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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

By John T. Marck

He was born Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain on September 8, 1828 in Brewer, Maine, a shipbuilding and farming community. His parents, Joshua and Sarah Dupee (Brastow) Chamberlain named him Joshua after his father, and Lawrence after the heroic Commodore James Lawrence, famous for the immortalized words "Don't Give Up the Ship!" Lawrence was the oldest of five children, and was raised in a Puritan and French Protestant household, that invoked values of good manners, morality, education, and industry.

Growing up, Lawrence was passionate of outdoor activities such as swimming, sailing, horseback riding, growing and enjoying flowers, and bird watching. As an early teen, his interests turned mostly scholastic, but he also enjoyed farming. He learned from his strict father while farming that willpower combined with positive thinking and action would result in a person accomplishing tasks previously seemingly impossible. These positive lessons that he learned would follow him in his adult life, and certainly were of great success to him in his career and throughout the Civil War.

Lawrence's father, being a former military lieutenant colonel himself, had wished that Joshua enter the army. As Lawrence had already attended Major Whiting's military academy, he had been groomed for West Point. However, his mother did not want this for him, rather desiring him to study for the ministry. Although Lawrence was more interested in West Point, there was no fascination for him in being in the army during peacetime. After considering both ideas, Lawrence decided to enter the ministry on the provision that he could become a missionary in a foreign country.

Lawrence entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 1848. It would be here that he began using his middle name of Joshua as his first name. During his first year at college, he was shy and lonely, and spoke very little due in part because of his tendency to stammer. But, Joshua soon overcame this by singing out word phrases, and by his junior year at Bowdoin he had won awards in composition and oratory.

While a student at Bowdoin, Joshua was known for his strong principles, and remained steadfast even when challenged by the college authorities. His strong sense of dignity remained with him throughout his life. When not buried in his studies, he enjoyed singing and taught himself to play the bass violin and organ, and did so quite skillfully.

While attending a church service in Brunswick in 1851, he became aware of the church organist named Frances Caroline Adams, known as Fanny to her friends. She was three years older than Joshua and was the adopted daughter of the Church's minister. Although this slight age difference was unconventional at the time, it didn't matter to Joshua. Soon a romance began and within a year following his graduation from Bowdoin in 1852, they were engaged. After graduation, Joshua then attended a three-year seminary course of study at Bangor Theological Seminary in conjunction with Bowdoin College and earned his master's degree. In 1855, following this graduation, he and Fanny were married.

One year later in 1856, Joshua was elected a professor of rhetoric and oratory at Bowdoin. Between the years of 1856 and 1861, he and Fanny had two children; a daughter, Grace Daisy and a son, Harold Wyllys. Joshua, being fluent in nine languages, that being Greek, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Syriac, and Latin; he was elected to the chair of modern languages at Bowdoin, prior to 1861.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Chamberlain was thirty-four years old and a professor at Bowdoin College. Upon the school spring term ending at the beginning of summer, 1862, Chamberlain asked for and was granted a sabbatical on the pretext that he needed to travel to Europe to study. However, felling a strong desire to serve in the army, he did not go to Europe, but instead joined the Union army entering as a lieutenant colonel of the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteers in August 1862.The first marching orders for the 20th Maine came in September 1982 when they went to the site of the battle of Antietam. However, they did not see action until they arrived at Shepherdstown Ford, followed by another reconnaissance mission at the South Mountain pass. It would be here that Joshua first saw the horrors of war; seeing a young boy lying dead on the field of battle, about the same age of his own son. These are sights he and others never forgot.

Chamberlains' command of the 20th Maine was attached to the Union V Corps, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac. Chamberlains' outstanding leadership became apparent almost from the beginning, where at Fredericksburg, on the slopes of Marye's Heights, he and his men were subjected to relentless Rebel fire for hours, into the cold night, but they held their ground. Although defeated, it was Chamberlain who successfully led his men in retreat from the heights. However, his heroic action was nothing compared to what he would encounter at Gettysburg.

Joshua Chamberlain was now a lieutenant colonel in command of the 20th Maine. On the second day of fighting at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, Chamberlain had received orders to defend and hold a small wooded area to the extreme left of the Union line, known as Little Round Top. Chamberlain, realizing that Little Round Top was critical to the Union position and success at Gettysburg, held his position in spite of repeated Confederate attacks, driving them back each time. Now, late into the afternoon, hot, tired and with their ammunition gone, Chamberlain realized that the Rebels were forming their final attack. Chamberlain ordered his men to draw their bayonets. But, instead of retreating, Chamberlain launched a vicious bayonet charge on the Rebels that broke the Confederate line for good and saved Little Round Top for the Union. Wounded in the attack, Chamberlain did not stop but rather drove the Rebels from Gettysburg.

