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The Biography of

General Joshua L. Chamberlain
"One of the Knightliest Soldiers"


Joshua L. Chamberlain is perhaps most widely known for his role in holding the Federal position on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. But before the war would end, the unassuming college professor from Maine would contribute much more than that.

Entering the Union army as a lieutenant colonel, Chamberlain would serve in more than 20 engagements, be wounded six times, and finish his service breveted Major General. His final honor would come when General Ulysses S. Grant designated him to receive the first flag of surrender at Appomattox Court House. The defeated Confederate troops, under the command of General John B. Gordon, anticipated the ultimate humiliation. Instead, they were met with honor and respect. For this, Gordon remembered Chamberlain in his memoirs as "one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army."

The Simple Years of Youth

He was born Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain on September 8, 1828 in a cottage near the family homestead in Brewer, Maine, a farming and shipbuilding community. His parents, Joshua and Sarah Dupee (Brastow) Chamberlain, named him after the heroic Commodore James Lawrence who had immortalized the words "Don't give up the ship!" The eldest of five children, young Lawrence was raised as a Puritan and Huguenot (French Protestant) in a household which prized good manners, cheerfulness, morality, education, and industry.

As a boy, Lawrence was fond of outdoor activities such as horseback riding at breakneck speed across the fields, swimming, sailing, and bird and flower watching. During adolescence, scholastic studies and farm work became of greater significance for the shy, serious, and dutiful youth. While plowing the rough fields, he learned from his strict and taciturn father that sheer willpower followed by positive action could accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. Lessons as these would later be applied to challenges in his adulthood, resulting in great success.

Upon contemplating a career for their eldest born, his father, a county commissioner and former lieutenant colonel in the military, wished for his son to enter the army. Lawrence had already attended Major Whiting's military academy where he fitted for West Point. But his mother, a religious woman, wanted him to study for the ministry. Lawrence was interested in a West Point education, but the idea of being in the military during peacetime held no attraction for him. After much consideration on the matter, Lawrence agreed to enter the ministry if he could become a missionary in a foreign land, a popular career choice of the time.

A New Direction

In 1848, Lawrence entered Bowdoin College at Brunswick, where he began using Joshua as his first name. During his initial years away from home, the introverted 19-year-old felt lonely and spoke little because he was embarrassed by his propensity for stammering. Joshua learned to overcome this impediment by "singing out" phrases on a "wave of breath." By his third year at Bowdoin, he had won awards in both composition and oratory.

As a student, Joshua had earned a reputation for standing behind his principles even when challenged by authorities. Throughout his life, this sense of honor would never desert him, even under fire. When not pursuing his studies, Joshua enjoyed singing and playing the bass viol on which he was self-taught. As the college chapel organist, he learned to play the organ quite skillfully on his own.

While attending the local church in Brunswick, Joshua became attracted to the enchanting, dark-haired Frances (Fanny) Caroline Adams who often played the organ for the church choir. She was the reverend's adopted daughter and three years his senior, but this unconventional difference in their ages (for those times) did not matter to them. It was not long before a romance blossomed between them. The two became engaged the next year in 1852, after he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin. They would not be married until 1855, following Joshua's graduation from both a three-year seminary course at Bangor Theological Seminary and Bowdoin College with his master's degree.

In spring of 1856, Joshua was elected professor of rhetoric and oratory at Bowdoin. By 1861, he was elected to the chair of modern languages. Chamberlain was well-qualified for this position, having mastered multiple languages in preparation for a career in the ministry overseas. In all, he was fluent in nine: Greek, Latin, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Syriac. Meanwhile, during his early years as a professor, the Chamberlain home had been blessed with the birth of their daughter Grace (Daisy), and son Harold (Wyllys).

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Joshua felt a strong desire to serve his country. Many Bowdoin alumni had immediately enlisted, and as time passed many men from Maine were wearing the blue uniform. Having already been granted a leave of absence for study in Europe, Joshua decided to offer his services in the military to Governor Washburn. Despite the displeasure of the Bowdoin staff, by August 1862, Chamberlain entered the war as Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteers.

