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Joshua Chamberlain

Joshua Chamberlain Union Army general and Medal of Honor recipient

Union Army general and Medal of Honor recipient
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Union Army general and Medal of Honor recipient
A.K.A. Joshua Chamberlain
Countries United States of America
Occupations Military officer Soldier Officer Politician Educator
Type Academia Military Politics
Gender male
Birth 8 September 1828 (Brewer)
Death 24 February 1914 (Portland)
Spouse: Fanny Chamberlain
Education Bowdoin College
Joshua Chamberlain
The details

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (born Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain, September 8, 1828 – February 24, 1914) was an American college professor from the State of Maine, who volunteered during the American Civil War to join the Union Army. He became a highly respected and decorated Union officer, reaching the rank of brigadier general (and brevet major general). He is most well known for his gallantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, which earned him the Medal of Honor.
Chamberlain was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1862 and fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He became commander of the regiment in June 1863. On July 2, during the Battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain's regiment occupied the extreme left of the Union lines at Little Round Top. Chamberlain's men withheld repeated Confederate assaults and finally drove them away with a bayonet charge. He was severely wounded while commanding a brigade during the Second Battle of Petersburg in June 1864, and was given what was intended to be a death bed promotion to brigadier general. In April 1865, he fought at the Battle of Five Forks and was given the honor of commanding the Union troops at the surrender ceremony for the infantry of Robert E. Lee's Army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
After the war, he entered politics as a Republican and served four one-year terms of office as the 32nd Governor of Maine. He served on the faculty, and as president, of his alma mater, Bowdoin College. He died in 1914 at age 85 due to complications from the wound that he received at Petersburg.

Early life and education

Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine, the son of Sarah Dupee (née Brastow) and Joshua Chamberlain on September 8, 1828. Chamberlain was of English ancestry, and could trace his family line back to twelfth century England, during the reign of King Stephen. He was the oldest of five children. It is said that he was his mother's favorite while his father was tough on him. He was very involved in his church, mostly singing in the choir. His mother encouraged him to become a preacher while his father wanted him to join the military, but he felt a reluctance towards both options. He suffered a speech impediment until shortly after graduating from Bowdoin College. He entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1848 with the help of a local tutor, professor William Hyde. Chamberlain learned to read Ancient Greek and Latin in order to pass the entrance exam. While at Bowdoin he met many people who would influence his life, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of Bowdoin professor Calvin Stowe. Chamberlain would often go to listen to her read passages from what would later become her celebrated novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. He also joined the Peucinian Society, a group of students with Federalist leanings. A member of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society and a brother of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, Chamberlain graduated in 1852.

He married Fanny Adams, cousin and adopted daughter of a local clergyman, in 1855, and they had five children, one of whom was born too prematurely to survive and two of whom died in infancy. Chamberlain studied for three additional years at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, returned to Bowdoin, and began a career in education as a professor of rhetoric. He eventually went on to teach every subject in the curriculum with the exception of science and mathematics. In 1861 he was appointed Professor of Modern Languages. He was fluent in nine languages other than English: Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac.

Chamberlain's great-grandfathers were soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. One, Franklin Chamberlain, was a sergeant at the Siege of Yorktown. His grandfather, also named Joshua Chamberlain, was a colonel in the local militia during the War of 1812 and was court-martialed (but exonerated) for his part in the humiliating Battle of Hampden, which led to the sacking of Bangor and Brewer by British forces. His father also had served during the abortive Aroostook War of 1839.

