Joshua Chamberlain

Joshua Chamberlain’s name probably became most recognized by Americans after the movie Gettysburg was premiered in 1993. Chamberlain was played eloquently by actor Jeff Daniels in the film. Joshua Chamberlain’s story is a very interesting story.

Joshua Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine in September 1828, his parents felt it very important that he concentrate on his education. His mother pushed a devotion to religion upon him, while his father taught Chamberlain of his interest in military history and tactics. Chamberlain was very dedicated to his studies for a boy growing up in a rural area in the early to the mid 19th century. He would move on to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine where his focus of study would be modern languages. Chamberlain would become fluent in 10 languages. Chamberlain would then move on to the Bangor Theological Seminary where he would study for 3 years to become a minister. After completing his studies in the seminary, he chose to return to Bowdoin College as an instructor in Modern Languages rather than work as a minister. He married, and he and his wife had five children, only two of whom would survive to adulthood.

Chamberlain – Photo from the Library of Congress

As the drums of war began to beat in advance of the civil war, Chamberlain was teaching at Bowdoin College. Chamberlain’s religious convictions made him a staunch abolitionist and the interest and understanding of military tactics and strategy gave him some advantage that many in his position wouldn’t understand. Chamberlain wanted to enlist to fight in the war, despite being discouraged by his colleagues at the college, and the protests from his wife. Chamberlain would write to the Governor of Maine, Israel Washburn stating, “I have always been interested in military matters and what I do not know in that line I am willing to learn.”

On August 8, 1862, Chamberlain was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel, second in command of the 20th Maine. He would serve under West Point graduate Colonel Adelbert Ames and learn a bit more about tactics and movement. In September of 1862, the 20th Maine would be involved in their first battle at Antietam, but the unit saw very little action there. In December of 1862, the 20th Maine would see their first real battle action at Marye’s Heights, outside of Fredricksburg, VA. At Marye’s Heights, the 20th Maine was ordered to execute one of many failed assaults on a heavily entrenched Confederate position that had a superior tactical advantage. Though they followed their orders, the 20th Maine had no success in their attack. The 20th Maine was expected to be part of the Battle of Chancellorsville, but an outbreak of smallpox among their unit and other units held the 20th Maine in the rear. After Chancellorsville and the high number of Union losses there, Colonel Ames would be elevated to the position of Brigadier General which would promote Chamberlain to Colonel and Commander of the 20th Maine.

Chamberlain – Photo from Ohio State University

On July 2, 1863, the 20th Maine was deployed to the far left of the Union line on Little Round Top, a mountain to the south of the town of Gettysburg, PA. The objective of the 20th Maine was to protect the left flank of the Union Line. It is here where Chamberlain would show true strength in leadership. Confederate General John Hood would carry out relentless attacks on the Union flank in an attempt to remove the Union forces from the high ground. By the afternoon, the 20th Maine was haggard, tired and out of ammunition, and Hood’s men were continuing their attacks. The 20th Maine had little choice but to fix bayonets and charge down the hill at the Confederates. The actions of the 20th Maine secured the Union flank. Chamberlain would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for the actions of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg and his “conspicuous gallantry.”

Little Round Top – American Battlefield Trust
The Line of the 20th Maine – American Battlefield Trust

After Gettysburg, Chamberlain was placed in charge of the 5th Corps. On June 18, 1864, Chamberlain led a charge against the Confederates at Petersburg, during the charge he was severely wounded by an enemy shot. The field surgeon pronounced his wound fatal when Ulysses S. Grant was made aware of the injury, he promoted Chamberlain to Brigadier General. Chamberlain continued to recover to the surprise of many and returned home to Maine to continue his recovery. He returned to the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox and was with Grant when the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army was received at Appomattox Court House.

Chamberlain would return to Maine and serve four terms as Governor of the state. After leaving the office of Governor, he would become the president of Bowdoin College. During the war, Chamberlain was injured 6 times, the worst of which being at Petersburg. He wrote a book about his experience in the Civil War and did speaking tours as well. Chamberlain died on February 24, 1914

Brigadier General Chamberlain – National Archives.


Joshua Chamberlain:

Joshua Chamberlain:

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:

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