American Heroes: Major General Joshua Chamberlain, Civil War Badass

Yes, we normally focus on modern-day heroes, but there’s a reason to look back at badass soldiers in our nation’s history. Soldiers in the Civil War were a special brand of tough thanks to the constant hand-to-hand fighting – sometimes with bayonets – and the incredibly harsh conditions they endured. They believed in what they fought for, and they did it with a tenacity and almost-bloodthirsty fervor that’s both impressive and makes you quite sure you’d never want to get on their bad side. And one thing that’s true of the infantry then and the infantry today is that they’re going to do whatever it takes, even at their own risk – sometimes, I think, especially at their own risk – and one of the coolest, most hard-charging infantry soldiers of the Civil War was undoubtedly Major General Joshua Chamberlain.

Major General Joshua ChamberlainFirst, a little background. Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine, in 1828. He was the oldest of five kids, and he got his middle name of Lawrence because his dad was a big fan of the military; he was named after Captain James Lawrence, who’s best known for his famous “don’t give up the ship” order. But before the Joseph Lawrence Chamberlain made his own mark on military history, he had other things to do. Although his father, who had been a lieutenant colonel, wanted him to join the army – and young Joseph had already gone through Major Whiting’s military academy – Chamberlain had other plans. He went to Bowdoin College, graduating in 1852, then to Bangor Theological Seminary. In 1855, he went back to Bowdoin – along with his brand-new wife, Fannie – to settle into life as a professor of languages and rhetoric. It seemed to be going well: in 1856, he was elected professor, and in 1861, he was elected chair of modern languages. After all, Chamberlain had a real gift for language; he was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Syriac. It was during these professorial years he had a daughter, Grace, and a son, Harold.

And then, in 1861, war broke out.

Despite his young, growing family and quickly-advancing professorial position at Bowdoin, Chamberlain couldn’t ignore the war. He not only felt it was his duty to serve; he wanted to serve. He requested, and was granted, a leave of absence to travel to Europe to study language, so he decided to change that leave to joining the military. Needless to say the powers-that-be at Bowdoin weren’t amused, but Chamberlain was adamant. He was going to join the Army, and he was going to fight for his country, no matter what. And so he did.

Chamberlain started out as a Lieutenant Colonel after offering his services to the governor of Maine and was appointed to the new 20th Maine Regiment. The 20th Maine was made up on leftovers and cast-offs from other regiments, and Chamberlain later noted they were given no flag and no sendoff at the station. No matter, he’d make do. He decided to take the opportunity to study every aspect of the military and warfare possible and did so with the help of his commander, West Point graduate Col. Adelbert Ames. But apparently when he said “study” he meant “kick serious tail” because that’s what ended up happening.

The sunken road at Marye's Heights. Approximately 3,000 Confederate infantrymen were lined up in multiple ranks behind the stone wall for about 600 yards, and another 3,000 were atop the slope behind it, along with their artillery.
The sunken road at Marye’s Heights. Approximately 3,000 Confederate infantrymen were lined up in multiple ranks behind the stone wall for about 600 yards, and another 3,000 were atop the slope behind it, along with their artillery.

His unit’s first big battle was took place on December 13, 1862, on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. That was not a good battle. Historically it was one of the biggest, deadliest battles of the entire Civil War, and for good reason. That one involved the first major opposed river crossing in American history, and the two sides also fought it out in the city streets, making it the first urban combat as well. In charge was Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside, and his leadership abilities were such a failure that President Abraham Lincoln ended up removing him from his position leading the Army of the Potomac. Anyway, during that battle the Union lost 12,600 men while the Confederates lost a mere 5,300.

When it was over and Chamberlain and his men retreated, they needed a way to stay warm overnight. Seeing no other choice, Chamberlain slept between two dead bodies in an attempt to block some of the cold. He pulled a third body across to use as a pillow, and used the deceased’s coat to cover his face. But between the chilling cold and the unearthly moans of the injured, he couldn’t rest, and at midnight he got up and began tending the wounded. He described the process of attempting to ease the suffering of the men in a piece titled “A Bivouac with the Dead” which you can read here. It’s important to note that Chamberlain wasn’t just a fighter, he was a man of compassion who cared for his men deeply.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the dead bodies and the lack of cleanliness at the time, Chamberlain’s unit then came down with smallpox. It caused them to miss the Battle of Chancellorsville, although not because he didn’t want to get involved. Always a thinking man, Chamberlain argued the men could take part in the charge, summarily infecting the Confederate soldiers they came in contact with. Not bad logic, really, but his request was denied. He did his best to keep the healthy soldiers busy, requesting odd jobs for them, and, eventually, his unit was in fighting form again. There were a few problems along the way, like when 150 soldiers in the 2nd Maine decided they wanted to up and leave, saying the Army had tricked them. Chamberlain simply put his skills in rhetoric to use and talked them into staying. You have to wonder what he said to convince 150 men to stay put, but one imagines it was a combination of solid logic and “what, are you stupid/spineless/unpatriotic?” Either way, it worked, and Chamberlain’s biggest battle was yet to come.

Hero of Little Round Top  Col. Joshua Chamberlain, July 2, 1863. Painting by Mort Künstler.
Hero of Little Round Top
Col. Joshua Chamberlain, July 2, 1863. Painting by Mort Künstler.

On July 2, 1863 – and those with a head for historical dates know that date – on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain and his men were called in. He and the men of the 20th Maine were position at Little Round Top, far to the left of the line. They were ordered to hold the position at any cost, and, of course, were immediately attacked by the combined forces of not one but two much larger Confederate regiments, led by General John B. Hood. And then two more Confederate regiments, led by Col. William C. Oates, joined in on hammering Chamberlain and his men senseless.

