I was in my early teens when they released the movie Gettysburg (1993). My family rented it as soon as it hit the local video store. We settled down for a deeply moving, relatively accurate depiction of the battle at Gettysburg that turned the tide of the American Civil War in favor of the Union.
The film more than exceeded my family’s the expectations and mine in particular. It introduced me to a historical figure who became a personal hero: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Sympathetically portrayed by Jeff Daniels, he stole my imagination. I eagerly looked him up in my history books later to learn more about him.
Only my history books didn’t say much about him. Chamberlain was not a big, famous Civil War personality by the 1990s. My history curriculum had a lot to say about Lee, Grant, Stuart, and Jackson, but not a soft-spoken college professor whose courage and gallantry earned him the devotion of the men he led and the respect of his opponents. It wasn’t until I got to college and could take a semester-long course in Civil War history that I could really learn more about him.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Maine in 1828. Drawn to studying languages, possibly because he stuttered as a child, he overcame many personal obstacles to win a position as a professor of languages and rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. When war arrived, thirty-four-year-old Chamberlain volunteered, leaving behind his career and his wife and children to fight for a cause he believed in wholeheartedly: ending slavery.
Although he had no military experience, Chamberlain’s education gained him the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. Chamberlain had studied military history as a boy, and now he read every book on tactics and maneuvers he could find. He drilled his men endlessly and, though they resented the work, they learned to appreciate their new leader. Chamberlain tried to live as much like the enlisted men as he could, even though his status as an officer entitled him to better food and sleeping quarters.
In late June 1863, the 20th Maine marched toward a little Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg where they had finally stopped the invading Confederate army. His superiors tasked Chamberlain with dealing with 120 mutineers from a different Maine unit. Unless they wanted to be shot, he must convince them to behave. Chamberlain talked to the men. He realized their unit had mistreated and misunderstood them. He promised that if they would fight as part of his regiment, the Union would not punish them for their previous mutiny. In the film Gettysburg, Chamberlain makes a quiet yet impassioned speech that reminds the soldiers why they’re all in this fight. That speech made me sit up and take notice of him.
Chamberlain and his men saw some of the most intense fighting of the entire battle. Ordered to hold a small hill called Little Round Top at all costs, they faced overwhelming Confederate forces and only maintained their position through Chamberlain’s knowledge of military strategy and bold leadership. Wave after wave of Confederate troops crashed against their line, only to be repelled.
Wounded in the foot, his men running desperately low on ammunition, and facing another Confederate advance, Chamberlain made a bold decision. He ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge downhill, straight at their enemies. His men were exhausted, but the Confederates had been fighting uphill the entire time, and they could not withstand the downward rush of Chamberlain and his men. Hundreds of them surrendered. They won the day.
That evening, a limping Chamberlain and his remaining forces crept up nearby Big Round Top and captured it from a much larger force. The Union’s control of these two hills turned the tide of the battle, which began the slow end of the Confederate supremacy on the battlefield.
Chamberlain received a wound in the leg and abdomen the next summer. General Grant gave him a deathbed promotion to brigadier general, the only battlefield promotion Grant gave during the entire war. Chamberlain did not die. After a slow recovery, he returned to active duty, only to be wounded again in the battle of Petersburg, where he turned a rout into a victory. They promoted him to major general for his gallant leadership. Now leading a division of 10,000 men, he joined the final pursuit of General Lee and his ragged army.
Finally, the Union army trapped Lee in Virginia, near Appomattox. Messengers from General Lee met with General Chamberlain under a flag of truce and asked him to inform General Grant that Lee was ready to surrender. After they signed the terms of surrender, Grant chose Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the soft-spoken college professor from Maine, to accept the Confederate army‘s formal surrender.
Then Chamberlain made a decision he knew would gain him a lot of criticism from people in the north. A decision that cemented him in my heart as a true hero. When the defeated Confederate soldiers reached the Union troops, Chamberlain gave the order for his men to stand at attention and salute their former enemies. Rather than humiliate his foes or glory in their defeat, he insisted on showing them the respect their courage in battle had earned. This action received harsh criticism from many in the North, but it endeared Chamberlain to people in the South and helped make the surrender a peaceful transition.
After the war, Chamberlain returned to teaching at Bowdoin College until elected governor of Maine. He served four terms, then returned to private life and served as president of Bowdoin College, dying a beloved hero in 1914.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com