Standing Your Ground: The Life of Joshua L. Chamberlain
Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain was born on September 8, 1828 in Brewer, Maine to Joshua and Sarah Brastow. Perhaps as a portent of things to come, Chamberlain was named after a hero of War of 1812, Captain James Lawrence. Captain Lawrence was known for never giving up the fight, and whose dying words to his men were “Don’t give up the ship!” Chamberlain’s family was a Puritan, and was raised in a household that puts high value on good behavior, good education, hard work, and benevolence.
THE DUTIFUL SON
Lawrence was the eldest of five children and had a strong sense of duty at a very early age, perhaps because he was tasked to look after his younger siblings. A great deal of his childhood was spent outdoors, and he grew up loving and respecting nature. He had a shy and sensitive nature, and was always caring of others. More and more, as Lawrence was growing up, he took to academic studies with great enthusiasm. (Wallace 1995, p. 19) He took to scholarly pursuits even as he worked the farm land to help his father. In the fields, Chamberlain was taught that how much the land gives in harvest depends on how much work one is willing to put into it. The lessons of hard work and industry and relentless determination were values that the land taught him, and one that would carry him through for the rest of his distinguished life. (Cashin 2002, p. 76).
When it was time for Chamberlain to set on a course for a lifelong career, his father, a former soldier, wanted his eldest son to follow in his footsteps and serve the country during peacetime. However, while Chamberlain had already been preparing for West Point and a career in the army, Chamberlain’s mother protested because she wanted Lawrence to serve the church and become a minister. In spite her mother’s objection, Lawrence wanted to go to West Point. However, his enthusiasm was dampened by the prospect of holding a military position during a time of relative peace and stability. So in the end, his mother’s desires won, and Chamberlain decided to become a minster in the hopes of getting a commission as a missionary in another country. (Wallace 1995, p. 45)
When Chamberlain was nineteen years old, he entered college. For Lawrence, who has been very close to his family, the thought of living away from his family must have been difficult. Thus, he was very shy and stammered during his first years at college at Bowdoin College at Brunswick. Gradually, Chamberlain was able to overcome his shyness and stammering speech and became a champion orator and writer. (Wallace 1995, p. 97) It was also during college that Chamberlain decided to use Joshua for his first name.
At college, Chamberlain’s strength of character began showing. He was known for standing firm on his principles, even when he was going against people who had more power and authority than him. He never turned his back on the values that he believed in, and this earned him the respect of the people who knew him. This strong sense of honor was a value that stayed with him all his life, even when his life was threatened in the battlefield. Chamberlain also had a great love for music and he turned for it for his relaxation.
When not busy with school work, he played the organ for his school chapel, a skill that he learned all on his own. His love for the organ also drew him to Frances Adams, who also played the organ for the Brunswick church choir. Frances was three years older than Chamberlain, but that age difference did not matter to them. Their romance was serious right from the start and they were engaged soon after 1852, just a year after they first met and soon after Chamberlain graduated from college. However the marriage did not happen soon after the engagement. Joshua first pursued both a seminary course and his master’s degree. After finishing both, Joshua and Frances became husband and wife, three years after their engagement.
THE PROFESSOR BECOMES A SOLDIER
Having distinguished himself as an orator during his college, he became professor of oratory and rhetoric at Bowdoin College a year after earning his master’s degree. Five years after, in 1861, he became the chair of the department of modern languages. Chamberlain’s ascent to chairmanship was well-deserved. He has learned several languages during his seminary course. The languages were taught as part of the preparation for overseas missionary work which was his original intent. Chamberlain was fluent in nine languages namely, Latin, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Syriac.
In 1861, at the same year that Chamberlain was elected the position of chair of modern languages, Civil War broke out. The youthful dreams of serving the military and fighting in the battlefield of war were once again rekindled. Or perhaps they never left at all. It may be said that Chamberlain has always been a noble soldier. When Chamberlain was given a sabbatical, supposedly for study in Europe, he immediately went to Governor Washburn for military service. Thus in 1862, Chamberlain left the halls of the academe to fight in the Civil War. His decision was met with dissent at Bowdoin College, but for Chamberlain the need to serve the country took precedence over anything else. By virtue of his education and mastery of languages, he was commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteers.
While never having actual military training, Chamberlain soon learned the ropes through keen observation. The fact that he was in charge of an actual regiment was enough reason for Chamberlain to learn as he go. All his life, he has always been a self-starter and capable of learning things by himself. Under Commander Adelbert Ames, a recent West Point graduate, Chamberlain, along with about a thousand men transformed and became trained soldiers. (Ritter & Wakelyn 1998, p. 116) Chamberlain’s youngest brother, Thomas, was also part of the same regiment, and the two would soon distinguish themselves as soldiers of the Civil War.
