And it is what we are missing in our culture today- a man's man with an impeccable education, a love of literature and learning, but steely tough in morality and justice. He was a man rooted in his faith with such a sturdiness that he never wavered in intensity or purpose, regardless of circumstances. He faced fear and opposition with aggression and he produced a great harvest of progress over the span of his long life.
He was unique in that he could adapt to the climate- cool as an administrator and educator but a fiery, risk taker in battle.
So what follows are notes and quotes from this remarkable hero of our country:
He grew up an All-American boyhood- barn chores, wood cutting, plowing, planting- growing up in 19th century America the farm is a never ending tyrant. But he was close enough to Bangor that ship building and the visions of adventure were burned in his heart as well. His father taught him to fight with a broadsword, but he also learned to love music and sang in the choir. On top of all this, he was studious in the classroom- a military academy- where he learned Latin and French, as he practiced military drill.
His mother wanted him to be a minister, his father wanted him at West Point. MOM WON... for a while.
He went to Bowdoin College- 1st rank Greek- 1st honors French- received accolades for astronomy, math, chemistry, chosen to present orations at the Spring Exhibition, won 2nd prize his senior year for English composition- elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He joined two literary societies and taught Sunday School while leading the choir at a local church.
He entered Bangor Theological Seminary in the fall of 1852. He taught logic and natural theology. He was noted for having a fine sonorous singing voice. He was appointed professor of modern languages, filling a position that had once been held by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
He was extolled as an outstanding teacher. He held strong educational philosophies that were grounded in strong standards, but understood that teacher's needed to have a type of relationship with the students that allowed for implementing techniques which piqued their interest and motivations.
His views were out of step with most of his contemporaries, so he 'found himself walking a pretty lonely path among a distinguished faculty'.
The unexpected change came about from the changing conditions in the nation. He opposed slavery on Biblical principles and denounced the South's withdrawal as harmful to the prosperity and security of the Union. Again, most of the faculty remained quiet and neutral regarding these issues- but Chamberlain could not shake them- it effected him personally.
The people around him were more than shocked when he began to speak of entering into service. The Bowdoin College trustees moved heaven and earth to keep him and dissuade his decision.
They offered him a 2 year leave of absence in August of 1862 to travel and study in Europe at the college's expense. They felt that they could move him from the source of the conflict, temper his strong convictions, and keep their beloved teacher safe from the harms of impending war.
It was a strong temptation. Chamberlain tentatively accepted the more than generous offer- but his conscience soon took over and remained too strong.
When he announced his enlistment to defend the Union, he received abnormally harsh criticism from almost all at Bowdoin.
Adjunct General Hodson recommended him for service: "A gentleman of the highest moral, intellectual, and literary worth." He was offered a position as colonel, but turned it down. Chamberlain wanted to enter service in a subordinate position.
On August 8, 1862 Chamberlain was granted a commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the new 20th Regiment Infantry of Massachusetts.
"Thus began the active military career of one of the most remarkable officers and one of the hardest fighters to ever serve in any American army." (pg 36).
But like any great man of character, the assessment did not hinder him from engaging and driving himself to shore up and develop these areas of weakness.
There was one amazing trait that always helped Chamberlain when the bullets started firing and the cannons spewed fire and thunder- he had an uncanny calmness within the chaos. This ability to relax when others were in desperation allowed him to make great decisions and stirred great confidence in his men.
It was observed by many that no one worked harder than Chamberlain in studying the art of war, but he also equally worked to lift up and serve the people around him. The hard work and heart compassion made men respect and love him at the same time.
It did not take long for Chamberlain to realize how much better this new environment was for him and his unique skill set. Bowdoin had a great reputation, and it was a place he would love and serve- but the leadership he was under did not appreciate him. He was constantly criticized and second guessed because he did not walk lock step to conventional wisdom. His superiors didn't quite know how to handle that and his co-workers were never challenged in their assumptions and presuppositions.
This is a telling quote: "(In war/military) I have my care and vexations, but let me say that no hardship or danger ever makes me wish to get to that college life again. I can't breathe when I think of my last two years (at Bowdoin)".
I also cannot express enough that Chamberlain's deep faith served him so well. He wrote: "Most likely I shall be hit somehow at sometime, but all 'my times are in His hand' and cannot die except by His appointment."
The stories of all the close calls and bullets makes it hard to refute his assertion. He had his horse shot out from under him on at least 3 different occasions and escaped sure death over and over.
He also grew tougher. He learned to embrace 15 mile marches in all types of weather and over all kinds of harsh terrain. He wrote this to his wife, Fanny: "(I pull my tarp over me on cold and wet nights) However, I ENJOY it and I get up as bright as a squirrel and hearty as a bear for a breakfast of salt pork, or hard bread; with, maybe, coffee without milk and alas! without sugar."
But battles also ripped into his heart and soul. On one occasion he had to sleep between dead bodies. The cries of the hurting and the blood covered surgeons and the rotting smells all added up to the horrors to this conflict. He did not shrink back, however. He fought depression as valiantly as he fought the enemy.
After one battle he saw the juxtaposition of a beautiful river and across, on the bank, was a field strewn with dead soldiers in a sea of blue and gray. "Death-gardens, haunted by glorious ghosts- a splendid but unavailing valor."
I also have to remark that Chamberlain had a warrior's stubbornness. He was slow to anger, but when it finally kindled, he set his jaw and held nothing back. But is was always in defense of an ideal and he never lost his loyalty to those within his service and devotion.
