Monday, February 24, 2014

Joshua Chamberlain--American Hero

100 years ago today, in  Portland, Maine, a great American Hero died. His name was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and his service to the United States as a soldier, and educator, and a politician spanned more than 50 years. In 1862, Chamberlain, a brilliant young linguist and scholar was on the faculty at Bowdoin College.  He was already in his 30's and already had a wife and small children. But he felt compelled to enlist and serve in the Civil War.  Initially he was second in command of the Twentieth Maine, but was promoted to Colonel just before the battle of Gettysburg, where he led the defense of Little Round Top against Confederates trying to flank the Union lines. He would later receive the Medal of Honor for Little Round Top.

A few months after Gettysburg, he was seriously wounded during the siege of  Petersburg.  It left him with chronic health problems for the rest of his life. Once again, he could have retired, gone home.  But he went back into battle, again and again. He would eventually be promoted to General, and  would be one of the heroes of the battle of Five Forks, which finally forced the confederates to retreat from Petersburg.  He would be chosen by General Grant to receive the surrender of the union army.

The war over, he could have retired back to academia, nursed his wounds, and enjoy his well earned rest, but he didn't.

He served 4 terms as Governor of Maine, and then later as the head of the Maine Militia. During the course of that service he helped put down a conflict over elections. He blocked the doorway to the state capitol, wearing his old uniform, told the mob that they weren't the first group of people to try to kill him, and they were not getting in. Several Civil War veterans in the mob came forward to join him and the mob was dispersed.

Later he returned to Bowdoin College as its president. He did much to broaden the curriculum at the college, and Chamberlain, the classic Renaissance man, would teach every subject except Mathematics and Science. He was one of the founders of the Maine Institute for the Blind. He would write several books about his experience, and because he was a passionate and eloquent writer in the manner of the Late Victorian era, they are still quite readable today, if occasionally a bit flowery by our standards.
He would also be actively involved in veterans affairs, one of the organizers of  the 50th Gettysburg reunion, although he himself would be too ill to attend it. When he died a few months later, it was from complications related to his Petersburg wounds. He is in fact believed to be the last Civil War veteran to die of a battlefield injury.

For the first hundred years after the War,  Chamberlain was mostly overlooked by historians. Then a writer named Michael Shaara chose him as the example of the citizen soldier for his book The Killer Angels. Several generations of American college students (Including both myself and my son) have had the book as required reading in history class. The book inspired Ken Burns to create his documentary The Civil War  and director Ron Maxwell to make the films Gettysburg  and Gods and Generals in which Jeff Daniels would portray Chamberlain.

In his honor the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Society has created a wounded warrior project. They hope to sponsor injured veterans and their families.

I have said before that to me the measure of a hero is not only the acts that make them famous, but also what they do with the rest of their lives. Joshua Chamberlain is a perfect example of lifelong heroism.

In 1888, at the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain was one of the speakers at the dedication of the Maine memorials. In his speech he tried to sum up the significance of the battle to those who fought there and those who would come after them. 


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