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Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrencelocked

(08 September 1828–24 February 1914)
  • Brooks D. Simpson

Joshua L. Chamberlain.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-1859).

Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence (08 September 1828–24 February 1914), soldier, politician, and educator, was born in Brewer, Maine, the son of Joshua Chamberlain, a farmer and shipbuilder, and Sarah Dupee Brastow. After attending a military academy in Ellsworth, Chamberlain entered Bowdoin College in 1848, graduating in 1852. Three years later, after graduating from the Bangor Theological Seminary, he joined Bowdoin’s faculty and taught a broad range of subjects, including logic, natural theology, rhetoric, oratory, and modern languages. In 1855 he married Frances Caroline Adams; of the couple’s five children, three survived to adulthood.

Chamberlain’s initial efforts to enlist in the Union army at the outbreak of the American Civil War met resistance from Bowdoin faculty and administrators. Finally, he secured a leave from Bowdoin, ostensibly to study abroad, but instead he volunteered for military service. He was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Twentieth Maine Infantry on 8 August 1862. Joining the Army of the Potomac on the eve of Antietam, Chamberlain participated in the battles of Shepherdstown Ford and Fredericksburg, where he was wounded, and won promotion to colonel and regimental command on 20 May 1863. At Gettysburg, on 2 July 1863, Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine were directed to hold the extreme left flank of the Army of the Potomac, resting on Little Round Top. The colonel’s able defense of this position played a significant role in turning back the Confederate assault, and in 1893 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his personal heroism. Wounded during the battle, Chamberlain remained with his command until repeated attacks of malaria forced him to take medical leave from November 1863 to May 1864. Rejoining his regiment during the battle of Spotsylvania, Chamberlain was soon elevated to the command of a brigade, and he fought in the battles of the North Anna and Cold Harbor. On 18 June 1864 he was seriously wounded while leading an assault on the Petersburg fortifications, winning a battlefield promotion to brigadier general from Ulysses S. Grant. After recovering from his wounds, Chamberlain played a prominent role as a brigade commander in the Appomattox campaign, suffering yet another wound, and he commanded the Union forces designated to accept the formal surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on 12 April 1865. His service during this final campaign earned him the brevet rank of major general of volunteers, a fitting coda to his distinguished military record.

Refusing a commission in the regular army, Chamberlain retired in 1866 with the brevet rank of major general. Returning to Maine, he joined the Republican party and that fall won the first of four consecutive terms as governor (1867–1870). During his tenure in the governor’s mansion he resisted measures to enforce state liquor laws, claiming that they infringed upon individuals’ constitutional rights, and aroused controversy when he enforced capital punishment. In 1871 he returned to Bowdoin as its president, a position he held until 1883. During his dozen years in office he pressed for curriculum reform, especially in the areas of natural science and modern languages, with some success. His efforts to introduce mandatory military drill to the student body met with more resistance and less success. Appointed as a professor of philosophy, he taught several subjects, even after retiring as president. During his tenure as president he served as a U.S. commissioner to the Paris Exposition of 1878. As major general of the state militia, he was instrumental in keeping the peace during the disputed state election of 1879, when an alliance between Democrats and Greenbackers challenged election returns and threatened the Republican control of the governorship and legislature, resulting in an armed confrontation between the factions in January 1880. His refusal to recognize the claims of either party promoted a peaceful resolution of the crisis but effectively curtailed his future in Maine’s Republican party. In 1885 he resigned his professorate as lecturer in political science and public law at Bowdoin, bringing to an end an academic career during which he had taught every subject except mathematics and physical science.

After his retirement from Bowdoin, Chamberlain became involved in a number of business enterprises interested in construction, transportation, and development, most notably as president of a Florida land development company (1885–1892). At the same time he pursued various cultural and literary interests, serving as president of the Institute for Artists and Artisans, writing and compiling essays on topics ranging from the Civil War to education, and delivering public addresses. Active in veterans’ organizations, he served as president of the Society of the Army of the Potomac (1889), wrote extensively on his military experiences, and took special pains to commemorate the actions of the Twentieth Maine at Little Round Top. In 1900 he was appointed surveyor of the port of Portland, Maine. He died in Portland.


Chamberlain’s papers are at the Library of Congress, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, and the Maine Historical Society in Portland, Maine. Several of his orations and addresses were published in pamphlet form, but his account of the Appomattox campaign, The Passing of the Armies (1915), remains his most lasting contribution to literature. More recently, a collection of his essays appeared under the title of “Bayonet! Forward”: My Civil War Reminiscences (1994). Willard M. Wallace, Soul of the Lion: A Biography of General Joshua L. Chamberlain (1960), is the standard biography, but Alice Rains Trulock, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War (1992), offers a closer look at his military service. Also worth consulting are John J. Pullen, The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War (1957), a model unit history; and Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987), which includes an account of the fighting at Little Round Top.