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