American Civil War: Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain

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

Joshua L. Chamberlain - Birth & Early Life:

Born in Brewer, ME on September 8, 1828, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the eldest child of Joshua and Sarah Chamberlain. A gifted student, he taught himself Greek in order to attend Bowdoin College in 1848. While at Bowdoin he met Harriet Beecher 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.

Joshua L. Chamberlain - Personal Life:

In 1855, Chamberlain married Fanny Adams (1825-1905). The daughter of local clergyman, Fanny had five children with Chamberlain and remained with him until her death in 1905. Of the couple's five children, three died in infancy. As Fanny aged, her sight deteriorated, leading Chamberlain to become a founding member of the Maine Institution of the Blind in 1905.

Joshua L. Chamberlain - Military Career:

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.

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.

Serving under Colonel Adelbert Ames, Chamberlain and the 20th Maine mustered in on August 20, 1862. Assigned to the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the 20th Maine served at the Antietam, but 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.

Shortly after Chancellorsville, Ames was promoted brigade command in the 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 beat off repeated attacks from the 15th Alabama. With his men running low on ammunition, Chamberlain boldly ordered a bayonet charge which routed and captured the Confederates. Chamberlain's heroic defense of the hill earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and the regiment everlasting fame.

Following Gettysburg, Chamberlain fell ill with malaria and temporarily was suspended from duty. Returning to the Army of the Potomac, Chamberlain was promoted to brigade command in May 1864. 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.

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 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.

Joshua L. Chamberlain - 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.