Beyond The 20th Maine

I have something to confess. I committed sacrilege in the Gettysburg historical community. How? I didn’t write about (or even mention) Colonel J. L. Chamberlain or the 20th Maine regiment in my book.

gettysburg-1993-12I know, it seems unbelievable. And for your information, I have seen the movie Gettysburg, I have stood at the 20th Maine position on Little Round Top, and – being a young woman who’s not blind – I’ve swooned (a little) over The Colonel’s photos. So how did the un-imaginable, “horrifying” act of sacrilege happen?

Well, let me share three things I learned while reading a good-size stack of Gettysburg military books. And at the end of the article, I’ll share the regiments of the soldiers who interact with the civilians in my story.

1. The 20th Maine Was Not The Only Regiment At Gettysburg

We know this. (Or at least we think we do!) But I just LOVE – that’s sarcasm, there folks – how Every. Single. Book. published since about 1994 mentions the 20th Maine and the crucially dramatic fight on the Union’s left flank. It’s everywhere; the children’s books, the YA books, the large 3 inch thick history books. Chamberlain, Chamberlain, Chamberlain, 20th Maine, 20th Maine, 20th Maine.

However, the interesting thing? Chamberlain himself acknowledged that without the rest of the brigade – gracious, without the rest of the Union army – the battle wouldn’t have been won. (See I have read his writings!) Little Round Top wouldn’t have mattered if the 1st Minnesota hadn’t kept the Rebels off Cemetery Ridge. Little Round Top wouldn’t have mattered if the XI Corps hadn’t held onto to Cemetery Hill. And hey, why don’t we ever hear much about the units on Culp’s Hill, which was the right flank of the Union line? If they’d collapsed, Chamberlain would’ve really been in a mess. (Though he’d probably have said something like “Bayonet them both ways” – apologies to General Forrest for misusing his quote.)

So, there were hundreds of regiments holding the Gettysburg line. Many played a significant role in the defensive battle. And yes, there were other bayonet charges!


I’ve circled Culp’s Hill on the map

2. The Union’s Right Flank Was Far More Significant Than Most Of Us Realize

If you’d asked me when I was 14 about the Union right flank at Gettysburg, I could’ve told you it was on Culp’s Hill…and not much else. After all, most of the action was on the left flank with the 20th Maine, right? Wrong. Here’s what I learned later on –

Culp’s Hill (see map) was very important to the Union line. It was guarding their escape route, down Baltimore Pike. (Fortunately, General Meade never had to issue escape orders.) It was also guarding the rear of the Union position.

One startling reality for the Culp’s Hill fighting is that it lasted significantly longer than left flank conflict. Artillery fire toward the right flank began in the late afternoon of July 2, then faded off after a couple hours; the attacks disintegrated into confused night fighting, paused, and then exploded for another six hours of battle in the morning of July 3.

Keep in mind that artillery wasn't real effective on Culp's Hill - so this tree was shot down by bullets. This photo gives a dramatic example of how metal was flying through the air during this infantry fight.

Keep in mind that artillery wasn’t effective on Culp’s Hill – so this tree was probably shot down by bullets. This photo gives a dramatic example of how metal was flying through the air during this infantry fight.

3. The Culp’s Hill Conflict Is Unique At Gettysburg

As I’m writing this, I’m imagining the confused looks after that last heading, so let me explain. Culp’s Hill was densely wooded. True, the undergrowth had been cleared in previously years, so it was fairly “open”, but let’s just say it’d be hard to see the forest for the trees. All those trees meant something very significant – it was next to impossible to use artillery on this part of the battlefield. Culp’s Hill is an infantry – and infantry only – fight. No cavalry, limited, ineffective artillery. That’s very unique in the Gettysburg battle. (**Note: there was artillery around the Union right flank area, but as far as the attacks actually on Culp’s Hill, it is insignificant.)

Another interesting development in the Union right flank lines is the intentional order to build fortifications. Okay, yes, all across Gettysburg battlefield men piled up fence rails or stones for some shelter. But, on Culp’s Hill, the generals actually gave orders for the men to dig and build fortifications. This is one of the first times in Civil War history that trenches are built during a battle. Unfortunately for the Union soldiers the entrenching tools (handy shovels and big axes) were in the supply wagons, which were still a long distance away, so they had to use their cups, plates, and bayonets to construct their shelters!