American Civil War

Early Career

Chamberlain's younger brother, Thomas, who was the Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Chamberlain believed the Union needed to be supported by all those willing against the Confederacy. On several occasions, Chamberlain spoke freely of his beliefs during his class, urging students to follow their hearts in regards to the war while issuing his own proclamation that the cause was just. Of his desire to serve in the War, he wrote to Maine's Governor Israel Washburn, Jr., "I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery." Many faculty at Bowdoin did not feel his enthusiasm for various reasons and Chamberlain was subsequently granted a leave of absence (supposedly to study languages for two years in Europe). He then promptly enlisted unbeknownst to those at Bowdoin and his family. Offered the colonelcy of the 20th Maine Regiment, he declined, according to his biographer, John J. Pullen, preferring to "start a little lower and learn the business first." He was appointed lieutenant colonel of the regiment on August 8, 1862, under the command of Col. Adelbert Ames. The 20th was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps in the Union Army of the Potomac. One of Chamberlain's younger brothers, Thomas Chamberlain, was also an officer of the 20th Maine, and another, John Chamberlain, visited the regiment at Gettysburg as a member of the U.S. Christian Commission until appointed as a chaplain in another Maine Volunteer regiment. The 20th Maine fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg, suffering relatively small numbers of casualties in the assaults on Marye's Heights, but were forced to spend a miserable night on the freezing battlefield among the many wounded from other regiments. Chamberlain chronicled this night well in his diary and went to great length discussing his having to use bodies of the fallen for shelter and a pillow while listening to the bullets zip into the corpses. The 20th missed the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 due to an outbreak of smallpox in their ranks (which was caused by an errant smallpox vaccine), which kept them on guard duty in the rear. Chamberlain was promoted to colonel of the regiment in June 1863 upon the promotion of Ames.

Battle of Gettysburg

Capt. Ellis Spear, Chamberlain's "right-hand man" on Little Round Top
Chamberlain's position on Little Round Top
Little Round Top, western slope, photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1863.

Chamberlain became most famous for his achievements during the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 2, the second day of the battle, Union forces were recovering from initial setbacks and hastily regrouping into defensive positions on a line of hills south of the town. Sensing the momentary vulnerability of the Union forces, the Confederates began an attack against the Union left flank. Chamberlain's brigade, commanded by Col. Strong Vincent, was sent to defend Little Round Top by the army's Chief of Engineers, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren. Chamberlain found himself and the 20th Maine at the far left end of the entire Union line. He quickly understood the strategic significance of the small hill, and the need for the 20th Maine to hold the Union left at all costs. The men from Maine waited until troops from the 15th Regiment Alabama Infantry, commanded by Col. William C. Oates, charged up the hill, attempting to flank the Union position. Time and time again the Confederates struck, until the 20th Maine was almost doubled back upon itself. With many casualties and ammunition running low, Col. Chamberlain recognized the dire circumstances and ordered his left wing (which was now looking southeast, compared to the rest of the regiment, which was facing west) to initiate a bayonet charge. From his report of the day: "At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough." While battlefield conditions make it unlikely that many men heard Chamberlain's order, most historians believe he initiated the charge.

The 20th Maine charged down the hill, with the left wing wheeling continually to make the charging line swing like a hinge, thus creating a simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver, capturing 101 of the Confederate soldiers and successfully saving the flank. This version of the battle was popularized by the book The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg, but there is debate on the historical validity of this account. Chamberlain sustained two slight wounds in the battle, one when a shot hit his sword scabbard and bruised his thigh, and another when his right foot was hit by a spent bullet or piece of shrapnel. For his tenacity at defending Little Round Top, he was known by the sobriquet Lion of the Round Top. Prior to the battle, Chamberlain was quite ill, developing malaria and dysentery. Later, due to this illness, he was taken off active duty until he recovered.

For his "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", Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor citation

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 2 July 1863, while serving with 20th Maine Infantry, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for 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.

