Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Citizen-Soldier

By Victor A. Walsh

There can be no home without a country, and no life without honor.
~ Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1867

Granite monument at Gettysburg dedicated to the 20th Maine Regiment, Thomas Conroy
Granite monument at Gettysburg dedicated to the 20th Maine Regiment, Thomas Conroy

At dawn from the observation tower, the mist hovers over the farm fields of Gettysburg National Military Park like wisps of smoke from a thousand campfires.

There are few visitors in the park: no caravans of cars, no crowds, only the haunting silence of this hallowed ground. The statues of generals, officers, infantrymen, and sharpshooters embellish the battlefield in bronze and granite.

We drive south along Warfield Ridge through a thickly wooded area to Little Round Top, the most visited and best-known site in the park. It is quiet, almost tomb-like. The mist shrouds the woods in a dark ambient green pall. A vast canopy of sprigs and branches jutting out from the tall hardwoods shuts out any trace of sky, while the leaves on the upper branches rustle in the wind like a dirge.

We all know what happened here 150 years ago on July 2, 1863 — thanks to Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels and Gettysburg, the film adapted from the historical novel.

Amid the smoke and din of musketry, the 20th Maine volunteer infantry arrived at the last moment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a former Bowdoin College professor, to hold the extreme flank of the Union Army against a Confederate brigade. With their ammunition nearly exhausted and facing the possibility of yet another assault, he led his regiment in a daring countercharge that surprised and routed the panic-stricken rebels.

“The edge of conflict swayed to and from,” recalled Chamberlain. “Every where men torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring stark into the sky.”

Chamberlain's Medal of Honor, 1893, Bowdoin College
Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor, 1893, Bowdoin College

Of the 358 engaged in the two-hour battle, 38 members of the 20th Maine were killed or mortally wounded and 93 more suffered injury. Chamberlain was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism and tactical leadership, but the professor-turned soldier was not the only hero on that muggy afternoon. Colonel Strong Vincent, his brigade commander, and Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, commander of the 140th New York, were both fatally shot while leading counter-assaults that in Chamberlain’s words “…saved us in that moment of threatened doom.” Without their decisive response to reinforce the Union line and earlier artillery support, the 20th Maine would not have had the opportunity to make their famous countercharge.

Chamberlain will always be remembered for his action at Little Round Top, even though his military service during the war’s last year in Virginia at the battles of Quaker Road, Petersburg, and Five Forks was in some ways more notable. By the end of the war, he had fought in some twenty engagements and had been wounded six times; twice almost fatally, at Petersburg in 1864 and Quaker Road in 1865.

As a result of Gettysburg and Jeff Daniels’ inspirational portrayal, Chamberlain reemerged from historical obscurity in the 1990s to become a near mythic, deeply revered military figure. The movie’s popularity and the rise of the reenactor movement prompted popular and academic presses to churn out multiple biographies, which focus on Chamberlain’s public role as an extraordinary commander, the four-term Governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College, and Grand Army of the Republic luminary.

When Chamberlain returned home to Brunswick, Maine after receiving the Confederate surrender of arms at Appomattox, he was a changed man. Over the ensuing decades, the memory of that war would always be at the core of his existence. He was no longer a soft-spoken, unknown professor from Maine, but a nationally recognized war hero basking in the spotlight of fame.

His role as one of the Union Army’s most able military commanders and his distinguished postwar career, the focus of most scholarship on his life, provides an incomplete portrait of the man. It ignores the introspective Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: how he dealt personally with the memory of that great conflagration and its effect on his private life and public persona.

Joshua Chamberlain
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the 1860s

The commitment to comrades-in-arms and the rites of duty, honor, courage, self-sacrifice, and above all else, the idealism of his war years had left a deep, psychic imprint on him. He joined virtually every veterans’ organization, became president of the 20th Maine Society and the Society of the Army of the Potomac, spoke throughout the Northeast on the war, and wrote scores of articles and two books. He played a major role in preparing Gettysburg’s 50th anniversary (1913) — the largest reunion of Blue and Gray ever held — although his precarious health prevented him from attending.

His unabashed ambition, unbending positions on controversial issues, and frequent departures from Brunswick frayed his relationships with Bowdoin College and the state’s Republican Party leadership and momentarily strained a troubled marriage with his wife, Fannie. His near fatal wound from a minie ball passing through both hips and shattering his pelvis at Petersburg in 1864 left him in constant pain, incontinent, and susceptible to chronic bladder and testicular infections.

Chamberlain fervently believed that secession would not only destroy the country’s very existence, but also its Republican legacy as the world’s beacon of liberty. For him, like his commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln, the war was about bequeathing the Union’s rights and dignities to future generations, as well as preserving them for his generation.

