American Civil War: Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Birth & Early Life:

Born in Brewer, ME on September 8, 1828, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the son of Joshua Chamberlain and Sarah Dupee Brastow. The oldest of five children, his father desired that he pursue a career in the military while his mother encouraged him to become a preacher. A gifted student, he taught himself Greek and Latin in order to attend Bowdoin College in 1848. While at Bowdoin he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe, and listened to readings of what would become Uncle Tom's Cabin. After graduating in 1852, Chamberlain studied for three years at the Bangor Theological Seminary before returning to Bowdoin to teach. Serving as a professor of rhetoric, Chamberlain taught every subject with the exception of science and math.

Personal Life:

In 1855, Chamberlain married Frances (Fanny) Caroline Adams (1825-1905). The daughter of local clergyman, Fanny had five children with Chamberlain three of which died in infancy and two, Grace and Harold, which survived to adulthood. Following the end of the Civil War, the Chamberlain's relationship became increasingly strained as Joshua had difficulty readjusting to civilian life. This was exacerbated by his election as Governor of Maine in 1866 which necessitated him being away from home for long periods.  Despite these problems, the two reconciled and remained together until her death in 1905. As Fanny aged, her sight deteriorated, leading Chamberlain to become a founding member of the Maine Institution of the Blind in 1905.

Entering the Army:

With the beginning of the Civil War, Chamberlain, whose forefathers had served in the American Revolution and War of 1812, sought to enlist. He was prevented from doing so by the administration at Bowdoin who stated he was too valuable to lose. In 1862, Chamberlain requested and was granted a leave of absence to study languages in Europe. Departing Bowdoin, he quickly volunteered his services to the governor of Maine, Israel Washburn, Jr. Offered command of the 20th Maine Infantry, Chamberlain declined stating he wished to learn the trade first and instead became the regiment's lieutenant colonel on August 8, 1862. He was joined in the 20th Maine by his younger brother, Thomas D. Chamberlain.

Serving under Colonel Adelbert Ames, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine mustered in on August 20, 1862. Assigned to the 1st Division (Major General George W. Morell), V Corps (Major General Fitz John Porter) of Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, the 20th Maine served at the Antietam, but was held in reserve and did not see action. Later that fall, the regiment was part of the attack on Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Though the regiment suffered relatively light casualties, Chamberlain was forced to spend the night on the cold battlefield using corpses for protection against Confederate fire. Escaping, the regiment missed the fight at Chancellorsville the following May due to a smallpox outbreak. As a result, they were posted to guard duty in the rear.


Shortly after Chancellorsville, Ames was promoted brigade command in Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps, and Chamberlain ascended to command of the 20th Maine. On July 2, 1863, the regiment entered action at Gettysburg. Assigned to hold Little Round Top on the extreme left of the Union line, the 20th Maine was tasked with ensuring the Army of the Potomac's position was not flanked. Late in the afternoon, Chamberlain's men came under attack from Colonel William C. Oates' 15th Alabama. Repelling multiple Confederate assaults, he continued to extend and refuse (bend back) his line to prevent the Alabamans from turning his flank.  With his line nearly bent back upon itself and his men running low on ammunition, Chamberlain boldly ordered a bayonet charge which routed and captured many of the Confederates. Chamberlain's heroic defense of the hill earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and the regiment everlasting fame.

Overland Campaign & Petersburg:

Following Gettysburg, Chamberlain assumed command of the 20th Maine's brigade and led this force during the Bristoe Campaign that fall.  Falling ill with malaria, he was suspended from duty in November and sent home to recover. Returning to the Army of the Potomac in April 1864, Chamberlain was promoted to back brigade command in June after the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. On June 18, while leading his men during an attack on Petersburg, he was shot through the right hip and groin. Supporting himself on his sword, he encouraged his men on before collapsing. Believing the wound to be fatal, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant promoted Chamberlain to brigadier general as a final act. Over the following weeks, Chamberlain clung to life and managed to recover from his wounds after undergoing an operation by the 20th Maine's surgeon, Dr. Abner Shaw, and Dr. Morris W. Townsend of the 44th New York.

Returning to duty in November 1864, Chamberlain served for the remainder of the war. On March 29, 1865, his brigade led the Union attack at the Battle of Lewis' Farm outside Petersburg. Wounded again, Chamberlain was brevetted to major general for his gallantry. On April 9, Chamberlain was alerted to the Confederate's desire to surrender. The next day he was told by V Corps commander Major General Charles Griffin that of all the officers in the Union army, he had been selected to receive the Confederate surrender. On April 12, Chamberlain presided over the ceremony and ordered his men to attention and carry arms as a sign of respect for their vanquished foe.

Postwar Career:

Leaving the army, Chamberlain returned home to Maine and served as the state's governor for four years. Stepping down in 1871, he was appointed to the presidency of Bowdoin. Over the next twelve years he revolutionized the school's curriculum and updated its facilities. Forced to retire in 1883, due to aggravation of his war wounds, Chamberlain remained active in public life, the Grand Army of the Republic, and in planning events for veterans. In 1898, he volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War and was bitterly disappointed when his request was turned down.

On February 24, 1914, the "Lion of Little Round Top" died at the age of 85 in Portland, ME. His death was largely the result of complications of his wounds, making him the last Civil War veteran to die from wounds received in battle.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).