Hero Of The 20th

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There is something irresistible about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the soft-spoken, be-spectacled Bowdoin College professor who somehow transformed himself into one of the Union Army’s ablest commanders. He was one of the protagonists in Michael Shaara’s vivid novel about Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, and the real hero of John J. Pullen’s fine history of Chamberlain’s regiment, The Twentieth Maine, and when Ken and Ric Burns and I were working on the script for the PBS series The Civil War, he was among the soldiers whose exploits we followed most eagerly.

Now he is the subject of a solid new biography, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua Chamberlain and the American Civil War, by the late Alice Rains Trulock (University of North Carolina Press, 569 pages, $34.95). I confess that I began it with some trepidation, concerned that our admiring portrait of him might somehow have been overdrawn, that a persistent biographer would have turned up flaws in a character that had seemed to us astonishingly consistent. I needn’t have worried. Chamberlain was just as impressive as we thought he was—and more interesting.

To begin with, when the war began, he was not quite so ill prepared for combat as we had supposed. He was, after all, a veteran of six bitter years of battling with his Bowdoin colleagues over the small rewards afforded by academia. He had dared to develop an innovative way of teaching rhetoric that seems only to have irritated other members of the faculty, and he had reluctantly agreed to abandon that subject in 1862, in exchange for an appointment as professor of romance languages that carried with it the promise of a two-year leave of absence to travel in Europe. Then he resolved to forgo both the leave and the stipend that went with it to enlist in his country’s service. His fellow professors violently objected, not because they feared for their colleague’s life but because if he failed to return, the vacancy might be filled by some stranger whose Congregationalism would prove less orthodox than theirs. They first warned Chamberlain of the dangers he faced, and when he could not be terrified into staying home, they tried to scuttle his appointment as lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine. Chamberlain was “no fighter,” one told the governor; another writer claimed he was “ nothing at all.”

 

He got in anyway, and never looked back. He commanded his troops in twenty-four full-scale battles, led them on eight reconnaissances and through so many skirmishes that his latest biographer was unable to provide an authoritative tally. It was his courage and quick thinking—and that of his men—that held Little Round Top for the Union on the second day at Gettysburg and won him the Medal of Honor. Over the course of the war, men under his command took twenty-seven hundred prisoners and seized eight battle flags, and Chamberlain himself survived six separate woundings. The worst was suffered as he tried to rally his men during the first, hopeless assault on Petersburg on June 18, 1864; a ricocheting minié ball smashed through his left thigh and lodged just beneath the skin of his left hip, severing arteries, piercing his bladder, mangling his genitals. Told Chamberlain would surely die, U. S. Grant himself broke precedent and promoted him to full brigadier general, the first time he ever so honored a soldier in the whole course of the war.

Chamberlain’s wound never really healed—he lived in incessant pain from it for the rest of his life and would eventually die of its infection in 1914—but he somehow rallied and within five weeks was back fighting alongside his men. “I owe the country Three years service,” he told his anxious parents. “And I am not scared or hurt enough yet to be willing to face to the rear, when other men are marching to the front.”

On March 29, 1865, at the Battle of the Quaker Road, a minié ball pierced his horse’s neck, tore through his left arm, then smashed into his chest just beneath the heart. A folded sheaf of orders and a pocket mirror backed with brass saved his life, but the ball still had enough force to spin round his torso, rip through the seam of his coat, and knock from his saddle the aide riding next to him. Chamberlain slumped into momentary unconsciousness. But when he came to and saw that his men had started to buckle under the intense Rebel fire, he insisted on riding up and down the lines, waving his sword and urging his men to hold. They did, while cheering their bloodied commander—whose courage so impressed the Confederates that they began to cheer him too.

They would feel like cheering him again less than two weeks later, when Grant gave him the honor of receiving the formal surrender of Gen. John B. Gordon and the Army of Northern Virginia. When the two generals sat on their horses, side by side, and the defeated Rebels began marching past to stack their arms and turn over their battle flags, Gordon gratefully remembered that Chamberlain saw to it that his army “gave [them] a soldierly salute … a token of respect from Americans to Americans.”