Siege of Petersburg

In April 1864, Chamberlain returned to the Army of the Potomac and was promoted to brigade commander shortly before the Siege of Petersburg and given command of the 1st Brigade, First Division, V Corps. In a major action on June 18, during the Second Battle of Petersburg, Chamberlain was shot through the right hip and groin, the bullet exiting his left hip. Despite the injury, Chamberlain withdrew his sword and stuck it into the ground in order to keep himself upright to dissuade the growing resolve for retreat. He stood upright for several minutes until he collapsed and lay unconscious from loss of blood. The wound was considered mortal by the division's surgeon, who predicted he would perish; Chamberlain's incorrectly recorded death in battle was reported in the Maine newspapers, and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave Chamberlain a battlefield promotion to the rank of brigadier general after receiving an urgent recommendation on June 19 from corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren: "He has been recommended for promotion for gallant and efficient conduct on previous occasion and yesterday led his brigade against the enemy under most destructive fire. He expresses the wish that he may receive the recognition of his services by promotion before he dies for the gratification of his family and friends."[8] Not expected to live, Chamberlain displayed surprising will and courage, and with the support of his brother Tom, was back in command by November. Although many, including his wife Fanny, urged Chamberlain to resign, he was determined to serve through the end of the war.

In early 1865, Chamberlain regained command of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of V Corps, and he continued to act with courage and resolve. On March 29, 1865, his 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 that almost caused amputation), and nearly being captured, Chamberlain was successful and brevetted to the rank of major general by President Abraham Lincoln. Chamberlain gained the name "Bloody Chamberlain" at Quaker Road. Chamberlain kept a Bible and framed picture of his wife in his left front "chest" pocket. A Confederate shot at Chamberlain. The bullet went through his horse's neck, hit the picture frame, entered under Chamberlain's skin in the front of his chest, traveled around his body under the skin along the rib, and exited his back. To all observers Union and Confederate, it appeared that he was shot through his chest. He continued to encourage his men to attack. All sides cheered his valiant courage, and the Union assault was successful.


Confederate General John B. Gordon was assigned the task to surrender all arms to Gen. Chamberlain

On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain learned of the desire by General Robert E. Lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia when a Confederate staff officer approached him under a flag of truce. "Sir," he reported to Chamberlain, "I am from General Gordon. General Lee desires a cessation of hostilities until he can hear from General Grant as to the proposed surrender." The next day, Chamberlain was summoned to Union headquarters where Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin informed him that he had been selected to preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry as part of their formal surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12.

Thus Chamberlain was responsible for one of the most poignant scenes of the American Civil War. As the Confederate soldiers marched down the road to surrender their arms and colors, Chamberlain, on his own initiative, ordered his men to come to attention and "carry arms" as a show of respect. Chamberlain described what happened next:

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 to the Confederate soldiers was unpopular with many Unionists, but he defended his action in his memoirs, The Passing of the Armies. Many years later, Gordon, in his own memoirs, called Chamberlain "one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army." Gordon never mentioned the anecdote until after he read Chamberlain's account, more than 40 years later.

In all, Chamberlain served in 20 battles and numerous skirmishes, was cited for bravery four times, had six horses shot from under him, and was wounded six times.

Post-war service

Chamberlain as the Governor of Maine.

Chamberlain left the U.S. Army soon after the war ended, going back to his home state of Maine. Due to his immense popularity, he served as Governor of Maine for four one-year terms after he won election as a Republican. His victory in 1866 set the record for the most votes and the highest percentage for any Maine governor by that time. He would break his own record in 1868. During his time in office, he was attacked by those angered by his support for capital punishment and by his refusal to create a special police force to enforce the prohibition of alcohol.

1866 Maine Governor Election
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Joshua Chamberlain 69,637 62.4
Democratic Eben F. Pillsbury 41,947 37.6
1867 Maine Governor Election
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Joshua Chamberlain 57,322 55.5
Democratic Eben F. Pillsbury 45,990 44.5
1868 Maine Governor Election
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Joshua Chamberlain 75,523 72.1
Democratic Eben F. Pillsbury 29,264 27.9
1869 Maine Governor Election
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Joshua Chamberlain 54,314 55.4
Democratic Franklin Smith 39,033 39.8
Prohibition N.G. Hitchborn 4,736 4.8

After leaving political office, he returned to Bowdoin College. In 1871, he was appointed president of Bowdoin and remained in that position until 1883, when he was forced to resign because of ill health from his war wounds. He also served as an ex-officio trustee of nearby Bates College from 1867 to 1871.

