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Encyclopedia > Joshua L. Chamberlain
Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (8 September 182824 February 1914) was 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.


Early life

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine on 8 September 1828. Chamberlain 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 enlisted and received a commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment which was assigned to the Union Army of the Potomac.

He fought with the regiment at the Battle of Fredericksburg (as shown in the movie Gods and Generals), the Antietam, and at the Battle of Chancellorsville, where he was promoted to Colonel of the regiment.

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 movie, Gettysburg. Sent to defend the hill by Colonel Stong 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' command) 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 manuever 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. The men were soon relieved and sent to the Union center on Cemetery Ridge in reserve, told that it would be the safest ground on the field. On July 3rd, Confederate infantry opened fire upon the center, and what followed was the 12,000 man debacle known as "Pickett's Charge" today.

Chamberlain was slightly wounded in the foot at that battle by a spent bullet. This wound, although minor, would eventually cause him to become ill, and force him to return home for a few days during the Virginia Campaign. He stayed with the Army of the Potomac through its campaigns in Virginia (in 1864 and 1865), being wounded a few times (as described in the book, The Last Full Measure). One wound, in which a Confederate Miniť ball entered through one hip and exited the other at the Battle of White Oak Road (in 1864), was so severe that he was expected not to survive. Upon learning of his heroic service, he was awarded a promotion to Brigadier General. To the surprise of all, he survived, returning to the army to finish the war. He was eventually promoted to Brigadier General, and brevetted Major General. He was the subject of much praise during the war, including some from the unlikeliest sources (including fiery cavalry commander Philip Sheridan).

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, Virginia. General Ulysses S. 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".

Post-war Career

Chamberlain memorial in Brewer, Maine

Chamberlain left the army soon after the war ended, going back to his home state of Maine. Chamberlain 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, served as Surveyor of the port of Portland, Maine, and engaged in business activities.

In 1893 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his wartime service.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain died in 1914 at Portland, Maine.

  Results from FactBites:
Joshua L. Chamberlain Biography (128 words)
oshua L. Chamberlain was one of the Union Army's great heroes at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July 1863.
Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor at Gettysburg, and he went on to serve the Union with distinction for the remainder of the war.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in 1828 in Brewer, Maine.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Brewster, Maine, on September 8, 1828.
Chamberlain realized that the site was important to the Union position, and he and his troops held the spot, repeatedly pushing back Confederate attacks.
Chamberlain was mustered out of the service in January of 1866, and refused a commission in the Regular army.
  More results at FactBites »



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