder I did not go long ago. There is every reason for my going, and no sound ones why I should not. I have been thinking all the spring that if opportunity offered, I should try for a commission. It is a hard time to commence in business, and probably I should not be able to support myself at law for some time to come.”

Chamberlin was commissioned in August as a major in the 11th Vermont Volunteer Infantry (renamed the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery later that year), and he served in the fortifications defending Washington, D.C. A year later, during the summer of 1863, he fell in love with 23-year-old Adelia (“Delie”) Gardiner; she was visiting her older brother, Aleck, who was stationed nearby. George and Delie were married on October 1. The following spring, she returned to her home in New York when the 1st Vermont became one of several heavy artillery regiments sent from the capital to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Chamberlin’s regiment reached Spotsylvania on May 15 and came under fire for the first time three days later. On June 1, during the Battle of Cold Harbor, 119 men were killed or wounded, and on June 18 the regiment arrived outside of Petersburg, Virginia.

The fighting at Petersburg during the previous four days had captured several defensive positions but, despite the Union Army’s superior numbers, it had failed to take the city itself. General Ulysses S. Grant decided not to stage any further frontal assaults on the city; instead, Union troops began to entrench to the east and southeast. For the next nine months Grant would launch attacks in the area around Petersburg, and eventually the Union forces constructed trench lines that extended over 30 miles. Toward the end of June, Chamberlin wrote to his father about the experience of “trench life,” and we reprint that letter below as our Story of the Week selection.

What can this mean, I hear you exclaim,” George wrote to Delie in a letter sent unexpectedly from Washington in early July. His regiment had rushed to the capital to help defend against a raid led by Confederate lieutenant general Jubal A. Early. On July 25, Chamberlin announced in a letter to his family in Vermont that he had recently been promoted to lieutenant colonel. Since he expected to be stationed in the city for a while, he sent a separate letter to Delie and suggested she return “to join the defences of Washington.” She excitedly agreed and began to make preparations, but barely a week later his regiment was sent across the Potomac in pursuit of raiders who were continuing their attacks around the city, and he hurriedly dispatched a telegram telling her to remain in New York.

By August 7, Chamberlin and his troops had reached Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, when he unexpectedly ran into a familiar face. “I have seen dear Aleck,” he wrote to Delie. “Is not this good, if we must be in the war at all, that we can be together?” Positioned within a half-mile of each other, the brothers-in-law were able to meet on several occasions while they waited in their respective camps for orders. On August 21, George wrote a hurriedly scribbled letter to Elie when an attack seemed imminent. “Darling, we are in God's hands, and His will is better and wiser than our will; we will love and trust Him, and be satisfied — orders to strike tents and pack up immediately — picket firing in front is quite sharp — increasing for the last half hour — and it seems nearer as though our pickets were falling back. Good-bye.” George was shot during a skirmish south of Charles Town. He was moved to a bed in a home near the town but, because Union forces had been ordered to fall back to Harpers Ferry, and despite the severity of his wounds, he was carried during the night to an army hospital at Sandy Hook, Maryland. Lieutenant Colonel George E. Chamberlin died the following morning.

A week later, Aleck wrote his sister with regret that he had not learned of George’s wounds until it was too late; he was only minutes away from the scene. “Standing yesterday upon the spot where he fell, I could see plainly to the left the ground where I rode and sat during that afternoon.”
He told me one evening, not a dozen miles from here, that when he entered the army he did so with a full understanding of the danger attending it; that he did not expect to escape, and was prepared to meet whatever fate be fell him, but since his marriage he had felt differently; that he wanted to live; that he felt it his duty to take care of himself for his wife’s sake.
On September 19, three weeks after sending this letter, Aleck was shot on the field at the Third Battle of Winchester. Colonel Alexander Gardiner, 31 years old, died of his wounds on October 7, leaving behind a wife of five years and their two children.

Notes: Lieutenant Colonel Reuben C. Benton resigned after contracting a malarial fever. Colonel James M. Warner was wounded at Spotsylvania on May 18 and sent home to convalesce. The Garton Branch and Petersburg Railroad was more commonly known as the Weldon Railroad. Captain M. was Edwin J. Morrill of St. Johnsbury, who had enlisted in August 1862; he was taken prisoner, wounded while trying to escape on June 29, and died the following day. Lieutenant-Colonel P. was Samuel E. Pingree of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. As the corps officer of the day, Pingree commanded the advance detachments that formed the brigade skirmish line on June 23. Pingree escaped capture and was mustered out on July 27. He later served as governor of Vermont, 1884–86. Major F. was Charles K. Fleming, who was captured on June 23, and held in a military prison in Columbia, South Carolina, before being paroled on February 28, 1865. Lieutenant R. was Lieutenant Lester S. Richards, who was paroled on March 1, 1865. Totten and Lincoln were forts in the Washington area. Carrie was Chamberlin’s younger sister, Caroline.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Chamberlin’s letter, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

“A Horrid, Hellish Dream”

HEADQUARTERS 1ST ART’Y, 11TH VT. VOLS., June 27, 1864.

