My Civil War Crush: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Yes, I like him despite that mustache.

The one fiction book I’d recommend for any history fanatic is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. An account of the Battle of Gettysburg from various perspectives, this is the work that introduced me to the ultimate warrior-poet of America: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

 

A college professor who taught himself Ancient Greek, Chamberlain was working at Bowdoin College in Maine when the Civil War erupted. In 1861 he asked for a leave of absence, ostensibly to study languages in Europe (because he needed to add one more to the list of ten—yes, ten—languages he already read fluently). Instead, he enlisted.

 

Chamberlain fought in one major battle prior to Gettysburg, a harrowing experience by his own account. He spent one freezing night on the battlefield, using the bodies of dead soldiers as a wall against the bullets…and also as a pillow to sleep. In that respect, his experience was not all that divergent from the average Civil War veteran.

 

The trial that made Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain came during the Battle of Gettysburg. Colonel of the 20th Maine, his regiment was assigned to protect the left flank of the Union line. Out-numbered and out-gunned, the regiment was soon buckling in on itself. Recognizing the dire straits they were in, Chamberlain took a risk. He executed a maneuver he had never seen or done—only read about in a book (one point for book nerds!). At his orders the regiment charged with their bayonets, swinging the line like a hinge. This action not only saved the flank, but led to the capture of over 100 soldiers.

 

Chamberlain continued to serve with distinction throughout the war—even though his death was mistakenly reported after receiving a major wound through the groin. (Really, you’d think any gunshot wound to the groin was major.) Chamberlain would use an early form of a catheter for the rest of his life—here’s a picture of a 19th century catheter.

 

In recognition for his actions, Chamberlain was selected to preside over the Confederate infantry parade during their formal surrender.

 

After all this, Chamberlain went back to Maine. He was elected Governor, and later President of Bowdoin College. He wrote a number of books, including a memoir of the Civil War (where most of this info is from). And, at age 85, he was the last surviving veteran to die from complications of wounds received during the war. Again, let me show you that picture of the 19th century catheter…which he wore for 50 years.

 

Chamberlain is my favorite because he dramatically proved the practical use of his book knowledge on a major stage (also, you have to have a will of steel to live with a catheter like that for half a century). I love the idea of the warrior-poet: the soldier who appreciates literature. This theme is extremely common in Japanese history, but less so in Western history. The other major American who comes to mind in this vein is Henry Knox in the Revolutionary War. Who are your favorite warrior-poets?

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    I am going to go way back in history and choose King David as my favorite warrior-poet.

    I am wondering if Archilochus is on your list of favorite warrior-poets.

    1. Larry Espana says:

      I would have to agree with that. I mean Psalms are pretty beautiful and he was quite a warrior. I served in the military but haven’t written any books yet so I can’t count. LOL.

    2. King David is an excellent choice.

      Archilochus is an entertaining lyric poet; I appreciate poets famous for their invective. But he was apparently a pretty wimpy soldier. The Spartan motto was “come back with your shield or on it.” Archilochus dumped his shield in fleeing battle, according to one poem!

  2. Jeff says:

    Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt.
    Thanks for representing all of us bibliophiles on TV!

    1. Yes, Churchill actually wrote a novel. Called Savrola, it’s a really terrible work, apparently. His non-fiction prose, however, is (of course) excellent.

  3. J-Ho says:

    Chamberlain has always been one of my heroes. As the story goes, he was the only person to whom Grant bestowed a battlefield promotion to General. His charge at Little Round Top aside, his gracious salute to the humiliated confederate soldiers at Appomattox, I believe, was a testament to his character and heart.

    Although very different, I have to admit that General George Patton is also one of my favorite “warrior-poets.”

    1. Yes, Patton is very different! But a fascinating character. I’m sure I’ll write some posts about him eventually.

  4. bobby taylor says:

    Dear Rebecca :

    I love your immense intelligences – what is your education background?.

    1. Thank you. My background is in Classical Studies and Linguistics. I also dabbled in Art History and Philosophy.

  5. Ron says:

    Great post! You picked one of my favorite heroes – if you get the chance to visit the Gettysburg battlefield, hiking around Little Round Top and surveying 20th Maine’s position brings the bravery and guts of his leadership to life.

    Some of my favorite warrior-poets:

    Julius Caesar – Admittedly, his “Conquest of Gaul” and “Civil War” were essentially propaganda, but the concise nature and clear language 2000 years still impresses. He was no Cicero, rather an educated man of action who also created history.