Lessons for a Lieutenant Colonel

Under Commander Adelbert Ames, a recent West Point graduate, Chamberlain learned by observation about soldiering and being in charge of a regiment. He witnessed the transformation of more than 900 unskilled men into trained and disciplined soldiers. Among the officers of the regiment was Joshua's brother Thomas. Tom, the youngest of the Chamberlain's, was appointed a non-commissioned sergeant. Before the end of the war, he would serve as a lieutenant colonel.

The 20th Maine's first order found them marching to the site of the battle at Antietam. But they would not engage in action until late September, in a reconnaissance at Shepherdstown Ford. In mid-October, they participated in another reconnaissance, this one led by Chamberlain at the South Mountain pass. Upon seeing the figure of a slain Confederate youth, Joshua was horrified and saddened to realize that some of the soldiers they fought against were as young as this 16-year-old. Sights as these would never be forgotten.

By December 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg proved to be a devastating blow to the Union. In an article he wrote, published by Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1912, Chamberlain recalls his bone-chilling "
bivouac with the dead" that night on the slopes of Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg. After this engagement, as the defeated Union troops were given orders to evacuate the town, Chamberlain was placed in command of his regiment to lead the retreat from the heights.

The remaining months of winter and early spring passed uneventfully for the 20th. The prevalence of small pox in the ranks kept them out of the Battle of Chancellorsville in the beginning of May 1863. During this time, Chamberlain requested duties to occupy his able-bodied men. Having learned a great deal since his enlistment, and demonstrating strong leadership skills, by the end of the month Chamberlain was appointed Colonel of his regiment.

Through Blood and Fire

At Gettysburg, Chamberlain and his men were called into action on the second day of the battle, July 2, 1863. The 20th Maine, among the regiments in Colonel Strong Vincent's 3rd Brigade, was positioned at the far left of the line on Little Round Top. In an effort to claim this ground and decimate the Union line, Confederate General John Bell Hood's brigades advanced up the rocky hill. A number of Union officers were killed in the midst of the fray, including Colonel Vincent. Chamberlain was now left in a desperate situation. Having been given an order by Vincent to hold the Union's ground at all costs and not to retreat, yet learning that his men's ammunition was virtually depleted, he had to make a quick decision. Chamberlain decided to counterattack and thus ordered a bayonet charge down the hill. The Union's position was saved.

In his account, "Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg," published by Hearst's Magazine in 1913, Chamberlain recalls the bravery of the Fifth Army Corps which fought that day on Little Round Top. In the chapter "
To the Rescue or All is Lost!", he recognizes and commends the following officers: Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, Chief of Engineers; Colonel Vincent of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division; Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres of the 2nd Division; Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed and Colonel Patrick O'Rorke of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division; and Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett of the 5th U.S. Battery D, Artillery Brigade. Chamberlain would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor many years after the war ended for his "daring heroism" on Little Round Top and for "carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top."

Not long after the Union's victory at Gettysburg, Chamberlain was given command of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, Fifth Corps, and participated in the Culpepper and Centreville campaign in October. By now, after having undergone his baptism of fire and many trials with the 20th, Chamberlain had earned the respect and loyalty of his men. The soldiers admired his skill and bravery, and appreciated his acts of kindness and courtesy towards them. The attention he paid to the sick or wounded in his command, and the time and care he took in sending home the personal effects of those who died would long be remembered. Moreover, the men saw in him a humble man, as Chamberlain often chose to endure the same conditions as them, sleeping on the ground in the harshest of climates. But this practice was sometimes hazardous for the colonel. After a bivouac beside the Rappahannock in early November, having slept all night in the snow, Chamberlain suffered from pneumonia and a severe recurrence of malarial fever. He was sent to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. where he remained for treatment until spring.

