He described his life before 1862 as pastoral and tranquil. He had grown up in an academic family, was fluent in nine languages, and had become a professor of Modern Languages at Bowdoin College in Maine. He was 33 years old, was married, and had two children, but three others died in infancy. When the Civil War started in 1861, he did not immediately volunteer to serve; although he believed in the Union cause, thought secession was anarchy, and was strongly opposed to slavery. But he, like almost every American, North and South, expected that the War would not last very long.
But then, as a new year rolled around and President Abraham Lincoln made a second call for volunteers, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain realized the war was going to last much longer, and he sent a letter to the Governor of Maine offering his services. The letter read, “I fear this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave their good positions and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation and defend the national existence against treachery.” Because of his education and maturity, he was offered a commission as a Colonel in the militia, but Chamberlain replied he should receive a lesser rank as he had no military training, so he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel.
From the day he joined the unit, he took his training seriously, read all he could about military tactics, and instilled in his men a sense of pride in their purpose. He also earned the respect of senior career military commanders who were skeptical of most new militia officers because those political appointees often only sought the prestige of a commission.
For the first six months, Chamberlain and his men had trained and had been given important assignments, but always in rearward positions, away from direct contact with the Confederate army. Chamberlain felt confident in these support missions but had concerns about his readiness and aptitude for combat, where his decisions in a ferocious and chaotic situation would determine if his men lived or died. Then, on December 13, 1862, his unit was engaged in the battle of Fredericksburg and, unfortunately, suffered their first casualties. The loss of these men, each of whom he knew so well, weighed heavily on Chamberlain, who wondered if he had made any mistakes which contributed to their deaths. But his superior officers noticed that he had demonstrated effective leadership in the battle, and he was promoted to Colonel.
Throughout the Spring of 1863, Chamberlain’s unit was again given support positions near major battles in Virginia, but not engaged directly against the enemy. Then, in June 1863, Chamberlain was ordered to march his men north into Pennsylvania, along with eighty-five thousand other Union soldiers. They were to form a buffer between Washington DC and a Confederate Army of over sixty-five thousand men, led by General Robert E. Lee, which had recently marched north from Virginia, through Maryland, and then westward into Central Pennsylvania.
From there, Lee planned to move south toward the Union’s capital city. There were skirmishes in the area on June 27 and 28 between scouting units, but the main Confederate force remained to the north of Gettysburg while the Union army established encampments in and around the small town. Both sides knew that a major clash was eminent, but no one knew exactly where hostilities would begin. On July 1st, the first large engagement occurred and the Union troops retreated to higher ground south of the town and began to fortify positions; effectively blocking the Confederate forces from directly marching toward Washington DC.
Colonel Chamberlain’s unit was assigned to hold a small hill, not in the center of the expected battle lines, but out on the periphery of a nearly mile long Union front. In military terms, he was on the flank. There were several larger hills with entrenched Union forces that the Northern Generals expected to be more likely strategic targets; but Chamberlain’s position was still important because it was his assignment to prevent any Confederate formation from moving around and then behind the Union lines. He did expect that small Confederate units would probe at points to determine exactly how wide (or long) the Union line was and where there might be weaknesses. He was told that he had to hold that position “at all costs” in the event of an attack by a larger force, although such an event was unexpected.
Joshua Chamberlain’s younger brother, Tom, was also an officer in the regiment and recalled a discussion between the two brothers just before the battles at Gettysburg when Joshua expressed continuing doubts about his leadership saying; “I was a good teacher and I will do my duty as best I am able; but am I a good enough officer?”
He was about to find out!
On July 1st, Chamberlain’s regiment was down to 266 men from its usual strength of 400; not so much from casualties but from a small pox epidemic which had recently struck in the Union camps. That day he was also given the task of guarding 120 soldiers from another Maine militia regiment who were accused of “mutiny” for refusing to engage in battle and who were awaiting courts-martial. They were not technically deserters, but they had essentially staged a group sit-down. Their regiment had been disbanded when the two-year enlistment for most of the men had expired and those soldiers were discharged and sent home. Unfortunately, these 120 men had signed three year enlistments, but believed they should have been allowed to return home with the rest of their unit.
Of course, the Army saw it differently and, while they awaited trial, Chamberlain was authorized to execute any of the 120 who tried to escape. But, he had a more thoughtful plan.
Since they were all from Maine, Chamberlain knew relatives of many of the men and was sympathetic to their plight. He reminded them that, if they continued to disobey orders, they would certainly face, at best, a long prison sentence, ruin their own lives and become a disgrace to their families. Instead, he asked them to join his regiment and, in return for their cooperation and willingness to fight along with his other boys from Maine, he would dismiss the charges against them. Further, while he could not guarantee the result, he agreed to write to the Governor of Maine to request his intercession on their behalf to reduce their remaining enlistment period. After some deliberation among themselves, the 120 men agreed to put their trust in Joshua Chamberlain. His unit now had exactly 386 able-bodied soldiers.
