By Tom Lamia
The small gathering of Mainers on an inlet facing the open Atlantic near me bears the name of a Civil War General of great fame. A Medal of Honor winner and mild-mannered professor, Joshua Chamberlain did as much to preserve the Union and define grace in victory as well as courage in battle as any individual soldier in the course of that terrible War. As I pondered the likely origins of Chamberlain, Maine, I was struck by the understatement of having a small seaside village named after such a giant figure in Maine history. I looked into it.
Chamberlain is roughly three miles as the crow flies (and many do) from my house in South Bristol. It is directly across John’s Bay and over the Pemaquid Peninsula to its spot on the open Atlantic. Chamberlain is a place of quiet beauty with a natural breakwater that shelters its cove. The local area is a tourist destination that offers spectacular views of offshore islands and crashing seas. New Harbor, just to the south, is a small commercial center built around a finger of the sea protruding into the rocky shore and forming a protected harbor for the lobster boats of those who live in houses ringing the harbor. New Harbor is also the embarkation point for ferry access to Monhegan Island. The ferry carries visitors and residents to Monhegan’s colony of working artists seeking to do credit on canvas to the scenes of sea, sky, landscape, and off-the-grid life of the island.
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park lies a mile or so farther south, at the tip of the Pemaquid Peninsula. The lighthouse is the centerpiece of photos and paintings seen in the gift shops and galleries nearby. With patient research, however, I found no evidence that General Chamberlain was the progenitor of the village that bears his surname. Neither did I find evidence to the contrary.
Joshua Chamberlain was what I consider a true patriot: a volunteer soldier, a loyal and talented citizen, a scholar and, most importantly, a leader in all that he did, most of which was in public service to his state and his country. In August, 1862, at age 34, a newly appointed Professor of Modern Languages at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (he spoke nine languages in addition to English), with no military experience, he appealed to Maine’s Governor, Israel Washburn, for leave to recruit and lead volunteer troops for the Union Army. His pitch included the disarmingly honest statement that he knew little of military affairs, but what he did not know he was willing to learn.
Governor Washburn granted Chamberlain’s request to recruit a regiment of volunteers from among his coastal Maine neighbors. In recognition of his inexperience as a soldier, Chamberlain declined a commission as Colonel in command of these troops (he preferred “to start a little lower and learn the business first”). In August 1862, he accepted a commission as Lt. Colonel and second in command of Maine’s 20th Volunteer Regiment, which under the command of Col. Adelbert Ames, soon set off for Virginia and the Battle of Fredericksburg where it saw its first action in early 1863. There were battle casualties and smallpox infections that kept the regiment out of the battle at Chancellorsville in May. In June, Ames was promoted and Chamberlain became Colonel in command as the 20th Maine arrived at Gettysburg. That great battle began on July 1, 1863. Chamberlain’s troops were assigned to protect the Union Army’s left flank at Little Round Top, where they stood firm against Rebel charges until their ammunition ran out. Chamberlain then ordered, “fix bayonets” and a downhill charge into the enemy, winning the day and the battle.
Maine became a state in 1820 (the Missouri Compromise, as you no doubt remember). Chamberlain and his recruits had been formed into a unit of the Army of the Potomac. Their homes and families were about as far from the theater of war in and around the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., as was possible in 1863. Moreover, Maine was mostly a rural backwater with a small population and a struggling economy. With draft riots soon to break out in New York City over opposition to the war, it is worth mentioning that Chamberlain’s appeal to Governor Washburn included these words: “I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery.”
The enemy at Gettysburg was, of course, the Army of the Confederacy, the defenders of secession and champions of its institution of slavery. Chamberlain and the Maine Volunteers fought under the Union banner of the Stars and Stripes. The Confederate Army flag was the Stars and Bars. Over 600,000 lost their lives in the course of the Civil War. There was bravery on both sides, and a toll of horrible proportions in all parts of the American landscape affected by the battles. Soldiers and Generals alike were killed in the many battles for strategic advantage, perhaps none greater in casualties or strategic importance than Gettysburg.
Chamberlain having said that he was “willing to learn” to be a commanding officer sounds ridiculously Pollyannaish today. Apart from his courage in leading his troops at Little Round Top, (for which he won the Medal of Honor), in the course of the War, Chamberlain was wounded eight times and had six horses shot out from under him. He was promoted on the battlefield to Major General after being grievously wounded and not expected to live more than a few hours. Of course, he did survive. On the day of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, General Grant conferred General Chamberlain the honor of commanding the Union Army at the surrender ceremonies. He is remembered for ordering his troops to “Present Arms” and for the band to play “Dixie” to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the defeated Confederates as they filed past.
On return to civilian life, Chamberlain went back to Bowdoin College to teach and subsequently to become its President. Later he was elected Governor of Maine four times. In 1914, at age 85, after fifty years of pain and disability he died from his war wounds. He was the last battle casualty of the Civil War.
Chamberlain was a true patriot. He fought and died for his state, and for his country and its flag. Those Confederate troops that he honored at War’s end were also true patriots; they had a flag and a country for which they fought, as Chamberlain recognized by his respectful treatment on the day of their surrender.
Those who now use the Stars and Bars to identify individual causes whether youthful rebellion or organized hostility to their country or its government, are not entitled to the honor given to those who fought for the Confederacy. They accepted their rebellion as an act of treason against the United States. They were traitors, as they well understood. They accepted their fate as a defeated army and conquered nation. That nation ceased to exist with its Army’s defeat, as did its institution of slavery. Homage to the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy is the antithesis of true patriotism and those doing so have no claim to be true American patriots. Such actions are the mark of anarchism, racial hatred, vigilantism and illegal use of force to subjugate peoples and beliefs entitled to the protection of the United States of America and its Constitution.