Nobody would have guessed that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an unassuming rhetoric professor with a stutter, would be a war hero. Today, we would call Chamberlain a nerd. How wrong would be!
Chamberlain proved to be a skilled, tough as nails, and very respected officer — not only by his own men but also by his enemies. Wounded six times during the Civil War, having had six horses shot out from under him, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallant stand at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.
He was severely wounded during the Battle of Petersburg in 1864. But not only did he survive, he returned to active duty and was also awarded the honor of accepting the Confederate Infantry surrender at Appomattox Court House. He eventually died as a result of complications from his wounds 50 years later in 1914. Thus he’s considered the final casualty of the Civil War.
Early Life and Education
Chamberlain was born on September 8, 1828, in Brewer, Maine, the oldest of five children. His mother ingrained in him his religious devotion to the Congregational Church, while his father passed on a deep interest in the military, as every generation of his family had served in the army back to the Revolution.
As a child, Joshua Chamberlain was shy, because of a stammer which he never fully overcame. As an adult, he compensated for it by pacing his speech.
He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1852 and was heavily influenced by the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. He regularly attended programs where she would read passages from her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This would shape his views of the coming conflict.
In 1855, he married Frances “Fanny” Adams and the two would remain devoted to one another until her death in 1905. He and Fanny would have five children.
At Bowdoin, Chamberlain became a professor of rhetoric. He eventually went on to teach every subject in the curriculum with the exception of science and mathematics. Just prior to the war breaking out, he was appointed professor of Modern Languages. He was fluent in nine languages: Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac.
He felt all Americans should be involved in the war and wrote to Maine’s Governor Israel Washburn, Jr.,
“I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery. I have always been interested in military matters and what I do not know in that line I am willing to learn.”
Most of Bowdoin’s professors felt differently and the college refused to grant him a leave of absence to serve in the military. So, Chamberlain asked for and was granted a leave of absence for two years to study languages in Europe.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Civil War Hero
He promptly enlisted in the 20th Maine as a lieutenant colonel in 1862. He was offered command of the regiment but turned it down to “learn the business first.” He was therefore the executive officer of the 20th Maine. The 20th Maine fought at the bloody Union debacle at Fredericksburg during the Battle of Marye’s Heights.
But it was at the Battle of Gettysburg where Chamberlain’s actions would shape the future of the United States.
After being pushed out of the town on the first day of the battle, the Union controlled the high ground outside of the town. Chamberlain, now the colonel of the 20th Maine, occupied Little Round Top on the far left of the Union line.
If the Confederates turned the line, they could roll up the entire defense and destroy the Union’s Army of the Potomac. And both sides knew it.
Confederate General John Bell Hood, one of Robert E. Lee’s most aggressive commanders, was tasked with pushing the Union troops off of the heights. Colonel Strong Vincent looked to Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment to defend Little Round Top “at every hazard.”
The 15th Alabama Regiment, bolstered by men of the 4th and 47th Alabama Regiments and the 4th and 5th Texas Regiments, tried five times to turn the line of the 20th Maine in an attempt to get a foothold on top of Little Round Top. And each time they were turned back. The exhaustion of the Confederates, who had speed-marched 20 miles to Gettysburg and had entered the fray with no water, was evident.
At Little Round Top
Both sides were running low on ammunition, Colonel Chamberlain feared that the next charge would dislodge his men from their position. He ordered the men to fix bayonets and led them in a charge down the hill where they executed a brilliant flanking maneuver forcing the Confederates off the hill. The Confederate commander of the 15th Alabama, Colonel William Oates admitted his troops “ran like a herd of wild cattle” during the retreat. Afterward, Oates would describe the conduct of his enemies in eloquent terms.
“There never were harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine men and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat.”
Chamberlain was nearly killed when Confederate Lieutenant Vickers aimed his pistol at Chamberlain’s head and narrowly missed before running out of ammunition. Chamberlain placed his sword at the lieutenant’s throat and took him prisoner taking his sidearm. That pistol now is in the Maine State Museum. Chamberlain later wrote that Lieutenant Thomas Melcher probably saved his life during the charge.
Petersburg and His Fatal Wound
Joshua Chamberlain would be given command of the 1st Brigade, First Division, V Corps. In heavy fighting during the siege of Petersburg on June 18, Chamberlain was shot through the right hip and groin.
He unsheathed his sword, stuck it into the ground, and leaned on it so he could remain with his men until he passed out from loss of blood. The surgeons pronounced his wound fatal and word reached the Maine newspapers that Chamberlain had fallen in battle. General Ulysses S. Grant gave Chamberlain a battlefield promotion to brigadier general.
But despite the seriousness of his wounds, not only did Chamberlain survive, he returned to duty several months later. By November, he was back in command of the brigade and committed to seeing the war to the end. In early 1865, President Lincoln promoted Chamberlain to brevet major general.
In early April 1865, the Civil War was winding to a close. Grant’s forces learned that Lee was going to surrender his troops at Appomattox. Chamberlain was given the honor of accepting the surrender of the Confederate troops as they marched for the last time to Appomattox Court House. What followed was perhaps one of the most moving scenes of the war.
As the Confederate troops marched up the road, Chamberlain, on his own initiative, displayed respect for his enemies that was remarkable after four years of awful, bloody fighting, during the costliest war in American history. Chamberlain ordered his men to attention and to “Carry Arms,” as a salute to the vanquished, but respected foe. That gesture was not lost on his enemies. General John B. Gordon, one of Lee’s most trusted officers at the end of the war, called Chamberlain “one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army.”
After the war was over, Chamberlain was elected to four straight one-year terms as governor of Maine. In his third election, he set the record for the most votes and the highest percentage of the popular vote (72.1 percent).
In 1871, Chamberlain finally returned to Bowdoin College, but this time as its president. The school that wouldn’t release him for military duty had come around to his service. He remained as president until 1883 when complications from his war wounds forced his resignation.
In 1893, he was finally awarded the Medal of Honor, nearly 30 years after his defense of Little Round Top.
Five years later at age 70, he once again volunteered for duty during the Spanish-American War. But the Army rejected him due to his war wounds which were increasingly giving him issues.
Until the end of his life, Chamberlain was heavily involved in events and functions for the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. He spoke at many of the reunions and revisited Gettysburg many times. He was involved in getting veterans from both sides to attend the 50th year anniversary of Gettysburg and made several trips there to plan the event. However, due to his war injury, he was unable to attend the actual reunion.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain finally succumbed to his war wounds on February 24, 1914, at the age of 85. He is buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine, next to his surgeon at Petersburg, Dr. Abner O’Shaw.
Chamberlain’s exploits became famous during the film Gettysburg where he was portrayed by Jeff Daniels. His actions at Little Round Top were published as an example of outstanding military initiative in the U.S. Army’s Leadership Manual 22-100 during the 1990s.