Battle plans are drawn by Generals but they only last until there is an “unexpected event,” then commanders of smaller units make the decisions that lead either to success or to failure. After several small exchanges along the Union lines, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided the small hill occupied by Colonel Chamberlain would be advantageous and he ordered a large force to assemble overnight below the hill and to begin an infantry attack the following morning.
An “unexpected event” was about to happen to Colonel Chamberlain and his men.
That morning, over two thousand Confederate soldiers suddenly emerged from a wooded area at the base of the hill which Chamberlain and his men were to defend at all costs. The first attack lasted about fifteen minutes and the Confederates only made it about halfway up the hill before they retreated. Chamberlain’s casualties were few but he told his men the force that attacked them was too large to just be a probe and that he now believed the Confederates intended to try to take the hill. He sent a messenger to the Union headquarters about a mile away but was unsure if any of the Generals would react to what they might still consider only a probe, not an all-out attack. Chamberlain then walked among his men and told them that they would have to hold their position until re-enforcements could arrive.
Then, the Confederates attacked again; and again; and again. Over a two-hour period, they made five assaults on Chamberlain’s position, each one getting closer to the top of the hill before retreating. He could see the lower parts of the hill littered with dead and dying Southern soldiers and knew his men had caused a severe loss to the enemy; however, the toll from successive charges on his men was also devastating. At least 100 were dead or so severely wounded they could not fight, while another hundred were wounded but still on duty. With his ranks thinned by these losses, Chamberlain moved among those soldiers who could still fight and prepared them for what he expected would be one more Confederate assault. He and his men could see the Southern units again massing to charge at his position, but as he walked through his ranks and talked with his men, he realized that they had another serious problem.
Most of his men were out of ammunition! The few men who still had one or two rounds could not possibly defend against the coming attack. But, his orders were to never retreat and, if he simply tried to stand his ground, the Confederates would certainly over-run his position. Either way, he would have failed to carry out his mission to hold the line.
Then, Chamberlain made his unorthodox decision which would give the Confederates an “unexpected event.”
He ordered his men to fix their bayonets to their rifles and to prepare to leave their defensive positions and charge the Confederates. He hoped to inflict as many casualties among the Southern soldiers as possible in the first few moments of advantage that the surprise attack might provide. Chamberlain said later that neither he, nor his soldiers, had any expectation except death, but hoped that they might buy enough time for re-enforcements to arrive who could then keep the hill from falling to the enemy.
Chamberlain moved to the front of his men, yelled “bayonets” and leapt over the crest of the hill down toward the approaching enemy. Later he said he could not remember why he did not yell out the more tradition order of “Charge!”
One of Chamberlain’s men recalled, “The sight of the Colonel running headlong at the rebels, yelling ‘bayonets’ again and again, sword waving and pistol firing, made us all join in. There was no thought, just legs running, and yelling, everyone was yelling.”
Startled by the line of blue charging at them, the Confederates began to fall back and Chamberlain and many of his men actually ran so far and so fast down the hill that they pushed through the front of the enemy formation. Suddenly, Chamberlain came face to face with a Confederate Colonel who had a pistol pointed at his head; but the gun misfired. The Confederate officer then dropped his gun, handed Chamberlain his sword, and surrendered. With that, the daring charge began to subside. As the fighting ended, Chamberlain realized there were over a hundred Confederate soldiers stranded behind his position; but they were so disorganized, they dropped their weapons and put up their hands to surrender. He and his men herded the new prisoners back up the hill while the rest of the Confederate troops retreated. Unknown to their prisoners, Chamberlain’s men guarded the captured southern soldiers with empty rifles.
When his position was finally relieved by reserve units, Chamberlain learned that the small hill he had held was named “Little Round Top.” To his great relief, Chamberlain found that his brother also survived the battle and he said later that his brother’s life was more important than his own because he feared his mother would never recover from the loss of her youngest son.
Most historians believe the Union victory at Gettysburg was critical to the outcome of the Civil War. And, the stand at Little Round Top made by the small band of men in Chamberlain’s unit, including the 120 “other Maine boys,” was a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg.
As the war dragged on, Joshua Chamberlain led his men into seven other major engagements and was severely wounded in 1864; but recovered sufficiently to be at Appomattox Court House for the surrender of Confederate forces in April, 1865. He then went back home to his family and his “tranquil and pastoral” life as a teacher. But, soon after, he was encouraged to enter the race for Governor of Maine; to which he was then elected to four consecutive terms!
Chamberlain later wrote of the bravery of his men that day at Gettysburg in July 1863, and said he was also in awe of the courage of the Confederates who charged his position time after time; despite having seen so many of their ranks fall in previous attacks. But, others noted Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s own gallantry and leadership on that day as well, and, in recognition, he received his Nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
His personal question had been answered. The good teacher, when tested, had certainly become a “good enough” officer!
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