I want to take a brief moment tonight to think about the heart, soul and morality of a soldier, scholar and theologian, Colonel, later Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top and certainly a man whose actions as commanding officer of the 20th Maine Regiment at Gettysburg helped preserve the Union.
After the war Chamberlain spoke of the battle often. One of his most famous quotes is a testament to his humanity and integrity.
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
Chamberlain was a graduate of Bowdoin College and Bangor Theological Seminary, fluent in 9 languages other than English. He was Professor of Rhetoric at Bowdoin before seeking an appointment in a Maine Regiment without consulting either the college or his family. He was offered command of the 20th Maine but asked to be appointed as a Lieutenant Colonel which he was in August 1862. He fought at Fredericksburg and was named commander of the regiment when Colonel Ames, his commander was promoted following Chancellorsville.
Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor at Little Round Top in 1893. He was gravely wounded during the siege of Petersburg in June of 1864 while commanding a brigade and promoted to Brigadier General. He returned to duty later in the year as commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division V Corps and was again wounded at Petersburg in a skirmish at Quaker Road and was promoted to Brevet Major General by Abraham Lincoln. Chamberlain received the surrender of Lee’s decimated Army if Northern Virginia. He would go on to serve as a four term Governor of Maine and remained active with the Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s organization, remained active as an educator and President of Bowdoin College and founded the Maine Institute for the Blind which is now known as the Iris Foundation. He died of his wartime wounds on February 24th 1914.
As the 20th Maine, tired from fighting off numerous assaults by attacking Confederates and now out of ammunition saw another wave of Confederates come up the slopes of Little Round Top Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and execute a right wheel. The move caught the advancing Rebels who were sensing victory by complete surprise. Chamberlain wrote in his official report of the battle:
“The enemy seemed to have gathered all their energies for their final assault. We had gotten our thin line into as good a shape as possible, when a strong force emerged from the scrub wood in the valley, as well as I could judge, in two lines in echelon by the right, and, opening a heavy fire, the first line came on as if they meant to sweep everything before them. We opened on them as well as we could with our scanty ammunition snatched from the field.
It did not seem possible to withstand another shock like this now coming on. Our loss had been severe. One-half of my left wing had fallen, and a third of my regiment lay just behind us, dead or badly wounded. At this moment my anxietv was increased by a great rbar of musketry in my rear, on the farther or northerly slope of Little Round Top, apparently on the flank of the regular brigade, which was in support or Hazlett’s battery on the crest behind us. The bullets from this attack struck into my left rear, and I feared that the enemy might have nearly surrounded the Little Round Top, and only a desperate chance was left for us. My ammunition was soon exhausted. My men were firing their last shot and getting ready to “club” their muskets.
It was imperative to strike before we were struck by this overwhelming force in a hand-to-hand fight, which we could not probably have withstood or survived. At that crises, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward on the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended “right wheel,” before which the enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.”
The successful defense of Little Round Top by Chamberlain’s gallant 20th Maine as well as the other regiment’s of Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade saved the Army of the Potomac from being enveloped by the Confederate right wing and defeated in detail. Such a defeat very probably would have given the peace party in the North the leverage that they needed to change the political calculus and end the war, giving the Confederacy independence and destroying the Union.
Though he was a valiant soldier Chamberlain was thoughtful and never lost his sense of honor, integrity or Christian morality in the war. Perhaps it was his education or upbringing. Perhaps it was ideals that were so much a part of his psyche that no matter where he served, or how great the sacrifice and suffering that he still kept his essential humanity. Even in victory he maintained a magnanimous spirit towards former enemies when they surrendered.
As the war drew to a close and Chamberlain continued to lead troops in mortal combat in the campaign at Petersburg and Appomattox Chamberlain saw much that caused to to ask hard questions. With friends lying dead and dying around following the Battle at the Quaker Road on March 30th 1865 Chamberlain pondered:
“But we had with us, to keep and care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men–men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call t?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”
I think that we have a lot to learn from Joshua Chamberlain. His question at the Quaker Road is one that anyone leading nations, or military units into the valley of the shadow of death need to ask, especially when the war or conflict is waged “in the name of God” whoever’s God it might be. All too often evil done in the name of the Almighty is blessed by the Trinity of Evil, the Preacher, Pundits and Politicians who use being on the side of God to justify the basest evil and inhuman deeds. But then maybe it is only the rare man like Chamberlain who can see through the darkness and still discern the “divine spark” in a man.
As Chamberlain received the surrender of the units of the Army of Northern Virginia he paid the bedraggled but still proud Confederates the honor of a salute. One Rebel General said to him “You astonish us by your honorable and generous conduct. I fear we should not have done the same by you had the case been reversed.” Another commented “I went into that cause and I meant it. We had our choice of weapons and of ground, and we have lost. Now” pointing at the Stars and Stripes “that is my flag, and I will prove myself as worthy as any of you ” (Soul of the Lion: A Biography of General Joshua L. Chamberlain. by Willard M Wallace, Thomas Nelson and Sons, New York 1960. Reprinted 1991 by Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg PA. p.190)
May we all learn to find that divine spark before it is too late.