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Features >> Chamberlain
Maj. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain

Union's Hero at Little Round Top Demonstrated Gallantry at Appomattox, Too

By Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Military.com Columnist

Portrait of Chamberlain in uniform. (National Archives)

Brevet Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is best known for his leadership in a victory and his gallantry at a surrender. Theologian, academician, tactician, and politician, Chamberlain's Yankee ethics and Congregationalist morals led a contemporary to say, "He had the heart of a woman and the soul of a lion."

No one expected the 33-year-old Bowdoin professor and family man to go to war. His father had wanted him to attend West Point, but he went to theological college instead at his religious mother's behest. Yet in 1862, Chamberlain volunteered his services to the governor of Maine and immediately was offered a colonelcy. He declined, saying he wished to "start a little lower and learn the business first."

Chamberlain was soon promoted from light colonel, and his leadership was soon tested. On July 2, 1863, Chamberlain commanded the 20th Maine's Infantry Volunteer Corps as they faced the 15th and 47th Alabama Infantry at Gettysburg's Little Round Top. The 20th was only a little over 300 strong and greatly outnumbered by the Confederates, but Chamberlain led his men in a ferocious assault that saved the Army of the Potomac from a potentially devastating flank attack.

His principles were tested when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the formal surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia's arms and colors at Appomattox on April 12, 1865. The Confederates, under the command of Gen. John B. Gordon, began to stack arms, as was the custom in ceremonies of surrender. Chamberlain ordered his men to "carry arms" as a show of respect to their defeated foes. So impressed was Gordon that he had his troops return the salute. Many Union supporters were shocked by what they saw as a display of admiration for the enemy. Chamberlain, ever the gentleman, explained that he saluted not the cause, but the men.

At the Battle of Petersburg, Chamberlain was shot through the hip. His injury was so terrible that Grant gave him a brevet promotion to brigadier general, fearing Chamberlain would not live through the night. A doctor at the scene predicted Chamberlain would die of this wound -- and he was correct in his diagnosis, if not his timing.

Chamberlain lived 50 more years, his career and life encompassing four terms as governor of Maine and a famously devoted relationship with his wife Frances. In 1893, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top. His old wound became infected in 1914, and on Feb. 24, at age 85, Joshua Chamberlain, the very model of a citizen soldier, died. He was the last Civil War veteran to die of wounds sustained in battle.


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"Lee was used to giving vague or general orders and letting his subordinates take charge and do the rest. He was lucky to have generals that could and would take advantge of a situation to win a battle. Unfortunately Richard Ewell was not that kind of man."
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