Following Gettysburg, Chamberlain, still in command of the 20th Maine, served with great distinction at the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864. On June 2 - 3, Joshua and the 20th Maine fought at Bethesda Church a short distance from Cold Harbor. Here, as always, Chamberlain placed himself in the thick of the battle, and without regard for his personal safety, executed commands with great judgment and poise. Soon thereafter, General Warren reorganized the Fifth Corps, and as a result, this would be the last time Chamberlain would lead the 20th Maine. Several days after the reorganization, Chamberlain was placed in command of the new 1st Division's 1st Brigade of Pennsylvania regiments.

In this command he served at the Battle of Petersburg in June 1864. Here he received his fourth wound, when he was shot by a minie ball upon rescuing the flag when his color bearer next to him was shot and killed. In spite of his injury being a severe one, through determination, he continued to hold the colors until all his men passed him. Although now in a grave condition, he refused preferential medical treatment on the field, advising the helpers to assist his men who had more serious wounds.

So impressed with his courage, and as a result of the belief that his injury was mortal, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant promoted him to brigadier general on the battlefield; the only instance of a battlefield promotion given by Grant. For his injury, Chamberlain was removed to Annapolis, Maryland where he was admitted to the naval Hospital. Those around him believed he had little hope for survival, yet his determination prevailed, resulting in his recovery, and short stay at the hospital. By early November, he again reported to duty, although he was unable to ride a horse or even walk any distances. Once again in command of the 1st Brigade, and as a result of his injuries not fully healed, he was hospitalized again in early December, at Philadelphia, after participating in a raid on Weldon Railroad. Within a month, and against the knowledge of his doctor, Joshua returned to active duty. During the final command of the war, on March 29, 1865, Chamberlain, leading the 1st Brigade up Quaker Road came upon some Rebels and soon were engaged in a bayonet fight. While another of his horses was shot out from under him, which happened several times during the war, he again was wounded for the sixth time. Here he was almost captured by the Rebels, yet was able to get away by posing as a Confederate officer (not sure how he managed that considering the uniform, but he did). Again, in spite of this injury, Joshua remained in command.

On April 1, 1865 at the Battle of Five Forks, Chamberlain and his men received a significant victory; capturing more than one thousand Rebels, including nineteen officers and five battle flags. The next day they advanced on the South Side Railroad and pushed the Rebel cavalry back, capturing the train and many Confederate prisoners.

On April 9, 1865, General Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was now severely weakened, called a truce to end the four years of fighting. It would be Chamberlain who was selected to receive the formal surrender of General Robert E. Lee's veteran troops and the colors of Lee's Army on April 12, 1865, and Joshua was deeply touched to have been selected for this honor. Upon accepting their surrender, in a gesture of friendship, ordered his men in salute as the shattered Confederate army passed by. Confederate General John B. Gordon, amazed to be so honorably treated, prompted him and his men to graciously return the salute to Chamberlain.

Upon being mustered out of the service in June 1866, Chamberlain was offered a commission in the Regular army, but refused. Chamberlain then went on to serve four terms as the governor of Maine from 1866-1870, and then was president of Bowdoin College from 1870 to 1883. Upon his retirement from Bowdoin, he spent his last years working as a businessman, and also wrote about his wartime experiences. In 1893, thirty years after the fact, Chamberlain was finally recognized for his heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain died on February 24, 1914 in Portland, Maine. Joshua Chamberlain wrote The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the Armies, but it was not published until 1915, one year following his death.

On October 18, 1866, at the Dedication of the Soldiers Monument at Gorham, Joshua Chamberlain said: "...They offered themselves willingly to death in a cause vital and dear to humanity; and what is more a cause they comprehended as such, and looking at it in all its bearings and its consequences, solemnly pledged to it all that they had and were...When I think of what these men suffered and did, I marvel with a wonder which is admiration...We have come here, friends, not for things that die, but for things that cannot die....For human History is not a Dead Sea, it is a flowing river....

Joshua Chamberlain in speaking at Gettysburg Battlefield on October 3, 1889 said, "The inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests wide and far, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone. The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality; of being part of a personality that reaches we know not where, in space and time, greatens the heart to the limit of the soul's ideal, and builds out the supreme of character."

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.