The 20th regiment’s first order of battle was to proceed to the battle at Antietam. However, they did not saw any action in that battle. Their first actual engagement was as a reconnaissance unit at Shepherdstown Ford. In October, Chamberlain was tasked to lead another reconnaissance at the South Mountain pass. It was during this time that Chamberlain saw first hand the horrors of war. He saw dead Confederate soldiers barely out of their youth, and such sights stayed with him during the entire course of the war. (Ritter & Wakelyn 1998, p. 64)
A few months after, in December 1862, Chamberlain and his men were right in the middle of the Battle of Fredericksburg, a site of overwhelming defeat for the Union. All around, Chamberlain saw dead men, and when the orders to evacuate came down, Chamberlain was tasked to lead his men to safety. The following months were uneventful for the regiment. In May 1863, an outbreak of small pox among the regiment kept Chamberlain’s men away from participating in the Battle of Chancellorsville. To keep his men in shape and their morale up, Chamberlain constantly asked for duties and engaged the regiment in positive activities. By the end of May, Chamberlain became Colonel of the 20th regiment, after having proven himself as an able soldier and a great leader.
A HERO RISES
On July 1863, the 20th regiment received marching orders to go to Gettysburg. The Union forces faced a formidable opponent in the person of Confederate General John Bell Hood. General Hood was bent on cutting down the Union lines and under his command; the Confederate Brigades advanced and went up the hill. During this engagement, a good number of Union officers were killed, leaving Chamberlain in command. Before he died, commanding officer Colonel Vincent instructed Chamberlain to stand ground. Joshua was now in a very difficult decision. He was given orders to stand ground but his men’s ammunition were almost spent. (Martin 2006, p. 213). Chamberlain was left to decide the fate of his men and the fate of this battled. He thus gave quick and firm orders. Having the higher ground, Chamberlain told his men to counterattack. The downhill bayonet charge caught the Confederates by surprise, and the Union held their position. For this heroic stand, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Soon after that historic stand, Chamberlain became commander of the 3rd Brigade. By this time, Chamberlain has become a seasoned solider who has survived many battlefields. He was regarded with respect and commanded the loyalty of the men who served under his command, particularly the men of the 20th Maine. While an officer, he never considered himself better than his men and he accorded all of them with equal courtesy and respect. He never asked for special quarters and endured the same sacrifices as his men. All these traits endeared him all the more to the military and the public as well. He treated the dead with respect and never forgot to attend to the sick after the smoke of battle has cleared.
By now an acclaimed hero, Chamberlain never stopped throwing himself into the thick of the battle. He was a natural leader and tactician, able to execute strategic commands under exacting pressure. He never feared for his life and engaged in battle with very little regard for personal safety. For him, the safety of his men and winning the ground was most important. (Martin 2006, p. 27) At one point, he was severely wounded but refused preferential treatment, insisting that there are others whose wounds are more serious than his. For fear of a mortal wound, General Ulysses Grant, in what is believed to be the only case of promotion on the battlefield, immediately conferred the position of general to Chamberlain. Doctors thought that Joshua had very little chances of surviving his wound, but he did. A few months after, Chamberlain reported back to duty in spite some physical limitations brought on by his war injury.
Chamberlain became commander of a new 1st Brigade, 1st Division, a unit composed of two large regiments of soldiers from Pennsylvania and New York. Not fully recovered from his injury, he was prevented from seeing any military action. However, after a month of sick leave, he returned to service, much to the dismay of his doctors. Chamberlain returned to military action during the last of General Grant’s campaign on March 1865. Chamberlain and his brigade were engaged in a bayonet fight while traveling the Quaker Road and Joshua was again injured. He would have been taken prisoner if not for his fast thinking. He eluded capture by donning a Confederate officer uniform and posing as one of the Confederates. His numerous injuries could not keep him from the call of duty. Under his leadership, Chamberlain claimed the strategic and much coveted lodge on the White Oak Road. For this accomplishment in spite of injury, Joshua was promoted to Major General by President Lincoln. (Ritter & Wakelyn 1998, p. 128).
General Chamberlain survived many injuries and lived to see the end of the Civil War and the Union’s victory. When General Grant designated him to receive the first flag of surrender at Appomattox Court House, in a moving demonstration of his noble spirit, Chamberlain received the surrender with graciousness and honor. He asked that his original 20th Maine regiment be with him in this historic event, believing that all of them deserved the honor that was accorded to him. (Martin 2006, p. 87)
For saving his men and the Union’s position, Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States. He was brave under fire, and magnanimous in victory. After the war, Joshua went back to Bowdoin as president of the college. (Ashby 2003, p. 10). During his tenure, he instituted reforms which shook the foundations of the conservative school. Nevertheless, his presidency, like his tour of military duty, was marked with strong leadership and honor. He lived to an old age of 84, seeing the fruits of peace wrought by many years of war. In a poetic death, he died of the old war wound that many thought he has recovered from. He still dies in the battle, as a noble soldier.
General Joshua Chamberlain stands tall in an age of greatness. His name will go down in history as among the greatest soldiers. It might be said that times make the hero, but in Chamberlain’s case, the choices that he made and his nobility in and out of the battlefield made him a soldier of life. He was a product of his times, and left just in time to plant the seeds of hope for a better and kinder world. May his nobility inspire all that is good and noble in each and every one of us.
Ashby, R. (2003). Extraordinary People. Black Rabbit Book.
Cashin, J. (2002). The War was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War. Princeton University Press.
Martin, I. (2006). The Greatest U.S. Army Stories Ever Told: Unforgettable Stories of Courage. The Lyons Press.
Ritter, C & Wakelyn, J (1998). Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Wallace, W. (1995). Soul of the Lion: A Biography of General Joshua L. Chamberlain. Clark Military Books.