So…Culp’s Hill (like other places at Gettysburg) evolves into its own unique conflict and it really deserves more study and “limelight.”

The Lucky Regiments

I didn’t write about the 20th Maine in Blue, Gray & Crimson. I decided it was time for new regiments to get some attention or glory. How about the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 27th Indiana, or 10th Virginia?

Since the book isn’t due for release for a few more l…o…n…g weeks (Yes, I’m having trouble waiting too!), I thought I’d introduce you to the real regiments featured in the story. Hopefully, you’ll enjoying “meeting” the real units of the fictional characters who interact with the civilians.

So unfurl your Union flag and polish those bayonets because next week we’re making a bayonet charge with the 27th Indiana Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think? Time for some new regiments to have their recognized moment of glory? Or shall we continue watching the 20th Maine’s charge on replay?

(Where is my Gettysburg DVD anyway…that still sounds like an interesting way to spend the evening!)

Mad at me about my tirade about Chamberlain? Okay, here’s my four part series on that hero; Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Last Salute To The Army of Northern Virginia

General Lee signed the surrender document for the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. (You can find that story here). However, on April 12, 1865, the Confederate soldiers formally laid down their weapons under the watchful eyes of victorious Union soldiers.

It was a tense moment. It was awkward for the Union soldiers to watch; in their hearts, many of them had come to respect their enemies’ courage. It was heartbreaking moment for the Confederates; some units simply disbanded and did not appear at the ceremony, but most came. In some units, there were less than a hundred soldiers when years before there had been thousands. It was a moment when both sides felt the loss of war.

The Union general presiding over the surrender was General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The event made a solemn impression on him and wrote several accounts of the day in later years. He gave an order during the ceremony which set the tone for reconciliation.

Rather than write a long article, I thought I’d share a piece of poetry I drafted about six years ago about the surrender ceremony. (Poetry by Sarah Kay Bierle, 2009, All Rights Reserved.)

The Last Salute

The field is silent and still,

The days of war are past;

The Confederates break camp on the hill,

The day of surrender is here at last.


Silently the victors wait,

Waiting for the formalities of the day.

No longer is there any hate,

No longer do any want to slay.

The gray column moves out,

Toward the open field,

Slowly they come, though they would rather turn about,

Instead of their weapons and flags to yield.

General Gordon rides along,

His head bent down.

The words he hears are like a joyful song;

“Salute them!” is the order which sounds.


Salute them as brothers,

Salute them as brave men;

Salute those slain 258,000 others,

Salute them for more than can be told with pen.


They expect humiliation and receive honor instead,

And Gordon returns the salute.

Not another word is said;

They lay down their guns, never again to shoot.


The flags they gently fold,

Never more shall they wave in the sky.

The sorrow of some is hard to be told.

Never more shall they the Union defy.


Salute them as long lost brothers,

Salute them as new friends!

Salute them and forget the bitterness of others.

Salute them; this is the war’s long-awaited end!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. General Chamberlain received some slight criticism for his order to have Union troops salute the surrendering Confederates. Do you think his order was beneficial? If so, why? If not, what should he have done and why?

Rive’s Salient: Chamberlain’s Leadership

Many people have read or heard of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s actions at Gettysburg. Glorified in the movie Gettysburg, the current myth about this legendary man is that he single-handedly saved the Union on Little Round Top. His leadership played a crucial role, but it is an exaggeration to claim that he alone saved the Union. Chamberlain wouldn’t have supported such a statement; in his writings he constantly gives credit to the men under his command or comrade regiments. (You can read this blog’s biography of Chamberlain here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

His role at Gettysburg is well-known and some have acknowledged his courage in the final campaign and his graciousness at Appomattox. However, the Charge at Rive’s Salient on June 20, 1864, during the Battle of Petersburg is Chamberlain’s ultimate moment of leadership.  Here is the story of the fateful day:

This photo was taken in 2008 at Petersburg National Battlefield at Battery #5.  NOTE: This not Rive's Salient.  This picture is included simply to show Petersburg Battlefield as it appears today.