Side note: During the Civil War one of the most dangerous – yet coveted – positions was that of color bearer. The color bearer was responsible for holding the line while brandishing the colors and was meant to instill hope and courage in the men. It has been noted throughout military history that the sight of our colors absolutely does stir hope and often a fresh rush of bravery in the face of danger, and the 20th Maine’s color sergeant was a 25-year-old man, Sgt. Andrew Tozier. Tozier held his ground with the colors, defending them from the enemy and keeping them aloft for his brothers, and when the line began to break and ground began to be taken by the encroaching Confederates, he did not move. No, Tozier wasn’t going to give ground or let those colors fall, despite the bullets whizzing past him and soldiers charging him. Chamberlain credited Tozier’s enormous bravery with helping win the day, and Tozier was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

It soon became obvious the 20th Maine was going to be overrun. They were running low on ammunition, and vastly outnumbered. And it didn’t help they’d been called in to defend Little Round Top (which was a hill, BTW) at the last minute when someone noticed nobody was guarding it. Chamberlain had a decision to make. He could either decide where and when to retreat, which seemed logical, or he could keep at it. Fighting was now hand-to-hand, and they were facing a seemingly untenable situation. But he wasn’t willing to give ground, and so he ordered his men to fix bayonets, and led a seemingly suicidal charge headlong into the Confederate ranks.

One can imagine how shocked the Confederates must’ve been. Here they’d thought they were winning, and now the 20th Maine was charging them in a frenzied, bayonet-raised rush. During the up-close-and-personal fight that followed, a Confederate soldier aimed his pistol right at Chamberlain’s head. Without hesitating, Chamberlain leveled his sword at the other man’s neck, but, of course, the Confederate soldier pulled the trigger first. And the pistol misfired. Chamberlain made use of his sword, and moved on. After the courageous charge made by the men of the 20th Maine, the day was literally saved. The Union held its ground, due in no small part to the actions of Chamberlain and his men. Chamberlain ended up being awarded a Medal of Honor for the ballsy charge at Little Round Top.

After his victory at Gettysburg, Chamberlain was put in command of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, and fought at Culpeper and Centreville. His men respected him, having seen him in furious action, and he also proved to care for the men, living in the same condition they did, including sleeping on the ground exposed to the elements. Unfortunately, after one such night of sleeping in the snow, he contracted pneumonia along with a side helping of malaria and ended up back in Washington, D.C., receiving medical treatment.

The last time Chamberlain would command the 20th Maine was at the battle at Bethesda Church, because the General in charge decided to reorganize the 5th Corps. Chamberlain ended up being appointed commander of the 1st Division’s brand new 1st Brigade of Pennsylvania regiments. It was during that time one of his less-talked-about moments of bravery took place.

Major General Joshua Chamberlain StatueIt was June now and the Union was fighting at Petersburg, a key battle in the Civil War. Chamberlain and his new 1st Brigade regiment were placed at Rives Salient. During the battle, Chamberlain was, at one point, standing alongside the color bearer, when the color bearer was shot and killed. For Chamberlain there was no debate, no thought, he simply snatched up the colors and held them aloft. It wasn’t long before Chamberlain himself was grievously shot with a minie ball. Minie balls weren’t like the smaller, round balls fired from smoothbore muskets; their conical shape gave them a spin and meant they moved at much higher velocities with greater energy, so they tore through their targets, shattering anything in their way. Chamberlain’s wound was serious, and yet he forced himself to stay upright, ordering his men – and the colors – onward. Once the last of his men had disappeared from his sight, then, and only then, did he allow the severity of his injury to be made clear. And even then he refused preferential care, which he would have received as the commander, insisting others with more serious injuries be treated first.

Believing Chamberlain near death – and he was – General Ulysses Grant promoted him to Brigadier General. Historians say that was the only battlefield promotion Grant ever gave. But this was Joseph Lawrence Chamberlain we’re talking about, so of course he recovered – and returned to duty. Such was his insistence on fighting that he participated in the raid on Weldon Railroad, after which he had to be hospitalized again.  After a month he got sick of it and took off against doctor’s orders, but he didn’t see action again until General Grant’s last campaign.

During that next battle, Chamberlain’s horse was shot out from under him. Once on the ground, he was nearly captured, but quick thinking saved his life. Finding himself in the thick of the Confederates, Chamberlain adopted a thick Southern drawl, saying “The Yankees are coming, come on, boys, charge!” And he simply led them into a trap, where they all surrendered, probably more than a little ticked off at Chamberlain and his gift for language.

Chamberlain was severely wounded 6 times during the war. One injury resulted in his being forced to wear a catheter, and the catheters then were way worse than the ones today. And yet he kept on. After the war he became the governor of Maine, serving four terms. After that, he didn’t want to be bored, so he became the president of Bowdoin College. And after that, when Maine faced a constitution-related crisis and a mob charged the capital building, an elderly Chamberlain donned his Civil War uniform and faced down the mob single-handedly. He then spent quite a few nights on the steps of the building, in uniform, with his loaded pistol, for the sole purpose of guarding the constitution inside. Chamberlain passed away in 1914, surrounded by family, friends, and probably a pistol and sword.

There are other stories about Chamberlain, and if you want to read some in his own words, take a look at “The Passing of the Armies” which he wrote about the Appomattox Campaign. Chamberlain was that rare mixture of scholar and soldier, making him an American Hero like no other. See, history is cool, and so was Joseph Lawrence Chamberlain.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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