Friday, 1 April 2011

Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Man for Perilous Times

Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1828-1914

By Alan O'Reilly

American Civil War General Joshua L. Chamberlain was the kind of man who could “stand in the gap before me for the land” Ezekiel 22:30. The UK, the US and the Old Dominions all need such men today. God’s people should pray that He raises them up in these “perilous times” 2 Timothy 3:1

“This is the great reward of service, to live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of Christ, - to give life’s best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal” – Joshua L. Chamberlain


A fascinating leader to emerge from the Ken Burns series The Civil War was Lieutenant Colonel, later Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an academic and theologian from Bowdoin College, Maine. Aged 34, he accepted a commission to command the 20th Maine Vol. Infantry in 1862 and served with distinction at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg (he was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1893 for service at Gettysburg), Petersburg and Five Forks. General Grant accorded him the honour of receiving the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Here Chamberlain made the unforgettable and honourable gesture of a parade ground salute to the defeated enemy, returned according to military courtesy by General John B. Gordon, the Confederate commander.

Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Chamberlain’s detailed biography may be found in the book by Alice Rains Trulock, entitled In the Hands of Providence, available from Amazon. Although largely focussing on his war service and subsequent career, Trulock’s work unequivocally reveals that Chamberlain was a committed Christian with a resilient faith that sustained him through the worst of the Civil War. An overview of Chamberlain’s life and service follows.

Highest Point

Perhaps the highest point of Chamberlain’s career was his selection by General U.S. Grant to receive the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House on April 12th, 1865. This event, described in Chapter 10 of Trulock’s book, entitled The Passing of the Armies graphically illustrates the kind of officer and gentleman that Chamberlain was. With the Southern Army drawn up facing his troops, Chamberlain ordered his command to execute the “carry arms,” the old marching salute. The scene is summarised well by Dupuy and Dupuy in The Compact History of the Civil War, p 413:
“[The ranks] of the proud army were so thin and few that the succession of regimental and battle flags gave the appearance of being massed...a single Union bugle blared an order. Dejected Gordon raised his head on hearing the familiar slap and rattle as the blue-coated regiments shifted their arms to the marching salute. His back straightened, his saber came up and then down in smart precision. As Chamberlain’s blade flickered to return the salute, Gordon’s voice rang down his own ranks. “Carry arms!” Bent heads lifted, sloping muskets snapped from straightened shoulders to the marching salute. And thus the Army of Northern Virginia passed, in silence broken only by the splat-splat-splat of marching feet in mud. “Not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum,” wrote Chamberlain later; “not a cheer nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying...but an awed silence rather, and breath-taking, as it were the passing of the dead.””
According to Trulock, p 309, Chamberlain reflected on “the terrible memories of past battles” and wondered “How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!”

Terrible Memories

These thoughts had been in his mind in the aftermath of the battle of Quaker Road, near Five Forks, March 29th, 1865, an important victory for the Union, though dearly won. Chamberlain’s command alone suffered over 400 casualties, Trulock p 241. Lewis farmhouse, near the battlefield, had been turned into a makeshift field hospital and was crowded with wounded from both sides. Reflecting on the plight of the Rebel wounded, “lonely and helpless in the hands of their enemies” Chamberlain was particularly concerned that they be cared for. “Indeed,” he thought, “in the hour of sorrow and disaster, do we not all belong to each other?” His evident compassion prompted the wounded General Sickel to declare “General, you have the soul of the lion and the heart of the woman.” According to Trulock, “Chamberlain...asked Sickel to take the remark as his own description.” Outside, the rain poured down all night, gradually turning to snow. Off-duty pickets “snatched a few hours of exhausted sleep, the trees their only shelter.”

For Chamberlain, “the terrible memories” had begun on December 13th 1862 with the costly attack at Fredericksburg, p 100ff. Three days later the defeated Federals retreated by night through the shattered town, past those slain by the Confederate counter fire of the first day. “The ghastly dead lay” remembered one Union officer “with their pale faces turned toward heaven, while their open eyes, as a stream of moonlight fell athwart their faces, glared at one as if staring from another world.”

