Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: Professor, Soldier, Christian Man of Honor

One hundred years ago tomorrow, a great and noble American passed into eternity.  On February 24, 1914, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Union Army officer, Bowdoin College professor, governor of Maine, and Christian gentleman, died at the age of eighty-five at his home in Portland, Maine of a battle wound incurred almost fifty years before.  It is fitting that we honor him, an illustrious ancestor of ours, and draw from his life inspiration and courage to face the battles of our day.

(The author is indebted to Alice Rain Trulock's excellent Chamberlain biography In the Hands of Providence: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the American Civil War, from which all of the Chamberlain quotes are taken.)

He was born Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain on September 8, 1828, on a farm near Brewer, Maine, eldest of the five children of Joshua and Sarah Chamberlain and the son and grandson of soldiers.  Growing up on a farm, Chamberlain learned to work hard and overcome obstacles.  He later wrote of how his father once pushed him to finish an urgent task by saying "Do it, that's how!" -- a saying that became a maxim for the young man.1

The physical toughness that enabled him to survive six wartime wounds were combined in Chamberlain with intellectual sharpness and religious piety.  He mastered nine languages in addition to English and served as professor of rhetoric and modern languages, eventually teaching every subject taught at Bowdoin College except mathematics and science.  And he planned at one time to serve as a congregational minister, studying for three years at Bangor Theological Seminary.

All of that was changed by the onset of the Civil War.  Taking a leave of absence from his professorship in 1862, Chamberlain secured from the governor of Maine a commission as lieutenant colonel of the Twentieth Maine Infantry Regiment, and he served for the rest of the war, eventually attaining the rank of brevet major general and being selected as the ranking Union officer at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Apparently Chamberlain was literally fearless in battle, and General Charles Griffin said, "It is a magnificent sight to see Chamberlain in battle." 

But what sets Chamberlain apart was his poetic and spiritual sensitivity.  His writings reveal a man who combined courage and mental toughness with a great reverence for life and a sensitivity to the inner meanings of things.  A sense of his extraordinary character is conveyed by General Daniel Sickels' saying to Chamberlain, "You have the soul of the lion and the heart of the woman."  Rather than filing in more of the details of the outer circumstances of his life that can easily be obtained by reading the Wikipedia article linked above, this essay will attempt to give the reader a sense of Chamberlain by briefly examining three incidents from the Civil War: Little Round Top, Rives' Salient, and Appomattox.

Little Round Top

Chamberlain gained fame at the Battle of Gettysburg by leading his regiment in the successful defense of the extreme left flank of the Union position, at a hill called Little Round Top.  Outnumbered by the attacking Confederates of the Fifteenth Alabama, Chamberlain's men successfully repulsed many attacks until, with his men so low on ammunition that they would likely have been unable to repel a pending Rebel assault, Chamberlain ordered a surprise bayonet countercharge that routed the enemy.

Almost fifty years later, visiting the battlefield in preparation for the 1913 celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, Chamberlain penned these words2:

I went -- it is not long ago -- to stand again upon that crest whose one day's crown of fire has passed into the blazoned coronet of fame; to look again upon the rocks whereon were laid as on the altar the lives of [colonels] Vincent and O'Rorke...

And farther on where my own young heroes mounted to fall no more -- Billings, the valor of whose onward-looking eyes not death itself could quench; Kendall, almost maiden-sweet and fair, yet heeding not the bolts that dashed his life-blood on the rocks, Estes and Steele, and Noyes and Buck, lifted high above self...and far up the rugged sides of Great Round Top, swept in darkness...where the impetuous Linscott halted at last before the morning star.

I sat there alone on the storied crest, till the sun went down as it did before over the misty hills, and the darkness crept up the slopes, till from all earthly sight I was buried as with those before.  But oh, what radiant companionship rose around, what steadfast ranks of power, what bearing of heroic souls.  Oh, the glory that beamed through those days and nights.  Nobody will ever know it here!... The proud young valor that rose above the mortal, and then at last was mortal after all...

