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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (8 September 1828 – 24 February 1914) was a college professor and a soldier in the United States Army during the American Civil War, reaching the rank of major general. He was also a Medal of Honor winner, and served as a Republican Governor of Maine for four terms.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine. He lived near Harriet Beecher Stowe and was a visitor in her home and heard her recite passages from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Chamberlain entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1848 and graduated in 1852. He studied for three additional years at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine. Chamberlain returned to Bowdoin College and began a career in education as a professor of rhetoric.
Civil War service
Chamberlain's great-grandfathers were soldiers in the American Revolutionary War and his grandfather had served during the War of 1812. His father also had served during the Aroostook War of 1839. Chamberlain himself was not trained in military science but felt a strong desire to serve.
Chamberlain achieved fame at the Battle of Gettysburg, where his valiant defense of Little Round Top became the focus of many publications and stories, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, and the movie based on that novel, Gettysburg. Sent to defend the hill by Colonel Strong Vincent, Chamberlain found himself and the 20th Maine at the far end of the Union line, with the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, and 16th Michigan regiments to their right. The men from Maine waited until troops from the 15th Alabama regiment (under Colonel William C. Oates) charged up the hill, attempting to flank the Union right. Time and again they struck, until the 20th Maine was almost doubled-back upon itself. Chamberlain recognized the dire circumstances and ordered his right wing (which was now looking southeast, compared to the rest of the regiment, which was facing west) to swing down like a door. From his report of the day:
- At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.
The 20th Maine charged down the hill using an unusual tactical maneuver of ordering his troops the extreme left wing to wheel continually to make the charging line swing like a hinge thus creating a simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver, capturing many of the Southern soldiers and successfully saving the flank.
Chamberlain was slightly wounded in the foot at that battle by a spent bullet. Developing malaria in 1863, Chamberlain was taken off of active duty until he recovered. He returned to the Army of the Potomac in May 1864, and was promoted to brigade commander shortly before the Battle of Petersburg. There, in an action at Rives' Salient, Chamberlain was shot in the right hip. The wound was considered mortal by the division's surgeon, who predicted he would perish (which was correct, but not for another 50 years). General Ulysses S. Grant promoted him on the spot to brigadier general. Some sources believe this was the only battlefield promotion ever given by Grant. Not expected to live, Chamberlain displayed surprising will and courage and was back in command by November.
Given command of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of V Corps, Chamberlain continued to act with courage and resolve. On March 29, 1865, Chamberlain's brigade participated in a major skirmish on the Quaker Road during Grant's final advance that would finish the war. Despite losses, another wound (in the left arm and chest), and nearly being captured, Chamberlain was successful and brevetted to the rank of Major General by Abraham Lincoln.
Incident at Appomattox
Chamberlain was also responsible for one of the most poignant scenes of the Civil War at the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. General Grant placed Chamberlain in charge of receiving the surrender of Confederate weapons and battle flags. As the conquered Confederate soldiers marched down the road to surrender their arms and colors, Chamberlain, without orders or permission, ordered his men to come to attention and "carry arms" as a show of respect. Chamberlain described what happened next:
- The gallant John B. 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.
Chamberlain's salute was not popular with many in the north but he defended his action in his memoirs. Many years later, Gordon, in his own memoirs, called Chamberlain "one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army".
Chamberlain left the army soon after the war ended, going back to his home state of Maine, and served as governor of Maine for four terms. After leaving political office he returned to Bowdoin College. In 1871 he was appointed President of Bowdoin College and remained in that position until 1883 when he was forced to resign due to ill health from his war wounds.
Towards the end of his life, Chamberlain was active in the Grand Army of the Republic and made many return visits to Gettysburg, giving speeches at soldiers' reunions. He served as Surveyor of the port of Portland, Maine, and engaged in business activities.
- 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.
- Biography of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Biography
- Chamberlain Biography — Pejepscot Historical Society
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