More often than not, medical advancements occur through episodes of trial and error. In today’s post, I want us to look at the story of a man who was heavily involved in that trial and error process and how his life was ultimately impacted by the care that he had received. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the infamous college professor turned war hero, helped advance catheterization methods after he was wounded at Petersburg in 1864.

Image Credit:

Pre-Civil War:

Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Maine in 1828, the eldest of five children (“Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain”). He came from a line of ancestors who had fought valiantly in battle and his father hoped that he would one day become a military man himself. Being a man of incredible wit and self-sufficiency, Chamberlain mastered seven languages and studied to become a member of the clergy. After completing seminary school, he began a career as a professor at Bowdoin in 1855. Once the Civil War broke out, he often spoke of the country’s need for men to make sacrifices for the good of the nation. The call to arms pulled at his heart strings and he eventually was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine. After being appointed, Chamberlain used his free time to study up on military tactics, believing that he would one day need the knowledge and inspiration (Peatman). 

The Gettysburg Campaign:

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is most well known for his role in Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. His regiment, the 20th Maine infantry was posted on the far left of the federal line and needed to hold their position (“Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain”). His men fought through the waves of oncoming rebels before finally running low on ammunition. In a desperate attempt to end the ensuing onslaught, Chamberlain commanded his men to take up their bayonets. They charged down the hill and successfully prevented Confederate troops from taking hold of the hill and rolling up the Union Line. This battle is famously known as Little Round Top. Chamberlain was later awarded the medal of honor for his efforts that day.

“The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

Painting depicting the famous bayonet charge of the battle of Little Round Top in Gettysburg, PA. Image credit: historynet.

The Fatal Wound:

It is interesting to note that Lawrence Chamberlain, later wrote in his memoir, that he felt that he was about to die the evening before he was wounded at Petersburg. 

“I had a strange feeling that evening, premonition of coming ill. I walked down through the ranks of my silent and sleeping men, drawing a blanket more closely over one….A shadow seemed to brood over me, dark wings folding as if it were [or a pall] and wrapping me in their embrace. Something said ‘You will not be here again. This is your last.’”

Chamberlain’s premonition was sure to come true. He was wounded a total of six times throughout his active service time, but the worst occurred at Petersburg in June of 1864 (“Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain”). While leading his men on foot, a shot ricocheted off of a rock and entered his right hip and exited his left hip (Jewett). The bullet shattered his pelvis, tore through muscle and ligaments and passed through his bladder. Chamberlain used his sword as a support to continue standing alongside his men before finally passing out due to blood loss. Surgeons in the field hospital believed his wounds to be fatal, but tried desperately to save him anyway. 

The medical staff tried to remove the minie ball and reconnect the damaged vessels and urinary passageways. Lawrence was sedated but he was awake throughout the surgical procedures. It is rumored that he encouraged his surgeons to carry on with their treatments despite the pain and hardship. Dr. Bernard Vanderkieft took charge of Chamberlain’s case and worked to prevent urine leakage and bleeding. Eventually urosepsis set in and Chamberlain had to fight for his life through the infection. Dr. Vanderkieft believed that Chamberlain’s only hope for survival involved him inserting an L-shaped catheter into Chamberlain in order to allow the surrounding wounds to heal without risk of another infection (Jewett). 

Drawing showing path that the bullet took through Chamberlain’s pelvis. Image credit:

Although catheters had been used as far back as ancient Rome, they were not safe. It wasn’t until the 19th century that any significant advancements were made. Catheters during this time were usually made of wood or silver. Rubber ones existed but were not favored because the unstable rubber would begin deteriorating in the body and cause a mess of complications (Jewett). The wounds Chamberlain had sustained led him to depend upon prolonged catheterization and his doctors had to work to find a way to do so that was sustainable and safe. At the time of his injury there were no flexible plastics, antibiotics, or sturdy rubbers like we have today. Prolonged catheterization caused scar tissue to form in his urethra and he underwent numerous surgeries throughout the remainder of his lifetime to correct the problem. Eventually he would recover and go on to participate in the Appomattox campaign.

Later Years:

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was given the honor of accepting the Confederate surrender and he ordered his men to salute the defeated rebels (Balestrieri). After returning to Maine, he ended up serving four straight one year terms as Governor and later was appointed president of Bowdoin college. At the age of seventy, he volunteered for the Spanish-American war but was denied due his health complications (Balestrieri). Chamberlain also visited Gettysburg many times and helped orchestrate reunions for the men who fought there. His final visit to the battlefield was in May of 1913. He passed away on February 24, 1914 due to complications associated with the wound he sustained at Peterburg 50 years previously. Lawrence Chamberlain is considered to be the last casualty of the Civil War. 

Please check out my other Civil War posts HERE.

Until Next Time



·         Balestrieri, Steve. “Remembering Joshua Chamberlain, MOH, “The Last Casualty of the Civil War.” SOFREP. 18 June, 2018. Accessed 22 July, 2021.

·         Jewett, Jessica. “Experiments on Joshua l. Chamberlain’s Petersburg Wounds Led to Modern Care.” National Museum of Civil War Medicine. 24 August, 2020. Accessed 22 July, 2021.

·         “Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.” American Battlefield Trust. Accessed 22 July, 2021.

Peatman, Jared. “Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.” Essential Civil War Curriculum. Accessed 22 July, 2021.

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