In early May 1864, Chamberlain returned to command his brigade during the Battle of Spotsylvania, but did not see action until the 20th's engagement at Pole Cat Creek at the end of the month. On June 2nd and 3rd, he and the 20th Maine fought at Bethesda Church, not far from Cold Harbor. As in other engagements Chamberlain threw himself into the thick of the battle, executing commands with a cool head and great composure but showing little regard for his own personal safety. This would be the last time he would lead the 20th, as General Warren reorganized the Fifth Corps. In a few days, Chamberlain would be appointed commander of the 1st Division's new 1st Brigade of Pennsylvania regiments.

By mid-June, the Union army was in Petersburg, one of the key cities of the Confederacy. Chamberlain's 1st Brigade fought valiantly at Rives' Salient on June 18, 1864. At one point, he bore the flag after the color bearer was killed at his side, until he too was shot by a miniť ball. Though the wound was severe, Chamberlain maintained his composure until every one of his men had passed from view. Even in his grave condition he refused preferential treatment, insisting that others with far more serious wounds be tended to first.

The belief that Chamberlain's wound was mortal led to his swift promotion to Brigadier General by General Ulysses Grant, in what is said to have been the only instance of a promotion on the battlefield given by Grant. Chamberlain was admitted into the Naval Academy hospital at Annapolis with little hope for his survival, but as his will to live was strong, he would not remain hospitalized for very long. By November he again reported for duty, despite the fact that he could not yet ride a horse or walk a great distance.

Chamberlain was now placed in command of a new 1st Brigade, 1st Division, comprised of two large regiments from Pennsylvania and New York. However, not yet fully recovered, he was hospitalized again in early December, this time in Philadelphia, after participating in a raid on Weldon Railroad. Following a month's sick leave, without his doctors' knowledge Chamberlain returned to service. But he did not see action until General Grant's final campaign.

On March 29, 1865, Chamberlain and his 1st Brigade headed up Quaker Road and engaged in a hot fight in which they employed their bayonets. Again wounded while having one of many horses shot under him during the war, Chamberlain was nearly taken prisoner but eluded his captors by posing as a Confederate officer. Despite his injury in this battle, Chamberlain remained in command. He ordered his men to capture enemy breastworks and drive the Confederates from their position, thus opening a path to the Boydton Plank and White Oak Roads. By exhibiting exceptional leadership and organizational skills, Chamberlain had attained that coveted lodgment on the White Oak Road. For this accomplishment, he would be breveted Major General by President Lincoln.

The Battle of Five Forks commenced on April 1, 1865, and would culminate in a significant Union victory. On the first day of the battle, Chamberlain's brigade captured more than 1000 soldiers, including 19 officers, and five battle flags. The second day found the 1st Brigade advancing on the South Side Railroad. Here they pushed back the enemy's cavalry and captured a train in addition to many prisoners. Then onward they marched to Appomattox Court House to assist General Philip Sheridan's cavalry.

By now, the Confederate army had been severely weakened, with the number of its troops and supplies rapidly dwindling. Finally, the next day, April 9, General Robert E. Lee called a truce to halt the four-year bloodshed between the two armies.

A Final Salute

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 too often reminisced on this profound event with the greatest respect for Gordon and his men. In his book, The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the Armies, published in 1915 after his death, he recalls the noble spirit of the Confederate troops and their gallant and bittersweet surrender in his Chapter 6, "Appomattox."

The war had ended, and the Union Army of the Potomac held a grand review on May 23 in Washington, D.C. Chamberlain would never forget that moment of glory, nor the great deeds of the many soldiers who had fought or died for their country. Reflecting on this last parade, he pays a tribute to all members of the corps of the Army of the Potomac in Chapter 9, "The Last Review," of Armies. With sentimentality, he addresses the survivors of the war when he writes:

Sit down again together, Army of the Potomac! all that are left of us—on the banks of the river whose name we bore, into which we have put new meaning of our own. Take strength from one more touch, ere we pass afar from the closeness of old. The old is young to-day; and the young is passed. Survivors of the fittest,—for the fittest, it seems to us, abide in the glory where we saw them last,—take the grasp of hands, and look into the eyes, without words! Who shall tell what is past and what survives? For there are things born but lately in the years, which belong to the eternities.

[Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies: the Last Campaign of the Armies (Pennsylvania: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), p. 363.]

Chamberlain's last days in the army are related in Chapter 11, "The Disbandment," of Armies. In his eloquent conclusion, he remarks on the final orders from the Army of the Potomac, expressing his interpretation of the command from a philosophical and religious viewpoint.

Now that the war had officially ended, Chamberlain would return once more to life as a civilian, often giving speeches about the war. But nothing would ever be the same again.

Life After the War

picture of Chamberlain as a civilian

Chamberlain, circa 1905. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

  After having lived through all the drama and excitement of the battlefield, Chamberlain would now find a professor's occupation at Bowdoin tame and uninspiring. Despite receiving an honorary doctor of law degree from Pennsylvania College in 1866, and later from Bowdoin in 1869, a restlessness prevailed within him.

Chamberlain decided to pursue a political career, and in September 1866 was elected governor of Maine by the largest majority in the state's history. He would serve four terms in all, concluding his last term at the end of 1870. As governor, he felt it was his duty to carry out the law and therefore addressed and enforced such controversial measures as capital punishment which brought about a bit of unrest to a governorship otherwise regarded as being an "era of good feeling."

In 1871, Chamberlain was elected president of Bowdoin by the trustees of the college. His presidency, which would conclude in 1883, found him introducing progressive and occasionally unpopular ideas to the conservative institution. He endorsed studies in science and engineering, which were relatively unheard of at the time, and also had students participate in military drills in preparation for the possibility of war.

While president at Bowdoin, Chamberlain received additional appointments in both education and government which occupied his time off campus. In 1878, he was named U.S. Commissioner of Education to the Paris Universal Exposition. For this event, he, his wife Fanny, and their now grown children embarked on a five-month stay in Europe. Chamberlain would be awarded a medal by the French government for his services in Paris. In 1880, as the appointed military commander of the state, he was called to step in to oversee the state's election crisis. A dispute erupted into an assassination plot against Chamberlain which he confronted and diffused. It had not been since the war that he had to face such adversity.

The later years of Chamberlain's career found him pursuing business ventures; serving as U.S. Surveyor of Customs at the Port of Portland, Maine; and writing about his wartime experiences. He would survive Fanny who died in 1905; then he passed away on February 24, 1914 at the age of 86, having died of the war wound he received so long ago in Petersburg.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would be buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine, but the memory of this gallant soldier and citizen would live on in his words, memoirs of fellow soldiers and friends, and in the works of historians. His own detailed accounts of the battles in which he participated, and his powerful passages filled with his soulful spirit, will long be remembered and cherished in the hearts and minds of readers throughout the ages.

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate 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; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

[Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "Maine at Gettysburg: Dedication of Maine Monuments at Gettysburg (Evening of October 3, 1889)," Portland, 1898, "Bayonet! Forward": My Civil War Reminiscences, by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Pennsylvania: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), p. 202.]

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Books Used in Writing This Essay

The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton, American Heritage, New York, NY, 1988.

"Bayonet! Forward": My Civil War Reminiscences, by General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg, PA, 1994.

Don Troiani's Civil War, text by Brian C. Pohanka, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1995.

His Proper Post: A Biography of General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, by Sis Deans, Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearny, NJ, 1996.

In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War, by Alice Rains Trulock, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1992.

The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the Armies, by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1915, reprinted by Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg, PA, 1994.

Reminiscences of the Civil War, by General John B. Gordon, Morningside, Dayton, OH, 1993.

Soul of the Lion: A Biography of General Joshua L. Chamberlain, by Willard M. Wallace, 1960, reprinted by Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg, PA, 1991.

Through Blood and Fire: Selected Civil War Papers of Major General Joshua Chamberlain, by Mark Nesbitt, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1996.

The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, by John J. Pullen, Morningside House, Inc., Dayton, OH, 1991.

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Index to Chamberlain's Pages
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