A Professor Goes To War

A professor going to war?  Did you ever hear anything so extraordinary?  Today, higher education has entrenched itself with world peace, pacifism, and – dare I say it – selfishness.  (Broad statement, I know – I hope there are some patriotic professors out there to prove me wrong with noble actions!)  There was opposition in 1862 when the rhetoric teacher at Bowdoin College decided to enlist – but, wait – we need a little introduction…

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150 years ago an American citizen with no formal military training – aside from two years of battlefield experience – was promoted to brigadier general.  When he received the promotion, he was lying in a hospital bed, expected to live only a few more days.  His name was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Gods and Generals or read the novel Killer Angels – so maybe you’ve heard of Chamberlain before.  But do you know what he did before or after his hour at Gettysburg which has captured the cinematic world?  (I know there’s a lot of hype about Chamberlain in the Civil War historian’s realm, but here we’re exploring the man behind the legend and his leadership skills; we’ll talk about some lesser known historical figures another time, so stay with us…)  In the first three posts for the month of July, we’ll briefly examine Chamberlain’s biography.  I’ll share my favorite leadership moment from Chamberlain’s war experiences in the fourth post.  Now that you know the basic plan for this month, I’ll quit chatting and let’s get to the history!

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In the summer of 1862 Professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Bowdoin College in Maine enlisted to fight with the Union Army.  At the time, the American Civil War had been raging for over a year and would last for three more years.  After requesting a leave of absence to supposedly tour Europe for educational purposes, Chamberlain voluntarily enlisted, to the surprise of his colleagues and family.  What skills did he possess and what prompted him to step forward in answer to his country’s call?

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

There are five principles in Chamberlain’s early life that were the foundation for his 1862 decision:

1. Principle   Joshua L. Chamberlain (called Lawrence by his family) grew up on a New England farm in the state of Maine.  Born on September 8, 1828, Lawrence was the eldest child in the family.  His parents taught him to value hard work and athletic recreation.  The strong principles of honor, duty, morality, faith, and hard work were the bed-rock of his character.

2. The Ability to Learn  In his teen years, Lawrence decided to attend college, but found that his foreign language skills – especially Greek – were severely lacking.  He devised a self-regulated study program for himself: about eight hours a day were spent alone in the attic to study, there was time for chores, and recreation of friendly dueling with broadswords with his father or brothers.  In months Chamberlain had completed and mastered the language skills that most students took years to decipher.  He started his college studies in 1848 and graduated in 1852.  These years of intensive study built Lawrence’s confidence that he could learn new skills quickly.  As he prepared to enlist in 1862, he wrote: “I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn” (Trulock, page 8).

3. Family  In 1852 Lawrence Chamberlain asked Miss Frances (Fanny) Caroline Adams to marry him; she said yes.  However, the marriage between the college graduate and the minister’s adopted daughter was delayed until December 1855, as the graduate looked for steady work, eventually accepting a position of rhetoric teacher at Bowdoin College.  Lawrence and Fanny Chamberlain had five children, but only two – Grace and Harold – would survive to adulthood.  In 1862Grace and Harold were six and four.  Lawrence regretted leaving his little family to join the military, and he frequently wrote to them while he was away.  He was fighting for the America his children would inherit.

The Chamberlain House in Brunswick, Maine

The Chamberlain House in Brunswick, Maine

4. Future  While he regretted leaving his family when he enlisted, Chamberlain firmly believed that the future of America was at stake in the conflict.  Could there be two separate and independent nations carved out of the United States because of Southern secession?  Could America tolerate slavery any longer?  Chamberlain’s answer was: No.  He went to war to defend and shape the future of America.

5. Patriotism  After arranging a “leave of absence” from his teaching post, Chamberlain wrote to the governor of Maine to request a position with a field regiment: “…but, I fear, this war so costly of blood and treasure will not cease until the men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our Country from desolation…every man ought to come forward and ask to be placed at his proper post.” (Trulock, page 8)

Events and life circumstances prepared Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain for the leadership role that he would step into as he marched to war with the 20th Maine Regiment.  In the later years of his life, Chamberlain would acknowledge the importance of preparation and foundational principles:  “We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much.  But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dreams such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes that calls to noble actions…no man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought.” (Trulock, page 62)

The hour for noble actions was ahead.  As the Professor went to war in 1862, he had no idea that two years later on July 3, 1864, he would be fighting for his life and for a chance to command in his new position as brigadier general…

Your historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. My brother informs me that “biographies are boring” so I’m trying to innovate with this list of foundational facts…  If you like this format, please leave me a comment; thanks!

Resources:

In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War by Alica Rains Trulock

Soul of the Lion: A Biography of General Joshua L. Chamberlain by Willard M. Wallace

“Bayonet Forward!” My Civil War Reminiscences by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

 

 

 

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Leadership, Patriotism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Professor Goes To War

  1. Josiah Bierle says:

    Not bad for a biography 🙂 better than most. Interesting facts behind the guy in the movies. Good job Sarah

    • skbierle says:

      Thanks! Hope you will enjoy the upcoming posts on J.L. Chamberlain as well. There’s definitely more to his life and character than movies have shown. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Chamberlain’s “Relaxing” Post-War Life | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: Rive’s Salient: Chamberlain’s Leadership | Gazette665

  4. Pingback: Beyond The 20th Maine | Gazette665

  5. Pingback: Chamberlain’s Charlemagne | Gazette665

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