The American Civil
War, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Edited by: Robert Guisepi, 2002
Excerpts From Chamberlain's
A Brief Biography
By Charles Calhoun
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born Sept. 8, 1828, in Brewer,
Maine, the eldest of five children. Facing the much larger city of
Bangor across the Penobscot River, Brewer was in Chamberlain's youth
a small farming and ship-building community. Lawrence -- as his
family called him -- worked on his father's farm and, like many
other promising young men of the time, had some experience of
Entering Bowdoin College in Brunswick in 1848, Chamberlain studied
the traditional classical curriculum and showed particular skill at
languages. He joined a "secret society," Alpha Delta Phi, and
appears to have been a pious, serious-minded youth -- he recalled,
years later, visiting the Stowe family on Federal Street in 1851 and
hearing Harriet Beecher Stowe read aloud from chapters she had just
completed of Uncle Tom's Cabin. At First Parish Church, he met
Fannie Adams, the adopted daughter of the minister; they were to
marry in 1855, after a long courtship.
But first Chamberlain took his Bowdoin A. B. degree, in the Class of
1852, and returned north for three more years of study at Bangor
Theological Seminary. Turning down the opportunity to become a
minister or missionary, he accepted a position at Bowdoin teaching
rhetoric (which combined elements of what we would now call speech
with English literature and persuasive writing) and, later, modern
languages (i.e., German and French). A good scholar, he was also an
orthodox Congregationalist -- an important factor to his Bowdoin
colleagues, for the College was embroiled in the denominational
quarrels of the day.
Chamberlain knew little of soldiering -- despite a short time as a
boy at a military school at Ellsworth -- but he was keenly aware
that his father had commanded troops in the bloodless Aroostook War
of 1839 with Canada, his grandfather had been locally prominent in
the War of 1812, and his great-grandfathers had participated in the
Revolution. When the sectional crisis led to civil war in 1861,
Chamberlain felt a strong urge to fight to save the union. (Although
sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, he is not known to have
been an abolitionist and showed little interest, after the war, in
the cause of the freedmen.) But the college was reluctant to lose
his services. Offered a year's travel with pay in Europe in 1862 to
study languages, Chamberlain instead volunteered his military
services to Maine's governor. He was soon made lieutenant colonel of
the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
His extraordinary Civil War career is much admired today, thanks to
books like John J. Pullen's The Twentieth Maine and Alice R.
Trulock's biography In the Hands of Providence, documentaries like
Ken Burns's The Civil War, and novels like Michael Shaara's The
Killer Angels (which was made into the movie Gettysburg, with Jeff
Daniels portraying Chamberlain). From Antietam in 1862 to the
triumphal grand review of the armies in May of 1865, Chamberlain saw
much of the war in the East, including 24 battles and numerous
skirmishes. He was wounded six times -- once, almost fatally -- and
had six horses shot from under him.
He is best remembered for two great events: the action at Little
Round Top, on the second day of Gettysburg (2 July 1863), when
then-Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine held the extreme left
flank of the Union line against a fierce rebel attack, and the
surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, when
Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the formal surrender of weapons
and colors (12 April 1865). Always a chivalrous man, Chamberlain had
his men salute the defeated Confederates as they marched by,
evidence of his admiration of their valor and of Grant's wish to
encourage the rebel armies still in the field to accept the peace.
Brevet Major General Chamberlain returned briefly to his academic
duties at Bowdoin, but was soon elected as a popular war hero to
four terms as governor of Maine -- helping establish a century of
domination of Maine politics by the Republican Party. Chamberlain
was never a member of the inner circle of the party and was
distrusted by its leading politicians, but in his years as chief
executive he helped establish the new agricultural and technical
college at Orono, tried to attract investment into a state whose
economy was beginning to decline, and persuaded Scandinavian
immigrants to take up farming at New Sweden and elsewhere in Maine.
He continued to live in Brunswick, taking the train to Augusta as
state business required.
Rather than go into finance or railroads like so many young Civil
War generals, former Governor Chamberlain returned to Bowdoin; he
was to spend far more of his life as an educator than as a soldier.
In 1871, he was persuaded to accept the presidency of the college at
a low point in its fortunes. Remembering the engineering skills of
West Point-trained officers and trying to adjust to a new age,
Chamberlain reshaped the curriculum to include modern scientific and
engineering subjects -- a short-lived experiment that produced at
least one very famous alumnus, the polar explorer Admiral Robert
Peary, Class of 1877.
Chamberlain's wartime experience had made him accustomed to giving
orders and seeing them obeyed. This inflexibilty in his character
was less suited to civilian life, however, and led to the biggest
defeat of his career -- at the hands of his students. Part of
Chamberlain's reforms had included regular military drill in
uniform. At first the students were intrigued; soon, they were
openly hostile to what they saw as an attempt to change "old Bowdoin"
into a military school. Chamberlain won the "Drill Rebellion of
1874" in the short run -- he threatened to expel the students unless
they agreed to submit -- but he lost the support of the college's
Governing Boards, and drill was soon eliminated.
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, he continued to write, teach,
lecture, and participate actively in the G.A.R. and other veterans'
groups. He represented the United States at the Paris Exposition of
1878 and wrote a long report on education in France. His reputation
for coolness and courage was confirmed in 1880 when, as commander of
the militia, he was called to keep order in Augusta amid an angrily
disputed state election. Despite several operations, Chamberlain had
never fully recovered from the wound in his groin he had received in
1864 at Petersburg (where a minie ball had pierced both hipbones),
and in 1883 ill health led to his resignation as Bowdoin's
president. In 1893 Congress finally gave him the Medal of Honor for
gallantry at Gettysburg.
Chamberlain spent much of the final three decades of his life in
business ventures (including speculation in Florida real estate) and
in writing accounts of his battles. The Civil War to him was not the
grim business of Sherman's memoirs or the battlefield photographs,
but an idealized struggle where "manhood" -- by which he seemed to
mean courage, steadfastness, and compassion -- was put to the test
and where an individual's fate was entirely in the hands of
Providence. In more private moments, he enjoyed rusticating and
sailing at his summer retreat, Domhegan, on Simpson's Point.
In 1905 Fannie Chamberlain died. Of their five children, two had
survived to adulthood. In 1900 Chamberlain was appointed Surveyor of
the Port of Portland, where he lived until his death in 1914 at age
Although never forgotten in Maine, Chamberlain largely faded from
national view for most of the 20th century. No statue of him was
ever erected at Gettysburg; few historians studied his campaigns.
But amid the surge of interest in the Civil War in the 1990s he has
re-emerged as an exemplary figure among the Union generals, the very
model of the citizen-soldier.
World History Project