This photo was taken in 2008 at Petersburg National Battlefield at Battery #5. NOTE: This not Rive’s Salient. This picture is included simply to show Petersburg Battlefield as it appears today.

In front of his Union brigade lay an open field leading toward a well-fortified salient of earthworks and cannon held by Confederate troops. Orders came from General Grant’s headquarters to attack this position. Chamberlain was no stranger to frontal assaults. He had co-led one at Fredericksburg with disastrous results, he had fended them off at Gettysburg, and he had watched numerous charges in the last weeks of the Overland Campaign. He sent a letter back to headquarters, respectfully stating his opinion that this charge wasn’t going to work. The answer from Grant: do it anyway.

He could’ve made an excuse and stayed behind like other officers – he’d been ill in the spring, the campaign had been tiring . But Chamberlain’s leadership standard was “come on” – not “go on.” With full knowledge of looming failure and that he would be in constant danger, he prepared to lead the attack. Not only would he lead, he would ride into the deadly storm on a tall horse, which would make him a conspicuous target.

After some initial preparation and cannonade, the brigade moved to the attack. Chamberlain’s horse was shot; he continued on foot in front of his command. The flag faltered as the flag bearer was killed. Chamberlain seized the banner and marched on, sword drawn. The earth exploded around them. Men were falling. He knew this would be what would happen, but he marched forward.

This photo gives an idea of seeing trenches and cannon from an attacker's position.  (Photo taken by Miss Sarah at the 2013 Tom's Farm's Civil War Re-enactment)

This photo gives an idea of seeing trenches and cannon from an attacker’s position. (Photo taken by Miss Sarah at the 2013 Tom’s Farm’s Civil War Re-enactment)

As they neared the Confederate position, Chamberlain realized that they would be marching through a bog, which would slow the attacking speed. He halted, half-turned toward his men and motioned them to go on either side of the boggy ground. As he gave the directions that might secure more safety for his troops, Chamberlain was shot. The troops were still advancing and he determined that they would not see him fall. Handing off the flag, he used his sword as a prop, leaning on it, until the last soldier had gone past him. There was nothing more that he could do; the pain and loss of blood soon brought him to the ground where artillery shells tossed dirt on him as he listened to the disaster unfolding for his men. They were repulsed. His aides dragged him out of the danger zone, but left him on the field, unable to move him any farther.

Later, Chamberlain was carried from the field by four stretcher bearers, who deliberately disobeyed his orders to leave him alone and care for the other men. This insistence continued at the field hospital, but the surgeons did not listen. However, the soldiers who were near the operating table when Chamberlain was brought in never forgot his unselfish plea that they be attended before him. The wounded warrior was still exemplifying leadership in a situation where men of lesser character would have been crying for help or screaming for pain relief.

The first surgeon to examine Chamberlain’s wounds pronounced that they were mortal. Basically, a minie ball had entered at his lower right hip and tore upward toward the left hip, causing extensive internal damage, including broken bone and lacerated organs. The medical field was still in its “Dark Ages” during the Civil War and gut wounds were almost always fatal; by the medical standards there was nothing to be done and Chamberlain had no chance of survival.

Thomas Chamberlain, a younger brother, refused to accept a single opinion and found two skilled surgeons who re-examined the colonel and agreed to try surgery. Anesthetic, probably chloroform, was available, but at some point in the crude surgery, Chamberlain was in so much pain that the surgeons were afraid to continue; he insisted that they proceed and they eventually succeeded in somewhat repairing the internal damage.

Within the twenty-four hours after his wounding, Chamberlain scrawled a penciled note to his wife, which must have broken her heart when she received it. He admitted that he was probably mortally wounded but reiterated a statement of faith and the belief that he was going to heaven. He thanked her for her devotion and begged her not to grieve too much for him before closing with a whisper that he would always love her.

He was moved by stretcher and hospital ferry to a base hospital in Maryland. General Grant send a death-bed promotion and the newspapers started printing General Chamberlain’s obituary…too early. With care and motivation from his family, Chamberlain fought for life and eventually recovered. He would return to fight with his soldiers in the final campaign of the war, but for the rest of his life he would suffer complications from the shot at Petersburg.