In January 1880, there was a dispute about who was the newly elected governor of Maine, and the Maine State House was occupied by a band of armed men. The outgoing governor, Alonzo Garcelon, summoned Chamberlain, the commander of the Maine Militia, to take charge. Chamberlain sent home the armed men, and arranged for the Augusta police to keep control. He stayed in the State House most of the twelve-day period until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court's decision on the election results was known. During this time, there were threats of assassination and kidnapping, and on one occasion, he went outside to face down a crowd of 25–30 men intending to kill him, and both sides offered bribes to appoint him a United States senator. Having gratified neither side in the dispute, he did not become a senator, and his career in state politics ended.

Later life

After resigning from Bowdoin in 1883, he went to New York City to practice law. Chamberlain served as Surveyor of the Port of Portland, Maine, a federal appointment, and engaged in business activities, including real estate dealings in Florida (1885) and a college of art in New York, as well as hotels. He traveled to the West Coast to work on railroad building and public improvements. From the time of his serious wound in 1864 until his death, he was forced to wear an early form of a catheter with a bag and underwent six operations to try to correct the original wound and stop the fevers and infections that plagued him, without success.

Chamberlain photographed later in life in Portland, Maine, wearing uniform and his medals

In 1893, 30 years after the battle that made the 20th Maine famous, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg. The citation commends him for his "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." As in many other Civil War actions, controversy arose when one of his subordinate officers stated that Chamberlain never actually ordered a charge at Gettysburg. The claim never seriously affected Chamberlain's fame or notoriety, however. This original medal was lost, and later rediscovered in 2013, and donated to the Pejepscot Historical Society in Brunswick, Maine. A second, redesigned medal issued in 1904 is currently housed at Bowdoin College.

In 1898, at the age of 70, still in pain from his wounds, he volunteered for duty as an officer in the Spanish–American War. Rejected for duty, he called it one of the major disappointments of his life.

In 1905, Chamberlain became a founding member of the Maine Institution for the Blind, in Portland, now called The Iris Network. Chamberlain's wife herself was visually impaired, which led him to serve on the organization's first board of directors.

Beginning with his first election as governor of Maine and continuing to the end of his life, Chamberlain was active in the Grand Army of the Republic. Despite continual pain and discomfort from his wounds of 1864, he made many return visits to Gettysburg and delivered speeches at soldiers' reunions. He made his last known visit on May 16 and 17, 1913, while involved in planning the 50th anniversary reunion. Because of deteriorating health, he was unable to attend the reunion less than two months later.


Chamberlain died of his lingering wartime wounds in 1914 at Portland, Maine, at the age of eighty-five. He is interred at Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine. Beside him as he died was Dr. Abner O. Shaw of Portland, one of the two surgeons who had operated on him in Petersburg 50 years previously. A full study of his medical history strongly suggests that it was complications from the wound suffered at Petersburg that resulted in his death. He was the last Civil War veteran to die as a result of wounds from the war and considered by some the last casualty of the war.


The Joshua Chamberlain Museum
Chamberlain memorial in Brewer, Maine
Chamberlain statue erected in 2003 at his alma mater, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, where he was also the college president for a time after leaving the governorship.

His home, located across Maine Street from the Bowdoin College campus, is now the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum and is owned by the Pejepscot Historical Society, which maintains an extensive research collection on Chamberlain. Memorabilia on display include the minié ball that almost ended his life at Petersburg, his original Medal of Honor, and Don Troiani's original painting of the charge at Little Round Top. Tours of the home are conducted by volunteer docents from late May until mid-October.

US Route 1A is carried across the Penobscot River between Bangor and Brewer, Maine by the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge, a two-lane steel plate girder bridge opened on November 11, 1954.

The village of Chamberlain, Maine, in the town of Bristol, is named for him.

