The Leadership of General Joshua Chamberlain

General Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg

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Chamberlain as a General

This past July marked the 151st anniversary of the action at Gettysburg which gave him the Medal of Honor.

Chamberlain the Man

Chamberlain did not come from a military background. He was a Professor of Modern Languages at Bowdoin College. He was not the only college professor in the Union Army but he was the only one fluent in nine languages other than English (Eishen 2004).

In August 1862, Chamberlain, a 32 year old college professor, joined the Union Army. He was offered the command of the 20th Maine Regiment but he declined it feeling his lack of military experience did not make him fit for command (Hastings 2006).

Both rival armies had citizen volunteers in its ranks. Later the Union Army would have conscripts. Most of the higher commands of both armies had professional Soldiers who were graduates of West Point or the Virginia Military Institute. More than two thousand alumni of those institutions provided the leadership on both sides of the war.

A small portion of those leaders were talented commanders and none more than the professor from Maine who at the end of the war would be a brevet major general (Hastings 2006). Most of his promotions would come as a result of heroism on the battlefield.

The 20th Maine was assigned to the Army of the Potomac and would fight in some of the biggest battles of the Civil War to include Antietam, Fredericksburg and throughout the Wilderness Campaign. It would be in the Battle of Gettysburg the boys from Maine under Chamberlain’s command would become heroes (Eishen 2004).

July, 1863- Gettysburg

July 2, 1863 found Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were to the extreme left of the Union line of the on an important hilltop overlooking the battlefield of Gettysburg. Their position on the hill was key. If the 20th was pushed off the hill the Union line could have been flanked and the Union would have most likely lost the battle.

By this point in the war Chamberlain had been a Soldier barely nine months but his grasp of the tactical situation was significant. He saw his flank was exposed and under fire he ordered his men to curl among the boulders along the south-east face of the hill.  Realizing he was outnumbered and outgunned and how important holding the hilltop was he doubled the 20th Maine’s front ranks.

The volunteers from Maine came under heavy attack from the Confederate 15th Alabama Regiment. Throughout the battle Chamberlain walked among his men, supervising the gathering of the dead and wounded, closing ranks and offering the reassurance of the his calm presence (Eishen 2004). He was he hit twice by shell fragments but never let his men know how much pain he was in.

After an hour and half of continuous fighting the 20th was running low on ammunition.  Realizing things were getting desperate Chamberlain gave the order to fix bayonets.  He led the charge downhill which surprised and scattered the Confederates and ended their attack on the hill.

Josh on Round Top

Chamberlain’s decisive actions on that historic day have been credited with helping to turn the tide of the war (Eishen 2004). For his bravery and decisive action he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

In the movie “Gettysburg” Chamberlain is portrayed by the actor Jeff Daniels.

Jeff as Josh

June, 1864- Petersburg

Chamberlain was badly injured on June 18, 1864, nearly a year after Gettysburg, in the battle of Petersburg. A bullet passed through his right hip and groin and exited his left hip.  Despite being badly wounded he withdrew his sword and stuck in the ground in order to balance himself and continued to give orders until he passed out from loss of blood. Chamberlain was taken off the battlefield, his wound was pronounced fatal.

General Ulysses S. Grant gave Chamberlain a battlefield promotion to the rank of brigadier general after hearing the brave Soldier was at death’s door. Chamberlain not only recovered but five months later he was back in command. In early 1865 he took command of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the 5th Corps. The wound would bother him for the rest of his life.

April, 1865- Confederate Surrender at Appomattox

Chamberlain’s actions on Little Round Top could have been the crowning achievement of any professional Soldier’s career. His defense of that hilltop is remembered for in the film, “Gettysburg” and literature, in Michael Shaarha’s Book “The Killer Angels.” All of this was a promise of things to come. In the last twelve days of the war his leadership was even more notable.

In the last few battles of the Wilderness Campaign he performed brilliantly. In the battle of Quaker Road Chamberlain was wounded again. He kept a bible and framed picture of his wife in his left chest pocket. A Confederate bullet went through his horse’s neck, hit the picture frame, passed off a rib and exited his back. During the assault he continued to press the Union assault. Recovering from his wound, in the battle of White Oak Road, Chamberlain led attacks that drove a wedge into the Confederate line at Petersburg (Hastings 2006).

For his brave performance Grant selected Chamberlain out of dozens of other generals who outranked him for the honor of commanding the infantry division of the Union Army to receive the Army of Northern Virginia’s formal surrender on April 12, 1865. As the Confederate Army passed before him, “…down-hearted and dejected in appearance,” (Chamberlain 1992).

Chamberlain gave a brief order, a bugle call rang out and the Union Soldiers shifted their rifles from “order arms” to “carry arms”- the salute of honor. Startled the Confederate Commander, John B. Gordon, looked up suddenly and turned smartly to Chamberlain and his men and gave the order to “carry arms” to his men in return of the salute.

It was a token of mutual respect and although it was a controversial act won Chamberlain the acclaim of the American people after a long and bloody war. His generosity during the Union’s hour of triumph in how he treated the defeated Confederates during the Union’s hour of triumph, earned him as much praise for his compassion as his heroic deeds on the battlefield (Hastings 2006).

Chamberlain was received a brevet promotion to major-general in recognition for his outstanding service and assumed command of the 1st Division. On May 23, 1865 Chamberlain would receive a final tribute when he headed the 5th Corps in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington D.C. It was one of the most emotional moments of his life.

In all, Chamberlain served in 20 battles and numerous skirmishes, was cited for bravery four times, had six horses shot from under him, and was wounded six times.

The conflict ended before Chamberlain was tested in higher commands, but he had already shown himself one of the Union’s finest officers, a model of courage, intelligence and inspirational leadership. When to these qualities were added charity, humanity and generosity of spirit, a knight emerges who might be deemed worthy of a place at an Arthurian Round Table (Hastings 2006).  “General, you have the soul of the lion and the heart of a woman,” said General Sickel to General Chamberlain in 1865 (Eishen 2004).

After the Civil War

After the war Chamberlain would be elected to four-one year terms as the Governor of Maine and serve as the President of Bowdoin College. Chamberlain emerged from the War as a human and intelligent man who always displayed a romantic enthusiasm for the nobility of the conflict despite having seen some of the worst fighting of the war.

He was active in veterans groups and regularly returned to Gettysburg to give speeches at Soldiers’ reunions. In 1898 at the age of 70 he volunteered for duty in the Spanish-American War and later said not being called to serve was one of the major disappoints of his life.

In 1914 he died at 85, from complications of the wounds of he had received at Petersburg in 1864. He was the last Civil War veteran to die as a result of wounds received from the war.

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Chamberlain, Joshua L. The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Eishen, Thomas. Courage on Little Round Top. Skyward Publishing, 2004.

Hastings, Max. Warriors: Portraits from the Battle Field . New York : Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group., 2006.