Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Union military commander during the American Civil War, earning a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics at the Battle of Gettysburg. He also served as Governor of Maine and as a professor and a president of Bowdoin College.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born on September 8, 1828 in Brewer, Maine. He was the first of five children of Joshua and Sarah (Brastow) Chamberlain. Chamberlain came from a distinguished military ancestry; his great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War; his grandfather fought in the War of 1812; and his father served in the Maine militia.
After attending a military academy in Ellworth, Maine, Chamberlain enrolled at Bowdoin College in 1848 and graduated in 1852. In 1855, he received a bachelor's degree in divinity at Bangor Theological Seminary. On December 7, 1855, he married Frances "Fannie" Caroline Adams. Chamberlain, then, returned to Bowdoin College, serving on the faculty as an instructor and professor of rhetoric and modern languages.
In 1862, Chamberlain enlisted as a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine Regiment, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac throughout the American Civil War. Lacking any formal military education, Chamberlain learned from books on the subject and from battlefield experience. Chamberlain was present at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), but his first real taste of combat came at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), where he and his men resorted to using their dead comrades as shields from enemy snipers when they were stranded on the battlefield overnight. At the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863) Chamberlain’s regiment was relegated to performing guard duty due to an outbreak of smallpox. In June 1863, Chamberlain attained the rank of colonel, after his regimental commander, Adelbert Ames, was promoted to brigadier-general on May 20.
Chamberlain achieved everlasting fame at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 for his defense of a strategically important hill named Little Round Top. After withstanding several Confederate assaults, Chamberlain's troops, out of ammunition, fixed bayonets and beat back the Rebels with a heroic charge. Their actions prevented the Union army from being flanked, possibly winning the battle and perhaps even the war for the North. For his gallantry and leadership, Congress awarded Chamberlain the Medal of Honor thirty years after the battle.
Following Gettysburg, Chamberlain was stricken with malaria in 1863 and removed from active duty until April 1864. Upon returning to duty, Chamberlain served throughout the Wilderness, Petersburg and Appomattox Campaigns.
At the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 18, 1864, Chamberlain was seriously wounded by a gunshot to the leg and groin—one of six wounds that he received during the war. Expecting Chamberlain to die from his wound, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant gave him a battlefield promotion to brigadier-general the next day. Despite his grave prognosis, Chamberlain recovered and returned to the line in November.
Chamberlain was wounded again, in the arm and chest, at the Battle of Lewis's Farm, on March 29, 1865. The courage and leadership he displayed during the battle prompted President Lincoln to brevet Chamberlain to the rank of major general.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain received Confederate General Robert E. Lee's request for a cessation of hostilities, to arrange for surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. General Grant selected Chamberlain to preside over the official surrender review on April 12, 1865. Chamberlain is remembered for the dignity and respect he accorded the defeated Army of Northern Virginia during the ceremony.
Following the war, Chamberlain mustered out of the volunteer army on June 16, 1866. Declining an offer of a colonelcy in the regular army, Chamberlain, instead, returned to Maine, where he entered the political arena. Chamberlain won election to the first of four one-year terms as Governor of Maine in 1866.
In 1871, Chamberlain retired from politics and became the president of Bowdoin College. Ill health caused by his Civil War wounds forced him to resign from that position in 1883. During his later years, Chamberlain suffered from severe pain and numerous infections resulting from his wound at Petersburg. His infirmities did not prevent him from remaining active during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain was a popular speaker at numerous Civil War commemorations, the more prominent of which were the twenty-fifth and fiftieth anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1888 and 1913. He also represented Maine at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. From 1884 to 1889, he spent much of his time in Florida, where the warm weather benefitted his health. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Chamberlain as Surveyor of the Port of Portland, Maine, a position he held until his death.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain died on February 24, 1914 at Portland, Maine. Attending physicians attributed his death to an infection of the wound he received at Petersburg nearly fifty years earlier. Chamberlain was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine.
Chamberlain's memoirs, titled The Passing of Armies, were published in 1915, one year after his death. He was later immortalized in Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, and in the movie Gettysburg, which was based upon that novel.
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