Chamberlain's Medal of Honor

In September 2013, the original Medal of Honor awarded to Chamberlain in 1893 was donated to the Pejepscot Historical Society, which owns the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick, after being authenticated by the Maine State Museum, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Awards and Decorations Branch of the Department of the Army. The donor, who chose to remain anonymous, found it in the back of a book bought during a church sale at the First Parish Church in Duxbury, Massachusetts; Chamberlain's granddaughter Rosamond Allen, his last surviving descendant, had donated her estate to that church upon her death in 2000. Chamberlain's alma mater of Bowdoin College has a 1904 Medal of Honor belonging to Chamberlain in its possession. The original 1893 medal is on display at the Chamberlain Museum.

Command history

  • Lieutenant Colonel (second in command under Adelbert Ames), 20th Maine (August 8, 1862)
  • Colonel, commanding 20th Maine (May 20, 1863)
  • Commanding 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps (August 26 – November 19, 1863)
  • Commanding 1st Brigade (June 6–18, 1864)
  • Brigadier General of Volunteers (June 18, 1864)
  • Commanding 1st Brigade (November 19, 1864 – January 5, 1865)
  • Commanding 1st Brigade (February 27 – April 11, 1865)
  • Brevet Major General of Volunteers (March 29, 1865)
  • Commanding 1st Division (April 20 – June 28, 1865)
  • Commanding 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, Wright's Provisional Corps, Middle Department (June 28 – July, 1865)
  • Mustered out of volunteer service (January 15, 1866)
  • Eicher, pp. 168-69.

In popular culture

Chamberlain is a key character in Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize–winning historical novel about Gettysburg, The Killer Angels (1974), and in a prequel novel by his son, Jeff Shaara, Gods and Generals (1996). Chamberlain is portrayed by actor Jeff Daniels in the film Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003), based on the books.

Tom Eishen's historical novel Courage on Little Round Top is a detailed look at Chamberlain as well as Robert Wicker, the young Confederate officer who fired his pistol at Chamberlain's head during the 20th Maine's historic charge down Little Round Top.

Ken Burns's 1990 nine-part PBS film The Civil War featured Chamberlain prominently.

Steve Earle's song "Dixieland" from his album The Mountain refers to Chamberlain and the Battle of Gettysburg:

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I fight for Chamberlain
'Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind
When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg, many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelled just like death
I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I'd march to hell and back again
For Colonel Joshua Chamberlain—we're all goin' down to Dixieland

Although his name is never said, Chamberlain's actions during the Battle of Gettysburg are popularized in the song "Hold at All Costs" featured on the CD The Glorious Burden by the band Iced Earth, in which singer Tim Owens takes the role of Chamberlain at the battle on Little Round Top.

Shipyard Brewing Company named a pale ale after Chamberlain, and decorated the label with his profile.

In the book The Traveler's Gift by Andy Andrews, Chamberlain is the main character in one of the chapters, giving a brief lesson on his history.

In the second of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series (The Sea of Monsters), Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is mentioned by the centaur Chiron as single-handedly changing the course of the American Civil War.

The book The Lost Regiment and the subsequent series by author William R. Forstchen chronicle the adventures of the "35th Maine", a Union regiment from Maine having been transported to an alien planet. The regiment was based on the 20th Maine, with the main character and commander of the regiment, Andrew Lawrence Keane, also being a college professor.

Another Forstchen work, "A Hard Day For Mother", is a short story from the first volume in the variety anthology series "Alternate Generals". That work is based on the premise of: "what if Chamberlain was on the Confederate side at Gettysburg?" The story assumes that a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War Chamberlain had taken a teaching job at a Virginia military academy and developed a love for the state of Virginia; that with the outbreak of war he joined the Confederate side under Robert E. Lee; that in Gettysburg he gained the Little Round Top for the Confederacy, fighting against his own brother Tom commanding the 20th Maine; that thereby Chamberlain won the battle and the entire war for the Confederacy; that he later remained in the independent Confederacy and was eventually elected its President; and that his reconciliatory attitude towards the North led to Confederacy and the United States eventually holding referendums and freely deciding to re-unite in 1914, following Chamberlain's death.

Chamberlain and the story of Little Round Top is mentioned in the episode "The Vest" of the Showtime program Homeland, in a scene at Gettysburg.

Chamberlain is a character in the alternate history novel Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (2003) by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen.

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