Childhood & Early Life
Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain was born to Joshua Chamberlain and Sarah Dupree in Brewer, Maine. He was very close to his mother particularly because his father was always tough on him.
He enjoyed horseback riding as a young boy and also indulged in other activities including sailing, swimming and bird-watching.
A shy boy, he never liked to speak outside of his family too much because of a speech disorder he suffered for the rest of his life. He studied at Bowdoin College in 1848 and graduated from the same four years later.
After his marriage, he studied at the Bangor Theological Seminary and began his career as a professor of rhetoric. He began teaching almost all the subjects in the prospectus except science and mathematics.
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He was selected to the chair of modern languages in 1861 and gained proficiency in multiple languages such as Greek, Latin, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian and Syriac.
With the eruption of the Civil War in 1861, he wanted to serve his country. Much to the anger of the staff of Bowdoin, he entered the war as Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteers, the next year.
Under Commander Adelbert Ames, he learnt quickly the ways of being a soldier through sheer dedication and observation and was soon put in charge of a whole regiment in 1862. The 20th Regiment was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps in the Union Army of the Potomac.
The 20th Maine fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg, which proved to be a demoralizing failure to the Union. The remaining months of 1862 went uneventful.
He was appointed as Colonel of his regiment and they were immediately drawn into a battle on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, one of the major battles of his career.
In 1864, he commanded his brigade during the Battle of Spotsylvania and the battle at Bethesda Church. The same year, he was appointed as the commander of the 1st Division’s new 1st Brigade of Pennsylvania regiments. As the new commander, he once again fought a valiant battle at Rives’ Salient, but was gravely wounded in this battle.
He was promoted to Brigadier General on the battlefield, given to him by General Ulysses Grant.
He was nearly taken as a captive in 1865 during the war against the Confederates. For his outstanding leadership skills and bravery despite being wounded once again, he was promoted as Major General by President Lincoln. The same year, the Union had another significant victory during the ‘Battle of Five Forks’.
After the war ended, the Union Army of Potomac held a grand assessment wherein, Chamberlain and the soldiers who lost their lives in the war were honored. Once the war ended, he returned to a normal civilian life.
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He earned an honorary doctor of law degree from Pennsylvania College and one from Bowdoin in 1866 and 1869, respectively and went on to teach at college. However, he did not find his job interesting which was unlike his exciting life on the battlefield.
He decided to join politics in 1866 and was elected as the Governor of Maine, a position he served for four terms, concluding his last term four years later in 1870.
In 1871, he returned to Bowdoin College and was elected as President of Bowdoin by the deputies of his college. During his time as the President, he introduced relatively unheard-of and ostracized ideas at the college and when he realized that he could not bring about much change, he quit the post in 1883. In between this time, he was also elected as military commander of the state.
In the final years of his life, he engaged in a number of business projects and wrote about his experiences at war. One such publication titled, ‘The Passing of the Armies’ was authored by Chamberlain and was published a year after his death.
In 1863, Chamberlain made a decisive call during the Battle of Gettysburg, which saved the army, when they decided to attack, leading to a victory. Despite a number of the Union soldiers being mutilated and regardless of being given orders to not give away the Union’s position by Colonel Vincent, he took the decision to counterattack anyway. It was after this major decision, the Unions achieved victory, led by Chamberlain, following which he was given the command of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, Fifth Corps. He recounts his experiences at Gettysburg in his book ‘Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He fell in love with Frances (Fanny) Caroline Adams who was a member of the church choir. She was three years his senior and they got married in 1855.
The couple had five children - one died early and two died in infancy.
He was extremely kind and compassionate towards fellow soldiers and took personal attention to make sure that the personal possessions of the dead were sent back home.
He suffered from severe malarial fever during a battle and suffered from several wounds during his countless battles.
He passed away after succumbing to persistent war wounds and was interred at Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine.
His legacy is a long and interesting one. His house has been converted into the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum and is currently maintained by the Pejepscot Historical Society.
The village of Chamberlain in the town of Bristol is named after him.
In 2013, the original Medal of Honor which was presented to Chamberlain was contributed to the Pejepscot Historical Society.
He has been mentioned countless times in popular culture, media and writings.