    Aetius – Another Roman general (late Empire) who defeated Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons in 451. As a history buff it is sometimes difficult to impress upon others how critical this battle was to Western civilization. “The last of the Romans” as described by Edward Gibbon, Aetius was a child hostage of the Huns and learned much about how the Huns lived and fought which he later put to good use. Part-time general and politician, Aetius’ work in keeping the barbarian tide in check was amazing.

    Frederick the Great – Great military and political reformer. A king who actually fought in battles – rare back then. Strong supporter of the arts and education.
    Horatio Nelson – Quintessential naval hero. Sailor, soldier, ambassador, politician. He did it all and won three historic sea battles (the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar) before his death. An absolutely amazing career made all the more amazing by the fact that he suffered from sea sickness his entire life!

    Orde Wingate – British general during WWII. Served in Palestine during the 30s and one of the first developers of special warfare units. Eccentric might be too light a word for this guy; he was a student of the Old Testament and a true innovator in special warfare organization and tactics.

    George Patton – a definite Renaissance man! Old Blood and Guts was also a man well versed in history and French culture who frequently quoted from the classics in reference to his battles and place in history.

    1. Nice choices. I love Caesar. When I’m working through a particularly difficult Latin author, sometimes to clear my head I’ll pick up some of Caesar and just gleefully swim through his prose.

  6. Rev. Barry says:

    Interesting way to look at millitary personnel,but one to often over looked.Many songs, stories,poems were/are pened by millitary personnel to pass time,and to shake the fear away.I think my favorite song of the civil war is Battle Hymn of the Republic,based on Romans 8:38

  7. Rev. Barry says:

    That should have been Romans 8:37,for some reason I wasn’t allowed to go back and fix that. I saw an account of Gettysburg were lights were turned on and off to express the action on the battle feild.The lights were out and the red lights for campfires were turned on.My minds eye went to the 2nd verse, ….seen Him in the watch-fires of a 100 circling camps. there are many more writings that drive home a realality point. Because of my southern roots I all ways think of Chickamauga, a battle as bloody or more bloody than Gettysburg.It too was a turning point for the South who won that battle,then the North who sent freash troups in to the resting place the south had they won and from there Sherman began his fire march of ethnic pureification.
    You state Chamberlain enlisted,he didn’t enlist.He was commisioned as an officer,Lieutenant Colonel, ussaly they are commisioned as ensign/1st lieutenat.Keep up the work.Thank you!

    1. Yes, blame that on my inexperience with the intricacies of military lingo. Glad you liked it anyway!

  8. tenders says:

    A compleat discussion of the topic should include mention of Wilfred Owen, a British WWI poet-soldier whose writings include the heavy line “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” and which were further memorialized in Benjamin Britten’s epic piece for orchestra and chorus, “War Requiem.” Owen is likely far afield from Ms. Romney’s area of focus, but his is another reiteration of the theme that war is hell, with or without a set of polished steel catheters.

    1. Yes, Wilfred Owen is a perfect choice! I’m more fond of Rupert Brooke, myself.

  9. Eric says:

    Speaking of crushes, I was wondering if you had a crush on Chumlee. It appears he is quite fond of you. I think you guys would make a great couple. Inquiring minds want to know 🙂

  10. Paul says:

    Chamberlain presided over the parade of the surrendered Confederate troops at Appomattox. He ordered his men to come to attention and carry arms, to which Confederate General Gordon responded with grace and dignity. In Chamberlain’s words:

    Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the ‘carry.’ All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead.

  11. Phil A. Stein says:

    Siegfried Sassoon.

    1. Yes, that completes the trilogy! Owen, Brooke, and Sassoon. Perfect place to start for anyone interested in WWI poetry.

  12. Rev. Barry says:

    I walk the city cementary with Bear,my Shih Tzu, I’m amazed at the number of millitary burried thier that were teachers,musicians(Civil War,WWI,WWII)Lady naval Lt Commander,a WAC Private,USCG CBM (boatswain mate/E7), Tusskeege Airman,and many more that represents a lot of books read,studied,an people tested from those books. There is so many enlisted with education beyound high school.I have a friend who a prison librarian,books give freedom. All because someone read someone a book! Great to have book nerds! I think I’ll go read a book.

    1. I 100% agree: books give freedom.

  13. David says:

    Even sticking with the War of Northern Aggression, General Lew Wallace of Ben Hur fame comes to mind, although I much prefer Ambrose Bierce. Delving into the more modern genre, I really enjoy the Alan Furst novels of Pre-WW II espionage in Europe-proper and the Balkans.

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