Disaster of a different kind struck Chamberlain’s regiment, the 20th Maine, in April 1863, p 110. Its men were inadvertently inoculated against smallpox with a defective vaccine, which caused eighty cases of the disease to develop and resulted in several deaths. The regiment was quarantined, while the rest of the Army of the Potomac marched off to the battle of Chancellorsville. Beside himself with frustration after hearing the cannonading for two successive days, Chamberlain urged, unsuccessfully, that his regiment be sent to the front. “If we couldn’t do anything else, we could give the enemy the smallpox!” he insisted.

Greatest Triumph

The defence of the Round Tops at Gettysburg on July 2nd 1863 was Chamberlain’s greatest triumph in the war, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honour, though many years later, in 1893, Trulock, p 367. Harry Hansen, in The Civil War p 378-379, notes that on the approach to the Round Tops, the features on the extreme left of and overlooking the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, “shells...began crashing amongst the boulders.” Riding in the van of the 20th Maine with his two younger brothers, Tom and John, Chamberlain said “Boys, I don’t like this. Another...shot might make it hard for mother.” He therefore split the trio up, assigning separate duties to each of the others.

The battle for the vital features raged throughout the glaring heat of the July afternoon “with exhaustion and terrible losses...taking a great toll on both sides,” Trulock p 146-147. Chamberlain, disdainful of personal danger, stood conspicuously on top of a large boulder so that he could control the action. Trulock writes “A Confederate from the Fifteenth Alabama...drew bead on Chamberlain...but something - a strange feeling - caused him to stop. Puzzled and impatient with himself, he tried again to squeeze the trigger but could not. Finally, he gave it up, and this perilous moment in Chamberlain’s life passed, all unknown to him.” By then, friend and foe - and their ammunition - were nearly spent. It was a fearful scene. Colonel Oates, in command of the Alabama regiment recalled that “the blood stood in puddles on the rocks.”

As I recall from the episode in Ken Burns’ documentary, Chamberlain had made this exhortation before the battle. “The opportunity to decide the issue, when all hangs in the balance, comes to men but once a century. Be steady, you men from Maine.” The defenders took these sentiments to heart. They were victorious.

Greatest Trial

Chamberlain’s greatest trial was to come almost a year later, in a desperate frontal attack on Petersburg, June 18th 1864, Trulock p 208ff. “Many cannon belched forth exploding shells, case shot, and whirring deadly canister. Bullets darkened the air as acrid black smoke filled the lungs of the advancing soldiers [running] into the shadowed valley, now a maelstrom of death...torn and furrowed with shot and shell, the earth shook with artillery concussion.” Directing his men to “oblique to the left” Chamberlain was hit. “The soft lead bullet entered below Chamberlain’s right hip and went through his body...[to] the left hip before stopping near the surface.” With great presence of mind, so that his men would not falter at seeing him go down, he dug his sword point into the ground and rested his weight on the hilt so that he stood upright while his men passed on into the battle “the expressions on [their] faces...impressed forever into his memory.” Then he collapsed, first onto one knee, then on both, then falling prone, blood soaking his trousers. “I am not of Virginia’s blood,” he said afterwards, “she is of mine.”

Word went back to the artillery lines in the rear that the brigade commander “was down and seriously wounded.” Captain John Bigelow of the 9th Maine Artillery sent forward a stretcher party that miraculously found Chamberlain. He urged the gunners to tend to others. One of them replied “You are not in command, sir. Captain Bigelow’s order to us was to bring you back, and that is what we must do.”

Chamberlain was taken to the division hospital, Trulock p 214-215. A private of the 143rd Pennsylvania lay on an operating table awaiting amputation of his leg. “He heard Chamberlain ask to be laid to one side, saying that he was all right and they should take care of his boys.” Instead, the surgeons gave priority to Chamberlain, though on inspection of his wound, they thought he would not survive. The bullet “had torn through his whole body from right thigh to left hip, severing blood vessels, nicking the urethra and bladder, and crushing bone before it stopped.” Nevertheless, they worked on him all night, though stopping at one point because of his terrible pain. He urged them to continue but in the cold light of dawn, believing death was near, he pencilled a short note to his wife and children:

Great Testimony

“My darling wife I am lying mortally wounded the doctors think but my mind & heart are at peace Jesus Christ is my all-sufficient savior. I go to him. God bless & keep & comfort you, precious one, you have been a precious wife to me. To know & love you makes life & death beautiful. Cherish the darlings & give my love to all the dear ones. Do not grieve too much for me. We shall all soon meet Live for the children Give my dearest love to Father, mother & Sally and John Oh how happy to feel yourself forgiven God bless you evermore precious, precious one Ever yours Lawrence”

Chamberlain’s note is a great testimony of peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. The title of Trulock’s chapter on Chamberlain at Petersburg is that of her book; In the Hands of Providence. The title is fitting, for all who seek to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.


alanorei said...

