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Survivor

May 2024
1min read

Our “ Readers ‘Album ” department in August, 1978, featured a baremidriff ed photograph of Union Major General Henry A. Barnum, who lived a long and successful life despite a bizarre Civil War wound that never healed. It reminded the late Bruce Catton of another wounded Union soldier whose story is perhaps even more remarkable and we asked him to write it up:

“They did have some tough characters in the Civil War, and sometimes the toughness developed in an unlikely place. Toughest of all, it may be, was General Joshua Chamberlain, who was mortally wounded in the fighting in front of Petersburg in 1864 but somehow carried the wound around with him for the better part of half a century, building a great career on what a modern army doctor would probably consider total disability.

“Chamberlain was from Maine, a professor of theology and modern languages at Bowdoin. He wanted to go to war, could not get a release from his campus obligations, took a sabbatical year to study in Europe, went instead to the governor of Maine and was made lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry. He was on his way.

“At Gettysburg he commanded the extreme-left-flank element and beat off a Confederate assault at Little Round Top that would have won the war for Robert E. Lee if it had succeeded. He served through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg campaigns, winning from U. S. Grant a battlefield promotion to brigadier general; winning also a bad abdominal wound that perforated the bladder and never did heal. He returned to action anyway, finished the campaign with distinction, and for reward was given command of the troops that accepted the surrender of Lee’s army. He scandalized fireeating patriots but gratified future generations by calling upon his troops to salute when the Confederates came sadly in to lay down their arms.

“War over, Chamberlain—who had been wounded six times in all—went back to Maine, with a silver tube in his innards and pain for a steady companion. He served four terms as governor of Maine, then became president of Bowdoin, wrote copiously, made many speeches—and finally, in 1914, succumbed to the wound received in 1864, thus becoming almost certainly the last Civil War soldier to die of wounds received in action.”

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