Why Petersburg and Rive’s Salient as Chamberlain’s finest leadership moment? Because he knew what would happen. He exhibited proper care by asking for a higher military command to reassess the situation. He led the attack with the flare and appropriate charisma of a strong leader and he was so determined to be that example that he managed to stay upright after suffering a shocking wound until every soldier had rushed by him. Unselfishness is a large part of leadership and Chamberlain displayed this quality throughout the trauma and field hospital experience. Love for his family, and especially his wife, comes into the war scene as he grapples with the reality that he is likely dying and he searches for the right words to convey his faith, thanks, and love to the most important woman in his life.  Why Petersburg?  Because there, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain gave the ultimate example of leadership in the vanguard, in the field hospital, and in a scribbled note to his loved ones.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Just my thoughts here in this post.  So what do you think: Gettysburg or Rive’s Salient?  Or another battle?  Share your thoughts in a comment.

Chamberlain’s “Relaxing” Post-War Life

After the American Civil War concluded, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain returned to his family and home in Maine.  What would he accomplish next – or was it time to sit down and relax?

(If you’ve missed the first and second parts of the Chamberlain biography, I hope you’ll read them.  Next week will be the final Chamberlain post with a true story about leadership).

Relax?  What does that mean?  (I don’t think it was in General Chamberlain’s vocabulary…)  Chamberlain arrived home in the summer of 1865.  Physically battered by numerous wounds, Chamberlain tried to rest and reconnect with his family, but it wasn’t long before he found new positions of leadership and service.

1. Professor (Again)  Chamberlain taught oratory and rhetoric for the 1865-1866 school year at Bowdoin College.  He received several academic honors, but…  Teaching was boring compared to battlefields and the former general started looking something more challenging.

2. Governor of Maine (1867-1871)  Challenging, difficulty, and rewarding are three different ways of describing Chamberlain’s four terms in office.  (Each term was one year, so he was governor for a total of four years, 1867-1871).  As governor, he worked to improve education advancements, economic and transportation opportunities, the criminal justice system, the asylum hospitals, and encouraged European immigration to the state.  He opposed the impeachment charges against President Andrew Johnson and argued that the Maine temperance laws interfered with citizens’ Federal constitutional rights.  Overall, Chamberlain’s method of politics was innovative and for the good of the citizens and state.

Governor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Governor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

3. President of Bowdoin College (1817-1883) In 1871 Chamberlain accepted the position of college president and started a series of educational reforms within the school.  He introduced the idea of treating students like adults (not children, needing  constant control and oversight), expanded the school curriculum to include subjects useful outside of the academic realm, developed the college’s Master of Arts program, and instituted military drill as required training.  Not all the changes were well-received; many students hated the military drill exercises and it was eventually abandoned.  Chamberlain resigned in 1883 because of poor health, but he had brought Bowdoin College into the modern age of education.

4. Public Speaker  Starting in 1867 and continuing to the last years of his life, Chamberlain spoke at many public events.  The events were often patriotic and some of his most often quoted addresses are Dedication of the 20th Maine Monuments at Gettysburg (October 3, 1889), Address to the Veterans of the 16th Maine Volunteers, and Oration on the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1909).

5. Peace Keeper January 5-17, 1880, was a time of intense political tension in the state of Maine.  Political factions produced division and nearly a statewide civil war.  Chamberlain and the militia, at the government’s request, stepped in and defended the standing governor.  Chamberlain was able to convince the mobs to avoid violence.  However, “The Twelve Days” (as this incident is commonly called) exposed Chamberlain to dislike on many political fronts.

6. World Traveler Sent to the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878 as a representative of the United States, this trip started Chamberlain’s interest in world-wide travels.  (On the 1878 Paris trip, his family went with him).  During the winter of 1900-1901, he traveled to the Mediterranean region, and particularly enjoyed Italy and Egypt.

7. Businessman  With political opportunities closed by the controversial “Twelve Days”, Chamberlain investigated a new venture: business.  Organized in 1885 Homosassa Company (a land development organization) was Chamberlain’s new project in the state of Florida.  In 1891 he helped to found the Ocala and Silver Springs Railroad which hopefully would bring people to the coastal community.  These businesses were not very successful.  During the 1890’s Chamberlain was the president of other executive companies – railroad, construction, power, banking, tourism, real estate, and bonds.  These companies wanted a well-known “war hero” to be leader and spokesperson for their corporations.