In a letter to General Charles Henry Smith on April 12, 1866, he decried any and all efforts to quickly restore the Southern states to the Union as a betrayal of the ideals for which the war had been fought.

If we fail in attaining these ends then was the blood of our heroes poured out in vain, and our treasure worse than wasted. If this war has taught any one lesson more importantly than another, it is that we should be slow to trust those who have been disloyal to the country, and that we should do justice to those who stood by her in the hour of danger and trial.

Secession must be repudiated with its debts and claims, its spirit and principle.

He told the Maine legislature in his first Governor’s Address in 1867 that secession “…was no peaceful separation; it was war upon the Union, and that meant the destruction of the United States — body, life, and being.”

Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 by the Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth left Chamberlain, like many Union soldiers, stunned and distraught. He received the tragic news while the Army of the Potomac was en route towards Washington D.C. for fear of further actions against leaders in the federal government. In a long letter to Fannie, a grief-stricken Chamberlain struggled with how such a calamity could occur only five days after the “great Army of Northern Virginia” had surrendered at Appomattox.

But Fannie, in the midst of all this triumph — in this hour of exultation…when our starry flag floats amid the stars of Heaven, suddenly it falls to half-mast — ‘Darkness sweeps athwart the sky’, & the President of the United States, with his heart full of conciliation & charity & forgiveness is struck down by the assassin’s hand. Words will not tell the feeling with which this Army receives this news.

I wish you could have been present to day at my funeral service for the President — this field — the drooping flags —the dirges of the bands — the faces of the men — the words of the chaplain from his text — ‘Give me here the head of John the Baptist in a charger’! …I ordered this service on my own responsibility, as it is the day of the President’s funeral (April 19, 1865)..These are terrible times, but I believe in God, & he will bring good at last.

Like other high ranking officers in the Army of the Potomac, Chamberlain worried that the government of the United States could become completely inoperable, allowing the “sullen treacheries” of other Southern fanatics to plot havoc while “…lurking in the shadows of the capital.”

His vision of postwar society, the politics of the South’s reconstruction, the rights of freed slaves, and the ideals of nationhood had been forged out of the crucible of that war. Along with carnage and death, the Civil War, he believed, had a noble side. Battle and suffering tested the ideals of manhood and brotherhood; shaped real character, not its veneer.

Chamberlain supported Lincoln’s plan of reintegrating the South into the Union without reprisal — provided former Confederates pledged their loyalty to the United States and accepted the abolition of slavery. For Chamberlain, Lincoln’s tragic death was a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. “Had he lived,” he recalled years later, “the reconstruction policy would doubtless have been quite different from that executed, and the long agony of the recovering South been mitigated or averted.”

The war and friendships with former Confederates convinced Chamberlain that most white Southerners who had fought for secession, however mistaken their cause, were “men of honor.” He believed that they would have accepted Lincoln’s program, but the Radical Republicans’ agenda of punishment had torn that hope asunder. Occupying the South with black and white federal troops, removing ex-Confederates from office, and enfranchising former slaves, he argued, would only reap social havoc and further resistance on the part of white Southerners.

The Compromise of 1877 ended reconstruction in the South. Under its terms, moderate Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the South in exchange for southern Democrats’ acceptance of Rutherford B. Hayes as the nation’s President in the disputed 1876 election.

In the years following, the historic memory of the war became Chamberlain’s raison d’être, a commitment that never wavered, never ebbed, and never left him. Visits to the battlefields where he had fought imbued his experiences and memories with an intangible living presence. The fields, many still strewn with skulls and bones, half-buried shell fragments and bullets, trees torn asunder, and signs of looting haunted him. He carried those visits like ghosts.

At Fredericksburg, the memory of that grisly battle on December 12-13, 1862, came surging back like a flood tide. He remembered the cries and groans of the wounded and columns of dense smoke streaming into the cold night sky as he and a handful of his men clung desperately to life amid the heaps of Union dead strewn on frozen ground slippery as blood. Later that same afternoon while traveling back to Richmond, Virginia by train, he wrote, still shaken by the experience, the following to his daughter Grace:

I woke to a charming spring morning near Fredericksburg. As we skirted that field so full of memories of awful scenes, & I looked on that slope where in the darkness I buried my dead, & then took up the dismal retreat with the forlorn remnant amidst the terrible tokens of a lost battle, you can imagine what thoughts took possession of me.

All along our route are haunted fields!