Rives' Salient

In the early days of the siege of Petersburg, a battle that lasted for nearly ten months, the Union Army had a chance to capture the city before the Confederates defenses had been set.  On the last day of the unsuccessful assault, Colonel Chamberlain, now commanding the First Brigade of the First Division, Fifth Corp, Army of the Potomac, was seriously wounded as he led his men into battle.  The bullet entered his right hip and passed nearly through his entire body.  Despite the serious blow, Chamberlain remained standing so that his men would not be demoralized by the sight of their commander struck down.  Eventually he passed out and was carried by stretcher to a hospital.

Operating without anesthesia, the doctors were at one point convinced they were inflicting needless pain on an already mortally wounded man, but Chamberlain, thinking of his duty to family, country, and God, urged them to continue trying to save his life.  Eventually they were able to patch him up enough that he had a chance of recovery.

The next day, in great pain and believing himself likely to be on his deathbed, Chamberlain wrote a farewell note to his wife, the former Frances Caroline Adams, his beloved Fannie.  Even in extreme discomfort, Chamberlain thought first of comforting his loved ones (punctuated as in original)3:

My darling wife I am lying mortally wounded the doctors think, but my mind & heart are at peace. Jesus Christ is my all-sufficient savior.  I go to him.  God bless and keep & comfort you, precious one, you have been a precious wife to me.  To know & love you makes life & death beautiful. Cherish the darlings & give my love to all the dear ones.  Do not grieve too much for me.  We shall all soon meet.  Live for the children.  Give my dearest love to Father, mother, Sallie & John Oh how happy to feel yourself forgiven God bless you evermore precious precious one Ever yours, Lawrence.

Chamberlain lived, and recovered enough to return to his command, participating in the battles that led eventually to the surrender of General Lee, a surrender that for all intents and purposes ended the war.  After one particularly courageous effort in steadying his men before a Rebel onslaught at the battle of Five Forks Chamberlain was actually cheered by the enemy.  "I hardly knew what world I was in," he later wrote.4  But his greatest deed may have been achieved immediately after hostilities ceased.


Generals Grant and Lee selected subordinates to preside over the actual event of the Confederates surrendering their arms and colors.  Lee chose Major General John Gordon of Georgia to lead the Army of Northern Virginia in their last march into the Union camp, and Grant selected Chamberlain to command the Union side.

As Gordon at the head of the Confederate column reached Chamberlain at the head of the Union line arrayed at roadside, a bugle sounded, and the entire Union snapped to attention.  They did not offer the highest possible honor, the "present arms" in which each man holds his rifle in front, vertically, with both hands (a salute seen whenever foreign dignitaries are greeted by an honor guard), but instead the second-highest honor, in which each man momentarily holds his weapon at "carry arms," at his side.

Gordon and his men instantly recognized the honor.  The confederate general turned his horse toward Chamberlain, saluted by dropping his sword to his boot, and ordered his men to return the Union salute with an identical salute.  Said Chamberlain of the event:

[It was] honor answering honor5... On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead.6

Chamberlain's magnanimity generated controversy at the time, but it was a clear expression of his honor.  The Rebels had been defeated, the bloodletting had passed, and it was now the task of the nation to knit together the pieces that had been sundered.  Only a man of Chamberlain's stature, a man wounded six times in the service of his country, a man of unquestionable integrity, would have had the credentials so to honor his former enemies.

Here ends our all-too-brief homage to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain approaching the one hundredth anniversary of his death.  The author urges the reader to learn more of this great American, if for no other reason than to observe how greatness is always possible.

Alan Roebuck blogs at the Orthosphere.

1 Quoted in Trulock, p. 33

2 Chamberlain, "Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg." Quoted in Trulock, pp. 380-381

3 Chamberlain to Fannie, June 19, 1864. Quoted in Trulock, p. 215

4 Chamberlain, "The Passing of the Armies." Quoted inTrulock, p. 235

5 Chamberlain "Third Brigade at Appomattox." Quoted in Trulock, p. 305

6 Chamberlain "The Passing of the Armies." Quoted in Trulock, p. 305

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