8. President (Again)  In the 1890’s Chamberlain promoted the Institute for Artists and Artisans, which was one of the best art schools in America.  As president of the institute, he encouraged education and art, which would increase the culture of America.

9. Requested Army Commission  When the Spanish-American War started in 1898, Chamberlain requested a field commission in the US Army.  The 70 year old patriot was politely rejected.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in US uniform (Probably during the early 1900's)

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in US uniform (Probably during the early 1900’s)

10. Surveyor of the Port of Portland, Maine On March 20, 1900, US President McKinley appointed Chamberlain to this position.  The job included inspecting and handling anchorage, mooring, and docks for the ships of the harbor and had an annual salary of $4,500.00.  He would keep this position until his death.

11. Family Man It would be wrong to conclude this biography without acknowledging Chamberlain’s family, especially since they were so important to him.  Mrs. Fanny Chamberlain greatly disliked her husband’s role in politics, which, compounded with other factors, strained their marriage; they eventually forgave and forgot the disagreements and lived quite happily until Fanny’s death in 1905.  The two children who lived to adulthood were Grace and Harold.  Harold became a not very successful attorney/businessman. Grace married a businessman named Mr. Allen and had several children; the little ones enjoyed visiting their grandparents.

On January 20, 1914, General Chamberlain died at the age of 86.  Fifty years earlier, doctors in a field hospital told him that within days he would die of battle wounds, or if he survived he would be an invalid for life.  Chamberlain wasn’t a quitter; he recovered, and though plagued with pain and infection for the rest of his life, he found new and challenging ways to serve his community and nation.

I hope that this three part biography of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has (and will) inspire you to find ways to leave a positive impact in your world.  Patriotism and Self-less service are never “old-fashion”!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Anything on Chamberlain’s list of “relaxing” accomplishments that inspires you?  Leave a comment and tell us!



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

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

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

Chamberlain at War

Part 2 in the Chamberlain biography…enjoy!  (The goal is to present the facts and avoid “hero-worship”)

Former professor Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was now a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine volunteer infantry.  Wearing the dark blue uniform of the Union Army, he started to learn new duties and found his voice and role as a dynamic leader.  Under the tutelage of Colonel A. Ames, Chamberlain mastered elements of drill, basic command, and the leadership role.  In the next three years he crafted his own leadership style based on the principles of his early life and the military skills he learned from Colonel Ames.

In autumn 1862 the 20th Maine joined the Union Army of the Potomac and within three months, Chamberlain would be changed from peaceful professor to gallant warrior.

1. Antietam – September 17, 1862 Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were held in reserve with other troops at this battle.  However, it was still their first glimpse of the horrors of war.  Two days after the battle ended, the regiment marched across the battlefield to a new bivouac area.  The sights of the aftermath of Antietam were shocking and terrifying to the new soldiers.

2. Fredericksburg – December 13, 1862 The lieutenant colonel and the regiment took part in one of many ill-fated charges across open ground toward a Confederate position called Marye’s Heights.  Caught in cross fire and with no way to retreat, they spent a night and a day on  the battlefield, using depressions in the ground and bodies of fallen comrades as protection from snipers.  This was Chamberlain’s first battle.

This photo (taken by Miss Sarah in 2008) shows the 20th Maine's position at Fredericksburg.  If you can spot the bright sign of the 7-11 gas station - well, that's where they were.  No monument for them here...

