As I write these words, it is early afternoon on July 2nd, and I realize that 148 years ago at this very moment a key piece of American history was being played out on a small hilltop in southeastern Pennsylvania. It was day two of the three-day battle we know as Gettysburg, and the prospects of a Union victory were looking very dim for newly-appointed General George Gordon Meade. In fact, a military catastrophe appeared to be in the making. On July 1st, as the two still-gathering armies met in an unplanned clash near the small crossroads town, the barely-established Union position on Cemetery Ridge had been severely damaged as Lee’s forces attacked Meade’s right flank, scoring a tactical victory for The South. Unbeknown to Meade, the exposed and undefended opposite end of the giant “fish-hook” was about to be breached by a well-coordinated assault by the 15th Alabama Volunteers. If Lee’s forces gained command of the two “Round Tops”, it would lead to a complete roll-up of the Union lines.
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment had been marching for three days just to join the strung out Union Army, and they were dog tired as they arrived in the farming community – just in time to be ordered by Colonel Strong Vincent, their Brigade Commander to try to save Little Round Top, (and the entire Federal line)! Short on ammunition as well as sleep, and about to be overrun despite their determined stand, the men were finally ordered by Chamberlain to fix bayonets, form into a unique L-shaped formation, and charge into the Alabamians swarming the slopes of their exposed position.
Aside from Lee’s colossal blunder on Day 3 which brought about a tactical Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, the defense of Little Round Top stands as an epic moment in that sprawling, much written- about engagement – the largest ground-infantry battle to ever take place on American soil. On each of my many visits to the Gettysburg battlefield, I have ended my stay by watching a sunset from Little Round Top and reliving in my mind’s eye that moment in our history. I have tried to feel what those men would have faced that day.
The battlegrounds of the American Civil War were peopled by a host of men who deserve to be admired for their courage in combat, genius in leadership, and certainly devotion to duty and country; on both sides. My personal list, after a lifetime of studious consideration, contains probably more than a dozen names. For reasons I don’t have time to enumerate appropriately in one column, Joshua Lawrence (nee Lawrence Joshua) Chamberlain is at or near the top of my list of “most admired”.
Unlike most senior officers of the war, Chamberlain was not a graduate of West Point or Virginia Military Institute, had not served in the War with Mexico or Indian campaigns, and in fact had no military training or experience of any kind. Born in Brewer, Maine, to an everyday New England farm family, he was teaching at Bowdoin College and preparing for the ministry when war came over the horizon. By 1862 and at the age of 36, he was married with a small family, and discouraged by the College from enlisting. In fact they sought to send him abroad to keep him away from “Lincoln’s War”. Instead, he used a leave-of-absence to request consideration from Maine’s governor for a militia posting. He ended up with a commission in Maine’s 20th Volunteer Regiment, where he taught himself military history and tactics from the books of the day, sometimes drilling his men while holding a guidebook in one hand. He was a stickler for training, and helped to turn the 20th into a first-class fighting outfit. They would see service in virtually every key campaign of the war, and Chamberlain would become a Major General, wounded six times (once near-fatally at Petersburg), and would win the Medal of Honor for his performance at Gettysburg.
In April, 1865, it would be Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the men of the Union 5th Corps who would receive the formal surrender from the troops of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, where he would bring a sense of honor to that emotional moment by deciding to order his men to present “port arms” as a salute to the men of The South, in effect “welcoming” them back to their country in a display of heart-felt respect.
Chamberlain would return to Maine to be President of Bowdoin College, and then Governor of the State of Maine for four successive terms. I can find no chapter of his life which did not live up to his courtly sense of honor and duty. He died in 1914 at the age of 85, and is buried near Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the educator/scholar who turned out to be one of the most effective field commanders of the American Civil War.
The regimental flag of the 20th Maine which was carried into battle by the men of Chamberlain’s unit on Little Round Top as well as into almost every key campaign from Antietam to Appomattox. This one flies over Al Cooper’s home in southern Utah today.