When I started out as a reporter in Maine in the 1990s, I found a copy of John Pullen’s “The Twentieth Maine” at a yard sale. I read it with eager interest after rediscovering its detailed account of Joshua L. Chamberlain’s role in the U.S. Civil War. I had first learned about Chamberlain in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Killer Angels” during a history class in high school. Chamberlain’s story left a lasting impression on me; I read every book I could find about this historic figure including some pretty obscure titles and papers.
As I got older, my interest waned, giving way to family, a career and life.
A few years ago, I was delighted to see that in honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Vermont Humanities Council had launched the Civil War Book of Days in October 2010. These weekly emails mark what happened each week 150 years earlier. They are well-researched and thoughtful and often provide context to other historic events relevant to the Civil War and slavery. (You can sign up at www.vermonthumanities.org and also see back “issues.”)
The Book of Days has been that welcome reminder of this pivotal time in our history. Then, last month, Chamberlain bubbled to the surface of the news again.
In 1893, the major general had received the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions he took July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg. The citation was for “Daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on Little Round Top against repeated assaults and carrying the advance position on Great Round Top.”
In 1896, the display ribbon for the medal changed. When Chamberlain received the new ribbon with wider stripes, he placed it atop the old ribbon. The medal was misplaced but passed down through the family to his granddaughter Rosamond Allen, who died in 2000. She left her estate to a Duxbury, Mass., church that held a yard sale of some of the items. It turned out the medal was hidden in the back of a book sold there.
Recognizing its significance, the anonymous buyer gave the medal to the Pejepscot Historical Society in Brunswick, Maine, “in honor of all veterans.” The society owns and operates Chamberlain’s home as a house museum.
The Civil War often is unnecessarily glorified. The stories get exaggerated for effect, and their real significance gets tarnished by innuendo and falsehoods.
Chamberlain is worthy of our attention. His story speaks directly to the struggle. He was the eldest child of Joshua and Sarah Chamberlain, born in 1828. He taught himself Greek in order to attend Bowdoin College. While at Bowdoin he met Harriet Beecher Stowe and listened to readings of what would become “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” After graduating, he studied for three years at the Bangor Theological Seminary before returning to Bowdoin to teach.
As the war took shape, Chamberlain sought to enlist. He was prevented from doing so by the administration at Bowdoin, which stated he was too valuable to lose. In 1862, he requested and was granted a leave of absence, at which time he enlisted. He was asked by the governor to command the 20th Maine Infantry but declined. He said he would rather learn how to be a soldier first.
Chamberlain and the 20th Maine mustered in on Aug. 20, 1862. Assigned to the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the 20th Maine served at Antietam but did not see action. The regiment was part of the attack on Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Though the regiment suffered relatively light casualties, Chamberlain and his fellow soldiers were forced to spend the night on the freezing battlefield using corpses for protection against Confederate fire.
When the 20th Maine’s commanding officer was eventually promoted to brigade command in the 6th Corps, Chamberlain took command of the regiment. On July 2, 1863, they entered action at Gettysburg. Assigned to hold Little Round Top on the extreme left of the Union line, the 20th Maine beat off attacks from the 15th Alabama.
With his men running low on ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that routed and captured the Confederates. It was that action that earned him the Medal of Honor.
After Gettysburg, Chamberlain fell ill with malaria and was suspended from duty. Returning to the Army, Chamberlain was promoted to brigade command in May 1864. On June 18, while leading his men during an attack on Petersburg, Va., he was shot through the right hip and groin. Supporting himself on his sword, he encouraged his men on before collapsing.
Believing the wound to be fatal, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant promoted Chamberlain to brigadier general as a final act. Chamberlain clung to life and managed to recover from his wounds.
On April 9, 1865, Chamberlain was alerted to the Confederates’ desire to surrender. The next day he was told that of all the officers in the Union Army, he had been selected to receive the Confederate surrender. On April 12, Chamberlain presided over the ceremony and ordered his men to attention and carry arms as a sign of respect for the Army’s vanquished foe, Robert E. Lee.
After the war, Chamberlain served as Maine’s governor. He was later appointed to the presidency of Bowdoin. Forced to retire in 1883 due to aggravation of his war wounds, Chamberlain remained active in public life. In 1898, he even volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War and was bitterly disappointed when his request was turned down.
He died at the age of 85 in Portland, largely the result of complications of his wounds.
History can be lost. It is nice when it reappears as surprises — even in the back of books — to teach us, again, how fortunate heroes can be.
Steven M. Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.
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