After four years of brutal fighting the American Civil War at last came to an end in 1865. At the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Court House, Virginia one of Maine’s sons, Joshua L. Chamberlain, would play a major role in this historic event. Chamberlain was selected to command the Union troops that would receive the flag of surrender from the Confederate Army.
As the defeated troops, commanded by General John B. Gordon, marched to lay down their arms, they expected the victorious Union soldiers to humiliate and degrade them. To Gordon’s surprise Chamberlain ordered the conquered army to be shown honor and respect. In his memoirs Gordon remembers Chamberlain for his gallant gesture as “one of the knighliest soldiers of the Federal Army.”
One of the reasons Chamberlain earned the honor to preside at Appomattox was his courageous leadership and daring in the critical Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863. He commanded the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteers and had orders to protect on the southern slope of Little Round Top, a strategic defense position.
Two days of bloody combat left Chamberlain’s unit with many casualties and ammunition dangerously low. Confederate troops mounted another frontal attack. According to Chamberlain’s report: “At that crisis I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.”
At Chamberlain’s command the 20th Maine stormed down the hill routing the attackers and turning the tide of the battle. Many historians credit Chamberlain’s heroic leadership at Gettysburg for the high esteem and recognition he received in Maine and the nation after the war.
By the time the war came to an end Chamberlain had fought in 20 battles, had six horses shot from under him and was wounded six times. In a letter to his wife after he received a wound at the battle of Petersburg he showed some of his wit. He wrote, “I am not of Virginia blood, but she is of mine.” He completed his military service with the rank of brigadier general.
Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine in 1828 to Joshua and Sarah Dupee Chamberlain. He was the oldest of five children. He studied at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and the Bangor Theological Seminary where he prepared for a career in the ministry abroad. He was fluent in nine languages other than English, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and several European dialects.
While at Bowdoin he met a number of influential people including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the powerful anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he referred to her as “the little woman that wrote the book that made this great war.”
Chamberlain married Fanny Adams in 1855. She was the daughter of a local minister and had a talent as a musician and artist. They had five children. One was born as a premature baby and did not survive. Two others died in infancy.
Just prior to the war Chamberlain started a career in education as a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin. When the war broke out he had the great desire to serve his country following the military traditions of his great-grand fathers, grand father and father.
His wife would say that her great rival was the war. In the fall of 1864 he was on leave at home recovering from a serious wound that would have excused him from further service. As soon as he recovered he returned to combat duty.
Following the war Chamberlain returned to Maine and pursued a political career. He was held in such high esteem that he was elected governor and served four one-year terms.
When he left political office he returned to his beloved Bowdoin College where he was appointed president, serving for twelve years. There he introduced a number of controversial studies including science and engineering, which challenged the conservative school’s traditional teaching.
In his later years Chamberlain became involved in several business ventures and served as the U.S. Surveyor of Customs in Portland. He also wrote of his wartime experiences and was honored at events by dignitaries such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.
He died in 1914 at the age of 86 of wounds he received years earlier at Petersburg, Virginia. His remarkable life has been the subject of numerous books such as The Twentieth Maine, Soul of the Lion and The Killer Angels, which became the basis for the film Gettysburg
He is remembered as one of Maine’s most prominent heroes, whose legacy inspires ongoing generations.
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