This photo (taken by Miss Sarah in 2008) shows the 20th Maine’s position at Fredericksburg. If you can spot the edge of the bright sign at the 7-11 gas station – well, that’s where they were. No monument for them here…

3. Chancellorsville – May 1-4, 1863 The 20th Maine was lucky (or unfortunate to lose a chance for glory) and did not participate in this battle.  The smallpox vaccines for the regiment had been faulty and they were placed on guard duty in the rear of the army to avoid possibly infecting others.  Chamberlain wasn’t pleased and considered biological warfare… “If we couldn’t do anything else we would give the rebels the smallpox!” (Wallace, page 66)

4. Gettysburg – July 2, 1863 During the Gettysburg Campaign, Chamberlain was promoted to Colonel and commander of the regiment.  Additional campaign adventures for the new colonel included reasoning with mutineers from another regiment and fatigue/heat related illness.  Arriving at Gettysburg on the morning of July 2, they waited in reserved and heard rumors about the previous day’s fighting.  In the afternoon, they were rushed as reinforcements toward fighting in the Peach Orchard/Wheat Field, but were suddenly diverted to a rocky hill called Little Round Top.  Colonel Strong Vincent, brigade commander, positioned the 20th Maine at the far left flank (“flank” simply means “side” in military language).  “Hold this ground at all costs!” were the orders.  For a couple of hours the enemy made a series of charging attacks.  Chamberlain stretched his line of troops to meet flanking attacks, and walked along the line, providing encouragement.  Ultimately, the 20th Maine ran out of ammunition (each man carried about 40 rounds).  Colonel Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge, which successfully routed the Confederates in this small portion of the battlefield.  Additionally, Chamberlain and the 20th captured another hill (Big Round Top) in the evening and on July 3, they were held in reserve.

This is the 20th Maine's position and monument on Little Round Top, Gettysburg.  The large rock where the monument is today is approximately where Colonel Chamberlain stood when he ordered the bayonet charge.  (Photo by Miss Sarah, 2008)

This is the 20th Maine’s position and monument on Little Round Top, Gettysburg. The large rock where the monument is today is approximately where Colonel Chamberlain stood when he ordered the bayonet charge. (Photo by Miss Sarah, 2008)

5. The Overland Campaign – May thru June 1864 Colonel Chamberlain was recovering from illness (malaria).  He rejoined the regiment around May 8th.  There was skirmishing, but no large battles for Chamberlain at this time.

6. Rive’s Salient (Petersburg) – June 18, 1864  The Union army swung southeast and came up to Petersburg, a fortified town and former railroad hub south of Richmond.  (Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and the main objective in most of the Union campaigns in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War).  General Grant, commander of Union armies, (remember him from your U.S. History class?) ordered Chamberlain’s troops to charge a heavily fortified position called Rive’s Salient.  When a request for reconsideration was rejected, Chamberlain led in the vanguard of the charge.  The attack failed, he was badly and wounded and doctors informed him that he was dying. He received a promotion to brigadier general on July 3, 1864.  Newspapers started printing General Chamberlain’s obituary.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Union Military Uniform

7. Appomattox Campaign  Well, the newspapers and the doctors were wrong!  Chamberlain not only recovered, he returned to field command.  In the early spring of 1865, Union troops launched a final offensive against Petersburg and Richmond; both towns were captured on April 2, 1865.  General Lee (he’s the main Confederate commander, remember?) and his army headed west.  Chamberlain and his troops were involved numerous battles and skirmishes: White Oak Road, Quaker Road, Five Forks, Appomattox.  General Chamberlain was wounded again, but not seriously enough to force him to leave the field.  On several occasions he rallied faltering troops.

10. Appomattox Unification  General Lee (Confederate) surrendered to General Grant (Union) on April 9, 1865.  What many folks don’t know, is that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (Lee’s army) formally laid down their weapons and flags.  On April 12, 1865, this ceremony finalized the surrender.  The general presiding over the ceremony was General Chamberlain who had been specially selected for this duty by General Grant.  Chamberlain ordered that there would be no mocking or victorious cheering by his men.  He impulsively gave the order that would be the first step toward unification of the county: he ordered his soldiers to salute the returning rebels.  Salute of honor.

In less than three years Chamberlain – former professor and common citizen – had become one the honored generals of the Union Army.  His leadership was practical; he believed in leading by example and understanding the value of human dignity.

Now that the war was over, how would this general adjust to peacetime society again?  Could he go back the classroom or were greater ambitions and national services waiting on the horizon?  (Join us next week for the last part of the Chamberlain biography).

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. My apologies if this post was too long…or not long enough.  If you’d like more info on a battle or incident that may have been condensed or run-over in this short biography, leave me a comment or reply and I’ll provide some additional info.  Thanks.

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

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

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

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…


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!


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!


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