September 08, 2005

Happy Birthday, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain


Today is the birthday (in 1828) of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a truly remarkable figure in American history. He's best known now, after the movie Gettysburg, as the Colonel of the 20th Maine who held the extreme left flank of the Union Army at Little Round Top (for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor).* However, this wasn't his only service: prior to Gettysburg, he had seen action at the battles of Fredericksburg and Antietem as well. After Gettysburg, he led his regiment at Spotsylvania, Cold Springs Harbor and the Petersburg Campaign, during which he was breveted Brigadier General by General Grant. During the course of the war, he was wounded five or six times (including a bad wound received at Petersburg which eventually killed him in 1914) and was almost capture several times, more than once escaping in the confusion by pretending to be a Confederate officer.

Chamberlain was in command of the Union troops that formally accepted the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox Court House. He caused a considerable stir by having his men formally salute the passing Rebel army:

Chamberlain felt deeply touched when he learned that he was selected to receive the formal surrender of arms and colors of Lee's army. At his request, he was reunited with the 20th Maine and members of the 3rd Brigade, whom he modestly believed should be the real recipients of this honor. On April 12, Confederate General John B. Gordon and his soldiers were met by Chamberlain and the Fifth Corps at Appomattox. Upon their arrival, the Confederates were astonished to be honorably welcomed by the marching salute. This gracious reception prompted Gordon and his soldiers to salute Chamberlain and his men in return. In his speeches and memoirs, Gordon would always remember Chamberlain as "one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army."

Chamberlain wrote about this himself in The Passing of the Armies. (He wrote several other volumes of memoirs about the war that I haven't read.) The book captures both his academic training to see the Big Picture (he had been a professor at Bowdoin before the war) as well as his brand of New England Radical Republicanism. (The Chamberlains were friends with the Stowes, as in Harriet Beacher, and were prominant Abolishionists.) It also reflects his incredible love and respect for his men.

I may be mistaken, but I find Chamberlain's post-War life rather sad. It's true that he went on to become Governor of Maine and served as President of Bowdoin College. He also participated in a couple of business ventures that never really went anywhere and wound up as Inspector of Customs for the Port of Portland. The sense I get from the biographies I've read is that it all seemed a bit empty to him after the heroic glory of the war. But then, after what he had experienced, how could it not?

(* Just as an aside, I think that Jeff Daniels absolutely nailed Chamberlain's character in the movie.)

Posted by Robert at September 8, 2005 12:08 PM | TrackBack

If memory serves, he taught every course in the curriculum at Bowdoin except methematics. Ken Burns' miniseries The Civil War reported that he died of the wounds received at Petersburg in 1914, fifty years after Gettysburg, although it is more likely he simply died of old age.

Posted by: LMC at September 8, 2005 12:30 PM

You know, Inspector of Customs was rather a big deal, wasn't it? A lot of money flowed through that position and it was usually a patronage appointment.

Anyway, thanks for the reminder. He was a great man.

Posted by: RP at September 8, 2005 12:43 PM

As of 1988, Army ROTC courses still featured his tactical improvisation at Gettysburg as an example of military initiative.

Posted by: John at September 8, 2005 01:12 PM

I've been to Little Round Top. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine could easily have been surrounded by the Confederate forces - he had a set of nuts as big as cannon balls.

Posted by: Gary at September 8, 2005 02:47 PM

Nothing says "big brass balls" like "fix bayonets."

That's hardcore.

Posted by: The Colossus at September 8, 2005 02:48 PM

Alright, where to start. We, my husband and I, just happened to be extras in the prequel to Gettysburg, Gods and Generals. Husband met Jeff Daniels, if you look close you can even see my husband charging up the hill at Fredericksburg right behind Daniels...and Jeff Daniels, to all accounts, is a conceited snot. Stephen Lang aka Stonewall Jackson, was really nice, in fact, we have a picture of my husband shaking hands with him. I didn't get to meet anyone, but was at VMI for filiming.

Chamberlain...well, thanks to the movie "Gettysburg" no one even remembers Strong Vincent of the 83rd PA. (The unit we portrayed, we are CW reenactors!) "Hold the line at all costs!" Yes, that was our fearless leader, who took over because his CO was drunk. (Coincidentally, Vincent was born in my hometown of Waterford, PA, moved up to Erie, and the rest is history. Look it up.)

My gripe is that all the attention is on Chamberlain! Yeah, that bayonet charge, uh-huh, but the 83rd was a big part too. Strong Vincent's statue is tucked down Little Round Top, it can hardly be seen!

Sorry, I'm too passionate about this stuff.

Posted by: GroovyVic at September 9, 2005 06:29 AM
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