Thank you, Sarah

I trust that General Chamberlain proves to be an inspiration, whatever anyone's views on the war itself.

Men like him are needed now to prevent this country (England) from being fragmented e.g. into 9 EU regions.

Dazza said...

This is very interesting, he is one of the Civil war generals I know very little about, and he seems to have been one of the very few honourable ones.

alanorei said...

Thank you, Dazza

I believe that Chamberlain was a man of honour - a quality signally lacking in our national leaders today.

Dr.D said...

Thank you, Alan. Seem to have been a decent sort, for a Yankee, unlike Grant, Sherman, and a number of others.

Anonymous said...

Here is another great American General.

PamelaG said...

When you compare the leaders from the past, in so many areas, politics, religion, the military, with those we have today, the realisation of what we have lost is terrifying.

There are almost no great men left

alanorei said...

Dear Pamela and Dr D

Thank you for your kind comments.

The South had the unenviable distinction of being about the first nation in the world to suffer the effects of what became known in modern times as Total War.

An excellent overview, taking into consideration the spiritual/religious dimension as well as the political/military dimension is to be found in What Hath God Wrought! by KJB Independent Baptist pastor Dr William P. Grady, ISBN 0-9628809-2-2, Chapters XIV, XV. On pp 316-317, Dr Grady includes the following:

"General Schofield wrote Grant from the South about the "absolute unfitness of the negroes as a class," and their belief that freedom means "they are to live in idleness and be fed by the government"...

"The brief era of carpetbag-Negro rule in the South did not make for many precious memories. "Such a Saturnalia of robbery and jobbery," wrote Lord Bryce concerning these times, "has seldom been seen in any civilised country, and certainly never before under the forms of free self-government.""

I think it is now being seen again in the US and the UK via the government aided and abetted anarchy resulting in large part from unrestricted immigration.

Present-day degeneration via 'enrichment' was mirrored in the South after 1865 by what was called 'reconstruction.'

The nation wreckers always have a word for it.

Like I said in the comment about Rhodesia, same crew, same objective, same tactics, just a different set of victims.

Mercifully, the South survived. The future is uncertain for the US and the UK.

Ronbo said...

Reading about the U.S. Civil War these days makes me wonder if a Second U.S. Civil War is waiting in the wings?

Like then, America is a nation divided between two factions who detest one another and wish the other side gone.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. It is a fascinating part of history, although a very tragic one

alanorei said...

Thank you, Anon.

Yes, a tragic part of history that has cast a long shadow, to this day. Ken Burns said as much when he described the making of his documentary.

Two Civil War soldiers often quoted in the series were Elisha Hunt Rhodes, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers and Sam Watkins, 1st Tennessee.

Rhodes was a New England Baptist who was a lineal descendant of the well-known early Baptist minister Roger Williams. Watkins was from Columbia Tennessee and became a Christian believer after the war, largely through the influence of his wife Jennie.

Rhodes's book All for the Union and Watkins's account Company H are well worth reading, harrowing at times of course.

Dr.D said...

One of the fairly likely scenarios is a division of the US between those who want a free-market, capitalist society and those who want a socialist society. Such a division of the land may well be accompanied by a second civil war simply because there is no easy division of the real estate to accomplish such an end. It will in all likelihood be at least as bloody as the first civil war.

alanorei said...

All too likely, I fear, Dr D

Such a conflict will no doubt be aggravated by unrestricted Hispanic immigration that has led to considerable aggressiveness by the incomers against the host population of western European ancestry, spilling over into violence.

Many young Hispanics are of course organised into the notorious MS-13 gangs that control, I believe, large suburban areas on the West Coast.

The future does not seem to bode well at all for stability in the US.