Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was hardly the type of person one would have picked to become a war hero. Prior to the war, Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric and theology at Bowdoin College in Maine before receiving a commission as a lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine in 1862.
But he proved to be a skilled, tough and very respected officer, not only by his own men but by his enemies as well. 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.
Severely wounded during the Battle of Petersburg on this day in 1864, Chamberlain’s wound was pronounced fatal by his surgeons. But not only did he survive, he returned to active duty and he was also awarded the honor of accepting the Confederate Infantry surrender at Appomattox Court House when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to end the war. He eventually died as a result of complications from his wounds 50 years later in 1914. Thus he’s considered the final casualty from the Civil War.
Life prior to the War: Chamberlain was born on September 8, 1828, in Brewer, Maine, the oldest of five children. His family roots were English and his ancestors could be traced back to the 12th century.
He graduated Bowdoin College in 1852 and was heavily influenced by the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and regularly attended programs where she would read passages from her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which would shape his views of the coming conflict.
After studying for three more years at Bangor Theological Seminary, he returned to Bowdoin, this time as a professor. In 1855, he married Fanny Adams and the two would remain devoted to another until her death at 1905.
While 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 other than English: 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.”
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.
Civil War Hero: He promptly enlisted in the 20th Maine as a lieutenant colonel. He was offered command of the regiment but turned it down to “learn the business first.” 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 became famous and may have saved the Union’s bacon during the second day of the battle. After being pushed out of the town in 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.
The 15th Alabama Regiment tried five times to turn the line of the 20th Maine in an attempt to get a foothold on top of Little Round Top. Each time they were turned back. They were bolstered by men of the 4th and 47th Alabama Regiments and also the 4th and 5th Texas Regiments. But the Confederates were exhausted having speed marched 20 miles to the battle and entering the fray with no water.
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 he led them in a charge down the hill where they executed a brilliant flanking maneuver to force 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 slightly wounded twice during the battle and was nearly killed. A Confederate officer 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 resides in the Maine State Museum.
Nearly 30 years later, Chamberlain would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.
Medal of Honor citation:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 2 July 1863, while serving with 20th Maine Infantry, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top
Petersburg and His “Fatal Wound: Chamberlain would be given command of a brigade, the 1st Brigade, First Division, V Corps. In heavy fighting during the siege of Petersburg on June 18, Chamberlain was shot thru the right hip and groin with the bullet passing thru his right hip.
During the battle, he unsheathed his sword and stuck it into the ground leaning 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, which would hound him for the rest of his life where he’d be forced to wear what today would be termed a catheter, not only did Chamberlain survive, he would return 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.
He was nearly killed again during a battle along Quaker Road, where Grant’s forces were pushing the Confederate forces under Lee steadily back. According to a report of the incident in Wikipedia:
A Confederate shot at Chamberlain. The bullet went through his horse’s neck, hit the picture frame, entered under Chamberlain’s skin in the front of his chest, traveled around his body under the skin along the rib, and exited his back. To all observers Union and Confederate, it appeared that he was shot through his chest. He continued to encourage his men to attack. All sides cheered his valiant courage, and the Union assault was successful.
In early April 1865, the Civil War was winding to a close. Grants 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 a respect for his enemies that was remarkable after four years of awful, bloody fighting, the costliest war in American history. Chamberlain ordered his men to attention and to “Carry Arms”, as a salute to the vanquished, but a 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.”
Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the ‘carry.’ All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead.
Post-war Life: After the war was over, Chamberlain was elected to four straight one-year terms as the 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 the 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. His original medal was lost and not found until 2013 where it was donated to the Pejebscot Historical Society in Brunswick, Maine. A second recast medal is on display at Bowdoin College.
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.
Chamberlain was a founding member of the Maine Institution for the Blind, in Portland. His wife had become visually impaired and that spurred her husband into becoming involved in that organization.
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 the Gettysburg battle and made several trips there to plan the event. However, due to his war injury, he was unable to attend the actual reunion.
Chamberlain finally did succumb to his war wounds on February 24, 1914, at the age of eighty-five. His “fatal” wounds at Petersburg eventually did kill him, nearly 50 years later. 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” and was portrayed on the screen by Jeff Daniels. The film was based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel about Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels”.
Chamberlain’s 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.
Photos: US Archives, Wikipedia
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