Skip to main content


Hero of the 20th

June 2024
6min read

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.”

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.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.