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Joshua Chamberlain - Maine's Favorite Son

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine on September 8, 1828. Named Joshua for his father and grandfather, he was affectionately called "Lawrence" by his family. Young Joshua Chamberlain ("Lawrence") was raised working on his father's farm, but his parents had high aspirations for their eldest son: his father wanted him to go into the military and his mother wanted him to be a minister. It seemed as though his mother won out, as Lawrence chose to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick, a school with a strong Congregationalist influence.

Joshua Chamberlain was an excellent student and had already mastered French and Latin, but Bowdoin required a thorough knowledge of Greek as well. Undaunted, he taught himself Greek and was readily accepted at Bowdoin. In addition to his linguistic abilities, young Joshua Chamberlain was also an accomplished musician and singer, often teaching singing lessons, leading choirs, and playing the bass viola.

Across the street from Bowdoin College was the First Parish Church where Joshua Chamberlain attended faithfully as a student at Bowdoin. He was soon smitten with the minister's vivacious daughter, Fanny, who was two years his elder. After graduating from Bowdoin, Chamberlain went to Bangor Theological Seminary, but stayed in contact with Fanny. Fanny's father wasn't approving about his daughter's interest in the tall, quiet young man from Brewer, and he made his feelings known, but Fanny had her heart set on Lawrence Chamberlain.

While in Seminary, Chamberlain continued his study of languages and went on to learn German, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. Shortly after finishing his studies, he was invited by Bowdoin College to return as a professor of logic and natural theology. Bowdoin was very impressed with Chamberlain and soon offered him the additional professorship of rhetoric and oratory. Ultimately, he became the professor of modern languages. He was well-liked by the students, treating them like peers rather than boys; this perplexed the authorities at Bowdoin, who believed the students must remember their place, but Chamberlain believed that to become men, they must be treated as men.

Lawrence and Fanny soon married and had five children, two of whom died shortly after birth. He loved Fanny very much and wrote her frequent heartfelt letters when they were apart.

When the Civil War broke out, Chamberlain felt a strong loyalty toward the Union. He hated the thought of killing anyone or anything - he wouldn't even hunt - but he greatly disapproved of slavery and even more so disapproved of southern withdrawal from the Union. He had little military training: only a short time spent at a military school as a boy in central Maine; but he knew he had to do something. Bowdoin did not want to lose him, and offered him a two-year leave, with pay, to travel in Europe and study languages. Chamberlain took the leave, but before he left, his conscience got the better of him and he went to Augusta to volunteer his services as a military officer. The governor of Maine offered him a colonelcy, but Chamberlain humbly chose Lieutenant Colonel instead, as he had much to learn. He was assigned to the 20th Regiment Infantry, Maine Volunteers, where his brother Thomas served as an enlisted man.

Books, novels, documentaries and movies have been made about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlainís Civil War career. From his first experiences at Antietam to his acceptance of the surrender of the Confederacy and the triumphal grand review of the armies, Chamberlain participated in much of the war. He was a calm, quick-thinking, dedicated leader who loved his men and was not afraid to die. He took part in more than 20 battles even more skirmishes, was wounded six times, and had six horses shot out from under him.

Chamberlain is best known for his firm stance at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. He led the 20th Maine to hold the far left flank of the Union line against a pursuing Confederate attack. But shortly after his success at Gettysburg, Chamberlain went on to Petersburg where he was wounded almost fatally....

....The fighting was fierce and as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led the brigade at Petersburg on foot, the flag bearer was killed at his side. Chamberlain picked up the flag and continued forward; at one point he turned back to instruct his men, and when he turned, he was shot through his body from the right to left hip joints. The flag was knocked from his hands but held himself up with his sword, still calling out orders. When loss of blood finally brought him down, the battlefield surgeons discovered severed arteries, a damaged bladder, and fractured pelvic bones. The wound was so bad that an obituary was written up and sent out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chamberlain recovered and went back to his duties, but he was unable to ride a horse or walk very far afterward.

Chamberlain was embarrassed and reluctant for anyone to know about this worst wound: since it hit him from behind, he was concerned people would think he was in retreat when he was shot. Fanny traveled to be with her husband as he recovered; and it was a long, painful recovery. Their love was strong, but both knew he would return to duty.

Chamberlain was honored at the end of the war to be chosen by Grant to accept the formal surrender of the Confederate troops at Appomattox. Always a gentleman, staggered by the bloodshed in the years of war he had seen, and humbled by the proud but defeated men marching before him, Chamberlain gave the order to salute the surrendering troops.

Upon returning to Maine, the now Brevet Major General Chamberlain tried to pick up where he had left off at Bowdoin College, but after the war years, small town college life was a bit dull for him. After wrapping up his time at Bowdoin, Chamberlain was elected Governor of Maine. He continued living in his house across the road from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, and commuted to the state capital, Augusta, for all four terms he was governor. Chamberlain wasn't a true politician, rubbing shoulders with the elite and glad-handing the rich; he was a gentleman and he loved his home state. As governor, he helped establish what is now the University of Maine, and he paid close attention to the declining state economy, attempting to draw in outside investments.

After being re-elected for four terms, Chamberlain returned once again to Bowdoin College where he was offered the position of College President in 1871. He served at Bowdoin, writing, teaching, and lecturing until his resignation in 1883. At age 55, Joshua Chamberlain was tired and in poor health, his hip wound still plaguing his quality of life. In 1983, Congress granted him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his honorable leadership and gallantry at Gettysburg.

Chamberlain spent his remaining years writing about his Civil War battles. He was pensive and introspective about what he had witnessed, analyzing fate, courage and steadfastness. He had a strong faith that impacted his perceptions of the battlefield; he knew his life was in the hands of God.

In 1900, Joshua Chamberlain was appointed Surveyor of Portland. His beloved Fanny, who had seen him through the years at Bowdoin and Seminary, the war years, and his years as governor and beyond, died in 1905. He never stopped loving her and was devastated at her passing. Two of the Chamberlain's children lived to see adulthood.

In the end, the near fatal wound at Petersburg fulfilled the premature obituary it had incited all those years ago. Fifty years after the gun shot through his hip, Chamberlain died in Portland in 1914, from complications of that very wound.

Today, the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Museum, the former home of Joshua and Fanny Chamberlain, sits across the street from historic Bowdoin College. A statue stands at a crossroads in the commons between the museum and the college, and another stands overlooking Brewer, Maine, his hometown. These statues commemorate the heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain; war hero, governor, college president, son of Maine.

Recommended Reading
Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero's Life and Legacy - by John J. Pullen
Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg - by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War - by Alice Rains Trulock




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