At Petersburg in 1882, he stood for a long time beneath a sullen gray sky searching in vain for the spot where he had fallen while leading an infantry charge on June 18, 1864. Wild grasses and grim moss-strewn trees now covered the field. Most of the rebel breastworks had been cut away to plant potatoes and peanuts. The ground was eerily misshapen with small knolls and depressions — the unmarked graves of Union soldiers who had fallen that day.

On January 29, Chamberlain wrote the following to his sister Sarah:

Standing and musing there, remembering how I thought of Mother in that calm, ebbing away of life amidst the horrible carnage, I looked down & saw a bullet, & while stooping to pick it up, another & another appeared in sight & I took up six within as many feet of each other and of the spot where I fell….

You cannot imagine, I believe, what thoughts came over me, as I thought of all those who stood there on that day — for & against — & what it was all for, & what would come of it — & of those who on the one side & the other thought there was something at stake worthy of dearest sacrifice.

But it was to Little Round Top that Chamberlain always returned. In 1888, along with 25,000 Union veterans, he attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, deeply moved by the experience. “It was a remarkable honor,” he wrote Grace, “on such a field & such an occasion, for one who was only a Colonel on that field to be chosen President of the Society of the Army of the Potomac.”

Three months later on October 3, 1889, he returned with other Maine veterans to dedicate the regiment’s recently completed granite monument. It stands in the shadows of some tall trees overlooking the steep terrain. A stone breastwork, 1½ to 2 feet high, lines the slope below where Chamberlain and his men had made their heroic stand.

That evening at the Gettysburg courthouse, he delivered perhaps the finest testimony, apart from the Gettysburg Address, to the historic memory and ideals for which the 20th Maine and other Union regiments had fought and died.

In great deeds, something abides.
On great fields, something stays.
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear,
but spirits linger.
To consecrate the ground for the vision-place of souls.

And reverent men and women from afar,
And generations that know us not and that we know not of,
Heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were
suffered and done for them,
Shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream;

In May of 1913, nine months before his death, the old general returned again, slowly making his way along the crest of the rocky hill, as he had fifty years earlier, “…to look upon the rocks whereon were laid as on the altar the lives of Vincent and O’Rorke.” It was his last communion with the dead. “I sat there alone, on the storied crest,” he remembered, “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.”

The Civil War was the monumental event in the collective life of an entire American generation. An estimated 750,000 individuals died during the four-year conflict — nearly two-and-a-half percent of the nation’s population — more than in all other American wars combined. Out of this great conflagration there arose a collective memory to cast veterans, living and dead, into heroic figures as a way to justify the grieving Republic and the defunct Confederacy’s irretrievable sense of loss.

Soldiers surviving this cataclysm of death had to live with its memory. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was one such individual, a man who reaped fame and admiration in his time and once again in our time. The pivotal question remains unanswered: Was he able to somehow reconcile the war’s purpose and justification with the sheer scale of carnage and death resulting from it?  Was the ultimate sacrifice of so many lives and individual acts of heroism redeemed by the outcome?

To better understand why the war had to be fought, Chamberlain reached back to his religious training and Old Testament faith. “It was a remnant of the inherited curse for sin. We had purged it away, with blood offerings,” he opined in The Passing of the Armies (1914). While victory over the Confederacy had surely saved the Union, at least for the moment, and ended the scourge of slavery, Chamberlain also realized that the country after the war was neither ‘united’ nor ‘indivisible.’

Like many veterans, he never fully adjusted to post-war America, despite his recognition and position. In his correspondence, he fretted about veterans’ politics, the Republican Party’s leadership, and the greed, graft, and lost  ideals of the new Gilded Age. In a revealing letter to Sarah in 1882, while visiting Washington D.C., he wrote that “self-seeking marks too many faces, & all the strifes of peaceful times — less noble often than those of war, — are seen here in their little play.”

“The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience,” Supreme Court justice and Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., reminds us in his 1884 Memorial Day address. For General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the events following the Civil War could never undo the sacred cause of a united Republic and the nobility of those who fought to preserve it. This is why he so often returned to the battlefields where he and the 20th Maine had charged into the fury of that war. Those visits were his communion with his “dead brothers” so that they might “…still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death…”


References and Further Reading

Desjardin, Thomas, ed., Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters. Harrisburg, PA: National Civil War Museum. 2011
Goulka, Jeremiah, E., ed., The Grand Old Man of Maine, Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2004
Natale, Susan, A sizable collection of speeches, published essays, addresses, and other literary memorabilia
Smith, Diane M., Fanny and Joshua, The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1999
Holmes, Jr., Oliver, Wendell, In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire,” Memorial Day speech, May 30, 1884. Published in Richard A Posner.The Essential Holmes: Selections From the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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