Man of the Month: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – Fierce Dedication to a Cause
“The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.” – Joshua L. Chamberlain, Civil War Union General, 1828-1914
Real manliness is built on a solid foundation of virtues, and the development of these attributes is arguably the most crucial task in a man’s self-improvement. As a history teacher, I argue that studying heroes, both sung and unsung, from the past can help us develop into better men in the 21st century. For my first article for Wolf and Iron, I want to explore the manly virtues of one of my historical heroes, American Civil War General, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
Chamberlain was born in Maine during the 1820’s, and early on it was evident to his parents that he was something of a prodigy. He was brilliant, and grew with pressures coming from both his mother and his father to pursue different paths of study. His mother wanted him to become a pastor, while his father wanted him to be a soldier. Chamberlain showed early his manliness though and pushed back against his parent’s wishes and stood his ground doing so. He was not going to study something he didn’t enjoy; he would forge his path. Joshua enrolled in Bowdoin College and began his studies in foreign languages and rhetoric.
While attending Bowdoin, one of the professors began having students over to his home in the evenings. Dr. Calvin Stowe had dinners for young pupils, and after dinner, his wife would sit around the fire with the pupils and read to them. Mrs. Stowe was working on a book about the terrible institution of slavery, and young Chamberlain sat and listened to Harriet Beecher Stowe read early chapters from her book, known to us as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Listening to Stowe’s work left an indelible mark on the young Chamberlain.
Chamberlain graduated and soon took a job teaching rhetoric and foreign studies at Bowdoin, rising through the ranks quite quickly. In the spring of 1861, all the strife between north and south finally reached a boiling point, rebels in South Carolina having fired on the Federal Fort Sumter. The call to arms was swift, as President Lincoln called for volunteers all throughout the loyal states. It was in the spring of 1861 that Joshua Chamberlain displayed his greatest virtue, and the reason I look up to his example, his unwavering sense of dedication.
War, and a Cause for It
“But the cause for which we fought was higher; our thought wider…That thought was our power.”
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had every excuse not to serve in the Civil War. He had no military experience, he was newly married, had a child on the way, and was a respected professor, but something nagged at his sense of duty. He remembered those long evenings listening to Harriet Beecher Stowe tell of the atrocities of the south, and how they treated slaves, and he read the newspaper reports of traitors turning their backs on the Union. Chamberlain decided to arrange a meeting with the governor of Maine and discuss military options. During the early months of the war, military jobs were passed out left and right, and with merit being of little bearing, the governor of Maine offered Chamberlain the command of the new Twentieth Maine Regiment, giving a man with no military experience command of 1,000 men. Seeing this as folly, he instead asked for the assignment of Lieutenant Colonel, second in command. Chamberlain arrived in camp with Twentieth Maine, a motley collection of timbermen and fishermen, and began learning the ropes from Colonel Adelbert Ames.
Dedication to his duty once again played a large role in Chamberlain growing as a soldier and leader. He asked Ames to teach him how to command, and when Ames went to bed, he stayed awake studying military texts throughout the night. Slowly but surely, Chamberlain became more comfortable leading men in the field, and soon garnered the respect of the rugged Twentieth Maine.
“Rations were scarcely issued, and the men about preparing supper, when rumors that the enemy had been encountered that day near Gettysburg absorbed every other interest, and very soon orders came to march forthwith to Gettysburg.”
While the Twentieth saw battles throughout 1862, Chamberlain and his men had a date with destiny: at a tiny Pennsylvania village named Gettysburg. There, the Twentieth Maine was now under the sole command of Chamberlain. Ames had received a promotion when the Twentieth arrived near the town, and they were assigned to the southern portion of the Union defensive lines on a tiny hill known as Little Round Top. As the Twentieth arrived, they were a tad surprised to see they were the bottom of the Union lines; the last line of defense. On July 2nd, 1863, Colonel Chamberlain took his place at center stage in the crucible of the Civil War.
The Confederates pushed against the Union lines on July 2nd and were breaking through in sections. In the afternoon, Alabamians set their sights on Little Round Top. There, Chamberlain was in temporary command of pieces of other regiments along with his Twentieth Maine, adding men from New York and Pennsylvania to the defensive ranks. The Alabamians charged up Little Round Top, and the bullets began to whiz by the Union men. Chamberlain led from the front of the defensive lines, urging his men to fire into the charging Alabamians. Soon, as the sun began to set behind the rolling hill of Southern Pennsylvania, Chamberlain noticed his men were running short of ammunition. The Union men on Little Round Top had held valiantly all day, but now they were injured, and nearly out of bullets. Chamberlain racked his brain to figure out a way out of this situation. If the Union men failed, the Rebels would break the Union southern line. Chamberlain thought back to those late nights studying in his tent and remembered a tactical move for men short on ammunition.
“L”, as in Hell
Chamberlain ordered his men to fall out of line and form a new type of line, he moved his men into a giant “L” or gate position and ordered one portion to fix bayonets. To hear the order “fix bayonets” was one of the most terrifying orders a Civil War soldier could hear; they knew bloodshed was on the horizon. In the stifling evening heat of July 2nd, 1863, the Alabamians once again charged up the hill, Chamberlain ordered his men to charge, and the two sides met in a maelstrom of violence. Just as the first line reached the attacking rebels, the other portion of the L, or the gate, closed on the attacking rebels, completely enveloping them and capturing massive amounts of prisoners. The textbook move had worked, and the brilliant college professor had just saved the entire Union Army of the Potomac on a hillside in Pennsylvania.
Chamberlain spent the rest of the war in service, taking a severe wound in 1864, eventually reaching the rank of General. After the war, he served his home state of Maine as governor, and it arguably the most respected and revered man from that state. To study Chamberlain is to study the definition of dedication, and I feel all men can garner much from his story.