Joshua L. Chamberlain and Civil War Memory

Major-General Joshua L. ChamberlainMajor-General Joshua L. Chamberlain (Photo: NYPL Digital Collections)

As it was for millions of his generation, the Civil War was the defining event of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s life. Veterans from both sides took understandable pride in their service, wrote their memoirs, and joined veterans’ organizations. In all of this, Chamberlain was no exception. For him, however, the memory of the war—and remembering it—became an obsession. He regularly spoke and wrote about it for the rest of his life, even when busily serving as Governor of Maine or president of Bowdoin College. He argued about it with former comrades and foes alike. Chamberlain fiercely protected his own legend as the battle of Gettysburg’s “savior of Little Round Top.” In short, being a war hero became the key to Joshua Chamberlain’s identity for the nearly fifty years he lived after the conflict ended. Why was this? Millions of veterans publicly remembered their service and sacrifice, but few were as obsessed as Chamberlain with remembering, chronicling, and defining the war.

No one can argue that Chamberlain’s rise to become one of the Union’s most famous war heroes was unimpressive. A professor at Bowdoin before the war, he joined the Union army in July 1862 over the objections of both the college and his wife. With no military experience but a burning desire to serve, Chamberlain devoured military histories and textbooks on strategy and tactics. He received appointment as Lieutenant Colonel of the Twentieth Maine, where he had the good fortune to serve under and learn from Colonel Adelbert Ames, a West Pointer and future general. Just days before the July 1863 battle of Gettysburg, Ames received command of a brigade in another corps and Chamberlain became the Twentieth’s leader. Fate placed Chamberlain’s unit on the Union’s extreme left flank on July 2, 1863, and the Twentieth Maine survived countless charges from Alabamians seeking to turn the North’s flank. It was this day more than any other that Chamberlain remembered and wrote about for the rest of his life.

Chamberlain was offered a commission in the regular army when the war ended, but he was uninterested in the boredom of peacetime service and felt obligated to return to his family in Maine. Leaders of both parties courted him to run for governor. A pre-war Democrat, Chamberlain realized his chances were better as a Republican and ran as such. He was elected to four consecutive one-year terms but was largely unhappy in the role. His wife refused to live in Augusta, so Governor Chamberlain was often lonely and declined to run for a fifth term in 1870. Bowdoin College’s leaders convinced him to serve as the school’s president, which he did from 1871-1883 with mixed success. He introduced some needed reforms to his alma mater’s curriculum but stumbled when he tried to force students to participate in mandatory military-style drilling. In the latter case, he felt unsupported and betrayed by the faculty and administration. Many times throughout his years as governor and Bowdoin’s president, Chamberlain hoped the Maine legislature would send him to the U.S. Senate; every time he was disappointed.

Another contributing factor to Joshua Chamberlain’s post-war unhappiness was the tumultuous state of his marriage to his wife, Fanny. Before their December 1855 wedding, she had at one point suggested that their marriage should be physically platonic and based only on shared intellectual interests. Chamberlain had no interest in such a relationship, and by the time he joined the army they had two young children. She did not understand his desire to leave the relative comfort of a professor’s life to go to war, and she never completely got over the feeling of abandonment she felt when he left. In June 1864, at Petersburg, Chamberlain was severely wounded in the pelvis, and the wound left him in pain and very likely permanently impotent. This complication surely put additional strains on their marriage. After the war, Fanny was disappointed when her husband did not quickly and easily readjust to civilian life and sought action and glory in the political realm. She threatened divorce and even made accusations (never substantiated) of physical abuse at Chamberlain’s hand. The Chamberlain marriage ultimately survived until Fanny’s death in 1905, but it was often troubled and difficult.

For all of these reasons—mostly unfulfilling work as governor and Bowdoin president, an unhappy marriage—it is not surprising that Joshua L. Chamberlain preferred to live in the past, reveling in what he viewed as his glory days as a Civil War soldier. The former professor of rhetoric used flowery language and imagery to regale his audiences or readers with tales of noble, manly soldiers on both sides settling their differences on the battlefield. Chamberlain never addressed slavery as the root cause of the war and played directly into what historian David W. Blight called the “reconciliationist” view of Civil War remembrance, promoting the idea that men on both sides simply fought for what they viewed as right and that military valor and honor, not the war’s causes or results, were the virtues to be remembered.

As Chamberlain’s personal difficulties increased, so did the time he spent speaking and writing about the war. Audiences were most interested in the second day at Gettysburg and the actions of the Twentieth Maine, actions for which Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor in 1893. As he began to tell the story of Gettysburg more and more, however, many of his former subordinates questioned Chamberlain’s views of events that seemed to all but erase them from the history while increasing his own role. Debate about whether or not he ever actually ordered the famous “right wheel forward” maneuver abounded. Chamberlain recalled: “As a last, desperate resort, I ordered a charge. The word ‘fix bayonets’ flew from man to man. The click of the steel seemed to give new zeal to all. The men dashed forward with a shout.” He later admitted, however, that the order to charge “was never given, or given imperfectly.” It must have stung Chamberlain that one of his loudest critics was Ellis Spear, a former Major in the Twentieth Maine and a friend that the former commander even helped financially after the war. Spear, then admittedly elderly and possibly suffering from dementia, called one of Chamberlain’s articles “a tissue of lies.”

Chamberlain had little patience for anyone who questioned his version of events at Gettysburg. In 1904, William C. Oates, who had commanded the Fifteenth Alabama opposing Chamberlain’s Twentieth Maine on Little Round Top, appealed to the Gettysburg Monuments Commission for permission to place a regimental marker on the hill. When the Commission resisted, Oates wrote Chamberlain seeking his support, which Chamberlain gave. However, the two old soldiers fought another battle when Chamberlain realized that Oates wanted to place his marker in a spot that would indicate the Alabamians had actually pierced the Twentieth Maine’s line at some point during the battle. This ran counter to the story Chamberlain had told for decades, and he refused to alter his version. In 1905 Oates wrote once more to his old adversary: “Neither of us are as young as we were when we confronted each other on Little Round Top nearly 42 years ago. Now, in the natural course the memory of neither of us is as good as then.” Chamberlain would not relent, telling the Commission that while he did not object to the monument, “I expect it to be placed on ground where [the Confederate regiment] stood at some time during the battle.”

Of Gettysburg, Chamberlain once stated that “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays….” This has certainly been the case at Gettysburg, now one of the most-studied battles in human history and one of the nation’s most-visited battlefields. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain unquestionably played a critical role in this critical battle and in the Civil War that re-made this nation. He thrived in the army, and postwar civilian life simply could not compare, especially when it included unfulfilling work and an often stormy marriage. It is little wonder that Chamberlain took refuge in the memory of a time in which he felt truly alive and important. While it is surprising that a soldier who witnessed so much death and destruction and came perilously close to dying himself continued to view war as a “manly” and noble contest, we can at least try to understand why he viewed it this way.

Perhaps Chamberlain would have been better served to have remained in the army after the Civil War. Historian Glenn W. LaFantasie notes that “Soldiering seemed to be good for him, changing him for the better, bringing out his best qualities, making him feel more alive than he had ever felt before…. Chamberlain was more himself in war than out of it.” Though Chamberlain chose to leave the army after the Civil War, remembering his time in it and shaping the memory of himself as a war hero occupied much of the rest of his life. His memories and work continue to influence our understanding of him and the war even today, and in that way, as LaFantasie states, “[Chamberlain] is remembered today precisely as he wanted to be remembered in his own lifetime.”

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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