Chamberlain’s Charlemagne

the-generals-horsesYou did not want to be General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain‘s horse… The job application really should’ve included something like “extreme hazardous conditions; great risk to life and limb.” As the story goes, six horses were shot while Chamberlain was riding them. A bad luck rider?

Chamberlain’s horse toward the end of the American Civil War was Charlemagne. Really for all the things this amazing horse did, he ought to be in more paintings and sculptures.

The Name

I didn’t find a particular story or primary source account about the horse’s name, but I’m pretty sure J.L. Chamberlain gave his brown horse the regal name. The general was a college professor before the war and had a great interest in past history and languages.

Charlemagne (the horse’s name-sake) was a French king who became Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. The king was known for his support of education during the Dark Ages and exploration of languages and history. Definitely a historical person Chamberlain would’ve admired.

The Horse

According to Chamberlain’s biographer Alice Rains Trulock, during the autumn of 1863 (after Gettysburg), a small Morgan horse with scars and sores from pack-service was captured from the Confederates. Chamberlain took a liking to the horse and bought him for $150 from the U.S. Government.

With attention, grooming, and TLC, Charlemagne’s appearance improved drastically and he became an affectionate animal-friend. The horse appears frequently (though not usually mentioned by name) in Chamberlain’s writing and was the colonel/general’s main mount for the duration of the war.

During the opening maneuvers around Petersburg (before Chamberlain was wounded), Charlemagne was badly injured in the hindquarters; the horse would eventually recover and was waiting when his owner returned to the field after making his own recovery.

chamberlain-general

During the Appomattox Campaign, Charlemagne was Chamberlain’s horse – carrying the weary commander through battle, mud, and rain. In one conflict, horse and rider were both wounded by the same bullet, but remained on the battlefield together. They also took a tumble into the Buffalo River; the general waded out without much difficulty, but it took three men to rescue Charlemagne!

During one leadership moment during the Appomattox Campaign, a Confederate soldier spotted Chamberlain and Charlemagne making an impulsive charge. The enemy in gray described the moment: “I thought it was one of the most gallant things I had ever seen.” A compliment to the general’s bravery (and undoubtedly his horse too!).

In The General’s Words

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a writer, and he penned many articles and reminiscence after the war. (Note: much of his writing should be read with caution; Chamberlain had a way of telling his version of the story, and it doesn’t always accord well with other primary sources.) Charlemagne is mentioned in his officer’s writing.

This first excerpt comes from a description of the horse and rider fighting in the final campaign of the war, a reminiscence of riding across the battlefield in that charge complimented by the Confederate:

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

“We belonged together. He knew that as well as I….His Morgan endurance was under him, and his Kentucky blood was up.”

On the morning of April 9, 1865, (day of the Appomattox Surrender) Chamberlain remembered Charlemagne keeping watch over him:

Officers and men alike flung themselves right and left along the roadside, whether it were bank or ditch… Horses and riders exchanged positions, the patient animals, with slackened girths, dozing with drooping head just over the faces of their masters. In an instant, as it were, the struggling, straggling hosts were wrapped in misty darkness and silence…

And finally, Charlemagne caused some mischief for his general during the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac when a young lady tried to give Chamberlain a wreath of flowers:

…my excited horse, [was] stirred by the vastness, the tumult, the splendor of the scene. He had been thrice shot down under me; he had seen the great surrender. But this unaccustomed vision, – he had never seen a woman coming so near before, – moved him strangely, Was this the soft death angel – did he think? calling us again, as in other days? For as often as she lifted the garland to the level of my hand, he sprang clear from earth…. From that time my horse was shy of girls, – sharp eyes out for soft eyes, – I dare say, for his master’s peace and safety!

Charlemagne’s Fate

Charlemagne survived the Civil War. He was present when the first Confederate white flag was waved at Appomattox. He was the horse Chamberlain choose to ride at the formal surrender ceremony on April 12, 1865. And he paraded in the Grand Review of the Armies in June 1865.

"The Last Salute" by Mort Kunstler (No Copyright Infringement Intended) http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-limited-edition-prints.asp?action=view&ID=422&cat=136

“The Last Salute” by Mort Kunstler (No Copyright Infringement Intended) http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-limited-edition-prints.asp?action=view&ID=422&cat=136

Charlemagne returned to Maine with Chamberlain and took residency in a Brunswick stable. General Chamberlain’s children adopted Charlemagne as a pet and probably brought him apples and other goodies! (I wonder if Charlemagne liked Grace Chamberlain or if he was shy of her too?)

It seems that Charlemagne got to move when the Chamberlains established their seaside summer home – Domhegan. In the end, the beloved war steed and family pet was buried on the property.

Most statues of General Chamberlain depict him without a horse, but Charlemagne has been featured in a few paintings and is “immortalized” in a tapestry that hangs in the Chamberlain house.

The little rescued horse was with Chamberlain through some of the best and worst of times. Perhaps in more ways than we can fully understand Charlemagne saved Chamberlain – carrying him through enemy fire and being that friendly, understanding, wordless companion through the wearying campaigns. Both general and horse understood pain and wounds, but they soldiered on together – symbolizing the unbreakable bond between a good horse and caring rider.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Anyone else think there should be a movie or at least a picture book about Chamberlain and Charlemagne?

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.
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4 Responses to Chamberlain’s Charlemagne

  1. missbellatrix says:

    Love this post!!! I’ve been wanting to learn more about Chamberlain’s horse! I’ve written a few posts on my blog (www.cwfangirl.wordpress.com). I find them so interesting to research!

  2. Faye Chamberlain says:

    You may be interested to learn that August 2, 1865 Charlemagne returned to Brunswick by train. The same day (maybe on the same train, but I don’t know how many trains arrived daily in Brunswick at that time) General U. S. Grant arrived with his family and staff. He was there to receive an honorary degree.

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