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 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




No Second Guessing: A Lesson From Allied Headquarters, 1944

Have you ever had those moments of panic when you second guess yourself, sincerely hoping that you’ve prepared for a school test, worrying about the project you’re overseeing at work, or wondering if your kids are ready to face the challenges of life? I do. Just last week there was a half-day of intense panic, “I’m trying to write a book! What on earth do I think I’m doing? Where am I gonna find a publisher. I’m nervous…” Now that I’ve revealed a minor fear perhaps you can think of a few that you’re facing?

Well, I’ve got some great news for you this week. One of the best military leaders in the world faced a couple hours of second-guessing his plans. It’s time to learn a lesson about leadership and life directly from the planning headquarters of the June 6, 1944, Normandy Invasion.


He was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater of World War II. He’d been a soldier all his life, from his first training at West Point, through training exercises, and military war games. He was a practical man, a kind man who loved his family, a man who knew how to think, a man with vision, a man with a warrior’s spirit. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

For many long months Eisenhower and a team of brilliant commanders had been planning Operation Overlord, going over every detail to ensure the success of the attack to the best of their ability. Attacks from the air – paratroopers and gliders – would begin the assault with the purpose of capturing important bridges to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements. The navies would bombard the German defenses, followed by the infantry land assault. Militarily, the plan was daring, but sound.

Then on May 30, 1944, while waiting to determine the day of attack, Eisenhower’s headquarters telephone rang. It was Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, an expert in aviation warfare. He expressed his doubts about the success of the paratrooper and glider attacks, predicting heavy casualties without any benefit to the other attackers. Later, Eisenhower wrote about this moment: “It would be difficult to conceive a more soul-racking problem…” (Eisenhower, p. 246).

He asked Leigh-Mallory to put his concerns in writing and then “…went to my tent alone and sat down to think. Over and over I reviewed each step…thoroughly and exhaustively. …[There] was the possibility that if he were right the effect of the disaster would be far more than local: it would be likely to spread to the entire force” (Eisenhower, p. 246). After considering all information from every angle, Eisenhower decided that the airborne attacks must go on if the Utah beach landing was to be successful and that Utah was a crucial point that could not be cancelled.

“I telephoned him that the attack would go as planned…” (Eisenhower, p. 247). The decision was made. Eisenhower had made all the preparations that he could to ensure the success of the invasion, now, ultimately it depended on the men. Most of the high ranking Allied commanders visited the troops in the weeks leading up to the assault. On June 5 – after making the final decision to go ahead with the attack despite the questionable weather report – Eisenhower had one last duty to perform.

General Eisenhower meets with United States Troops before the Normandy Invasion

General Eisenhower meets with United States Troops before the Normandy Invasion

“I spent the time visiting the troops that would participate in the assault. A late evening trip on the fifth took me to the camp of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division [paratroopers], one of the units whose participation had been so severely questioned by the air commander [Leigh-Mallory]. I found the men in fine [spirits], many of them joshingly admonishing me that I had no cause for worry, since the 101st was on the job and everything would be taken care of in fine shape. I stayed with them until the last of them were in the air, somewhere about midnight. After a two-hour trip back to my own camp, I had only a short time to wait until the first news should come in…” (Eisenhower, p. 251-252).

Success. Paratroopers and glider crews seized the bridges and prevented German reinforcements from arriving quickly and Utah Beach was in Allied possession. And Leigh-Mallory – the good commander who felt it was his duty to express his concerns – was among the first to call Eisenhower to congratulate him on the positive outcome.


Now, it’s a good, true story…but what can we learn?

General Eisenhower was in the middle of a ginormous task and suddenly someone raised valid doubts, causing the monster called “second-guess” to reign for a few hours. What did Eisenhower do? Reviewed his preparations and then went forward with the action. Valuable lesson.

Okay, so most likely you’re not a five star general planning the liberation of Europe with the eyes of the world watching you. But remember that difficulty of yours – that “oh, my goodness what am I doing, I’m totally second guessing the wisdom of this” situation? Learn from one of the best leaders in history how to turn doubt into success.

#1. Stop. Take a deep breath.

#2. Preparation – review everything you know about the situation, every possible outcome. (If you can’t do this, you need more information). Next, weigh the cost and benefit, keeping in mind moral and ethical standards.

#3. Decide. If you’re sure you’re right, go ahead. But if you’ve considered the options and determined this is not a good plan, decide and be ready to stick to your conclusion.

#4. Action. Sometimes this falls on us, but sometimes it falls on others. If you’re the person to carry out the plan, do it! If you’re like the general, make sure your followers are prepared to do their best and encourage them along the way.

Well, I’m feeling better and more prepared for the challenges I’m facing after a little lesson at Allied headquarters. Remember that book I’m writing and the panic of publishing? I’ve taken a deep breath and discovered I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. Library research books are on the way and hopefully in a few weeks or months, I’ll be able to finish #3 (Decide) and boldly move on to #4 (Action).

Thanks General Eisenhower for writing about your hard decisions and showing us how a successful leader combats doubts with preparation and action.

Plans are established by council; by wise council wage war.  Proverbs 20:18, NKJV

Your historian,

Miss Sarah


Eisenhower, D.D. (1948).  Crusade in Europe.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.