My Dear Father:

How often, in the midst of all these dangers and privations, my mind turns back to that delightful home where I once lived so joyfully, so peacefully with my father, my mother, and brother and sisters. What blessed days, when the country was at peace; what awful days these, of blood, and carnage, and hate. The realities of war, you who have never been on the battlefield can never know or even imagine. To me, who have seen it, it seems more like a horrid, hellish dream, rather than a fact. There will be a fearful reckoning with those who are responsible for all this. Ours is the right side, but we have hard work before us. God will give us the victory sometime, and will surely put our wicked enemies to shame and confusion.

I wish I could write you oftener, but it has been impossible. To Delie I have written very frequently, but beyond this have done no writing, except what was required in my official capacity. I think I have written you only once before since leaving Washington. The campaign has been intensely active and laborious. The night work has been particularly severe, the greater part of the marching having been done by night. At dark, on the evening of June 12th, we left Cold Harbor, and marched all night and all the next day. At evening we rested on the right bank of the Chickahominy, and I was laying my blankets preparing for a good night’s sleep, when an order came, detailing me as division officer of the day, and I was on picket line all night without sleep, and marched the greater part of next day. Fatigues, that at home would be thought terrible, entirely too much for flesh and blood to endure, are an every week’s occurrence here, and we learn to bear them very naturally.

Delie has written you often, and through her you have been made acquainted with the items of news from time to time. I have been in command of the regiment for about two weeks. Lieutenant-Colonel Benton has resigned and gone home. Colonel Warner is at his home still.

On the 23d, the regiment met with a very great misfortune. We were in line of battle, facing the Garton Branch and Petersburg railroad. A report came in that a party of sharpshooters had pushed forward and taken the road, and wanted support. Two hundred men from our regiment were called for, and immediately sent under charge of Captain M., to be reported to Lieutenant-Colonel P., corps officer of the day. Soon after, I was called on for more men, and sent out Major F. with his battalion. Four hundred of our men were now out. In the afternoon the enemy moved two brigades rapidly down the railroad, formed as a skirmish line, and advanced on our skirmish line, which, not being properly supported, was finally driven back, and a portion of it captured. In that part of the line were our noble boys, and we have lost the greater part of them. Our total loss on that day was twenty-four killed and wounded, and two hundred and seventy-five prisoners. Of these, one officer was killed (Second-Lieutenant Sherman, a fine man and officer) and eighteen captured. My old company, A, is among the unfortunate. Captain M. and Lieutenant R. will know the beauties of a Southern prison. The batteries captured are F, L, K, H and A. A and K were my Totten companies, and L was with me at Lincoln. The greater part of the Fourth Vermont was taken at the same time. The fault was with the corps commander in not ordering proper supports. Our officers and men did their whole duty.

We have had a good deal of trench life during the campaign at Cold Harbor and at Petersburg. We dig up into the very teeth of the enemy, and then watch him. It is not safe to expose one’s head above the embankment, as a few sharpshooters keep up their murderous work through little loopholes in the parapet; otherwise there is not much firing. Living under ground is very dirty work, as you can imagine. One night, I remember to have been awakened by something on my neck, which I discovered to be a medium sized toad. Bugs and worms crawl over us promiscuously. What a sad sight, in this enlightened age, to see the sections of this civilized nation fighting each other with such insatiable fury. How much more congenial to our tastes, and how much more consonant with all our christian feelings and impulses, is peace, harmony, brotherly love. God deliver the nation soon from the chastisement of fire and blood which He has seen fit to send upon us.

How soon Carrie will graduate—day after to-morrow. It is probably an occasion of as much interest to her as mine was to me, nearly four years ago. Do any of you go to Troy? Delie wrote that mother would not go. I hope some of you will be there to see her take her honors. I well remember my gratification at seeing you all at Hanover. Delie, I think, has decided to go to Vermont. This I am very glad of, and have advised it all the time. How she will enjoy a visit there! You must drive away her sadness. She is very anxious for me, and I fear it is wearing upon her severely. I hope the Green Mountain air, and the many dear friends she will find there, will cause her to rally, and be as cheerful and healthy as ever. A husband and wife who love each other as we do, have no business to be separated as we are. You will all take good, tender care of her, won’t you? Cheer her up and comfort her by every means in your power. If you knew how kind, attentive and devoted she has always been to me, you could not help loving her for my sake. And you do know all about it, and you do love her for my sake, and for herself too. You have seen her, and you know that nobody has a better wife than I. How I wish I might be there with you. All will be there but the “boys.” You will miss us. How happy we should be together around that home circle again. I should be happier than ever to be there with my new companion, and you would be happier to see me with her than alone, for I know you joy in my joy. God has blessed me with the kindest of friends always, and I pray for a life long enough to show them that I am grateful. We were very sorry you did not return via Washington with Mary. I have had an intimation that you would remove West this fall. Is it so? I want to hear all about it. By the way, why haven’t I heard from any of you? I think I have not had a single letter since the campaign commenced. That isn’t right. My address is 1st Artillery, 11th Vt. Vols., 2d Brig., 2d Division, 6th Corps, Washington. The weather is very hot. The army is comparatively quiet, and will remain so, probably, until after muster day, the 30th.

Much love to my dear mother and sisters, and also to Edward, when you write. How dear is each and every one to me! Let me hear soon.
Your affectionate son.

From Letters of George E. Chamberlin, Who Fell in the Service of His Country near Charlestown, Va., August 21st, 1864 (1883).