DARK DAYS AND A HARSH WINTER: As is true of most narratives, Chamberlain had to endure a dire winter before his glorious victory at Gettysburg. In the winter of discontent, a man has to wrestle with deep doubts, health concerns, and a general lack of morale. Chamberlain was knocked to the ground with outbreaks of smallpox. His greatest concern was handling a broken 'espirit de corps' due to actions by his men that appeared mutinous. He stayed engaged, despite the grind and exhausting marches, weary and undone- he refused to give in and eventually the sun rose again bringing warmth and better health.
All of this leading up to a fateful July 2, 1863 when history would hang in the balance.
Little would Joshua Chamberlain know at the start of that day, that he would be the key player in such a grand narrative.
It was that moment where a leader of courage, character, and conviction found the fruit of his labor to know schemes and tactics, and discover that his leadership had created trust in his men to rally to his call and create a sudden surprise victory.
It began by Chamberlain taking a quick survey of the battlefield and discovering a weakness. He was the anchorman of the left flank and mentally rehearsed what would happen if the enemy captured a strategic position known as 'little round top'. His forward thinking and acquired military skill put his men in position to defend that valued plot of land.
And the enemy came in full frontal assault.
Five times that day, the south roared and rushed Chamberlain's regiment. It was primarily the Alabama 15th under the command of William Oates against the 20th of Maine under the direction of Chamberlain.
Chamberlain held firm, following orders to hold the position to the last man, at all costs.
Then came that monumental moment. Chamberlain was out of ammunition and would not be able to hold another attack. He had put every man in his disposal to fight: cooks, bandsmen, and guards. He had few options left. He calmly gave the order: 'fix bayonets'.
His brave men responded and went on the attack. Oates was pulling back and had to order retreat when he saw the attack approaching.
Here are a few noteworthy quotes and notes:
A soldier of the 15th had recognized Chamberlain and put him in his sights. He wrote, "I rested my gun on the rock and took steady aim. I started to pull the trigger, but some queer notion stopped me."
Both sides displayed fierce toughness and the admiration for one another lasted a lifetime.
Wallace notes it this way: "It was a magnificent feat of arms, rarely if ever surpassed in the importance of its accomplishment by any regiment in American military history."
Colonel Oates of Alabama wrote, "There never were harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine men and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top."
A Texas orator: "Hood had been victorious on every field until 'God stopped them at Little Round Top'."
Fifty years after the battle, Chamberlain returned. Once a bloody day of scars and the dead was now a park of beauty and monuments. He walked around, climbed the summit, and sat there quietly until dark.
He was overcome by the thought that he was surrounded by the fallen. Those young men who did not know 'what were their lofty deeds of body, mind, heart, and soul on that tremendous day'.
The hills of Gettysburg had witnessed their valor and sacrifice.
The great man, Chamberlain, reflected on the moment. "(The graves at Gettysburg) shall hold the mighty secret in their bosom till the great day of revelation and recompense, when these heights shall flame again with transfigured light- they, too have part in that adoption, which is the manifestation of the sons of God."
On that ridge, 50 years earlier, bleeding from a leg wound that had taken shrapnel- Chamberlain had grabbed a moment undergirded by that hardened faith- and made a decision that made a difference.
The average man would have lain there and rested or given up the ghost- but not this mighty warrior of God. To give up or give in would mean a loss in vain.
May we all 'fix bayonets' when our time is called upon.
I have blogged on this issue in the past: Warning to Warriors (2007)
But you cannot add Joshua Chamberlain to that list of those who fizzled out after their moment of glory.
His famous fight at Gettysburg was on July 2, 1863 (35 years old). He went on to live a fruitful and productive life until he passed away peacefully at 9:30 in the morning on Feb. 24, 1914 completing 86 beautiful years on earth. That is an extraordinary long life for a man in that time of history.
So what did he accomplish AFTER Gettysburg?
- Promoted to General (that took a long time because Chamberlain did not promote himself)
- Severely wounded in battle (a Minnie' ball slammed into his right hip-severed arteries-nicked his bladder- crushed pelvic bones- it took two discouraged surgeons who performed what has been called a miracle of medicine- but he suffered physically from that wound for the rest of his life).
- returned to war
- shot again in battle- a chest hit that was slowed down because it passed through his horse first.
- An honor: Chamberlain was appointed to receive the infantry surrender.
- The magnanimous gesture: Chamberlain received more acclaim and criticism for the honorable way he treated the confederates during the surrender at Appomattox. Instead of humiliating the vanquished foes, he had his men salute them.
I quote from Wallace:
As Chamberlain watched the remnant of Lee's once great army, perhaps the most effective fighting instrument of its size ever created by the American people, the significance of the situation profoundly impressed him. He had earlier resolved to recognize the moment by saluting the Southern troops and had so informed his his regimental commanders. He was aware of the responsibility he was assuming, aware, too that criticisms would follow, as indeed they did. But his chief reason, he said, 'was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness.
'Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and sufferings. nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?'
When Gordon, the Confederate counterpart saw what was happening, his whole demeanor changed. He wheeled his horse toward Chamberlain and bowed.
This act was noted all throughout the South and Chamberlain became known as 'the most knightliest soldier of the Federal army'.
A few days later, a confederate officer approached Chamberlain: "You astonish us by your honorable and generous conduct. I fear that we should have not done the same to you had the case been reversed."
- He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor
- He became a successful Governor of Maine
- He became the President of Bowdoin College
- He was a reformer in economics and education.
- He represented American interests in France.
- He transformed the Port at Portland.
AND WHAT KEPT HIM GOING?
This quote from a letter to his sister sums it up: "I always wanted to be at the head at some enterprise to transform the wilderness into a garden both materially and spiritually- to be a missionary of civilization and of Christianity at once."
I highly recommend the biography by Wallace- but my deep prayer is that we find more men in the spirit of Joshua Chamberlain- it is our only hope!