- Historic Sites
Hero Of The 20th
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
Chamberlain always retained his respect for the men against whom he had fought so hard, and he never claimed to know whether God had wished for war. “Was it God’s command we heard,” he once asked, “or His forgiveness we must forever implore?” But he was always clear about which side had brought God’s wrath upon itself once the fighting started: “Slavery and freedom cannot live together. Had slavery been kept out of the fight, the Union would have gone down. But the enemies of the country were so misguided as to rest their cause upon it, and that was the destruction of it and of them. We did not go into that fight to strike at slavery directly; we were not thinking to solve that problem, but God, in His providence, in His justice, in His mercy, in His great covenant with our fathers, set slavery in the forefront, and it was swept aside as with a whirlwind, when the mighty pageant of the people passed on to its triumph.”
Chamberlain emerged from the fighting a hero. In 1866 he was elected governor of Maine by the largest majority in the state’s history, and he went on to serve four terms. But his greatest contribution to the stability of his state came after he left the governor’s office. The 1880 gubernatorial race pitted a Republican candidate against the joint nominee of the Democratic and Greenback Labor parties. The campaign was bitter and violent, the count close. Both sides claimed victory. With Maine close to anarchy, the outgoing governor turned to Chamberlain, as head of the state militia, to keep the peace until the state supreme court could settle the issue. As always, the general took his duties seriously: the offices of the governor and his council were sealed, their records secured. Each side accused him of favoring the other. He paid no attention. Partisan newspapers demanded his arrest, even his assassination.
Finally an armed and ugly crowd stormed into the capitol, threatening to shoot him. Chamberlain met them in the rotunda. “Men,” he called out, “you wished to kill me, I hear. Killing is no new thing to me. I have offered myself to be killed many times, when I no more deserved it than I do now.…It is for me to see that the laws of this state are put into effect, without fraud, without force, but with calm thought and sincere purpose. I am here for that, and I shall do it. If anybody wants to kill me for it, here I am. Let him kill!”
“Men,” he called out, “you wished to kill me, I hear. Killing is no new thing to me. I have offered myself to be killed many times…”
Chamberlain opened his coat and waited. A Civil War veteran pushed to the front of the crowd. “By God, old General,” he shouted, “the first man that dares to lay a hand on you, I’ll kill him on the spot.”
The mob melted away. The supreme court eventually decided in favor of the Republicans. Chamberlain had won still another victory.
He suffered just one serious defeat in his long life. In 1871 Chamberlain assumed the presidency of his old college. He added a scientific department over the protests of those who feared religion would be undermined by it, and he set out to treat the students as responsible gentlemen rather than untrustworthy boys. “Great things are coming on … ,” he assured the students. “Be ready. God is before us as well as behind. Nations are borne onward to their destiny.”
America’s destiny, Chamberlain believed, was sure to include further wars, and when the federal government made drill instructors available to any college interested in having them, he eagerly accepted. Every student was to participate. Drill was “splendid exercise for the body,” one student wrote home, “tending to make one erect and strong and of easy carriage.” But soon upperclassmen began to complain about all the time drilling was taking away from their studies, and when Chamberlain decreed that every student was to buy himself a six-dollar uniform, the campus revolted. Drills were disrupted. Juniors voted never to drill again. So did the freshmen and sophomores.
Chamberlain ordered the rebels off the campus; if they did not return within ten days, ready to obey all the rules—including the drill requirement—they would be expelled. Most made it back in time, promising to obey the rules, but drill was soon made voluntary and eventually done away with altogether. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had been beaten by an army of unruly schoolboys.
In 1883 complications arising from his old wound forced him to resien his post and spend winters in Florida. He came North whenever his health permitted and attended reunions of his old regiment. When an author asked him for a first-person account of the action that had won him the Medal of Honor, Chamberlain declined, not wishing to appear immodest. “It would be impossible for you to say anything … that would savor of boasting,” the writer responded, “for your record as a brave soldier is so well known that self praise would necessarily fall far below what those who remember the dark days know to be true of you.”