Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain -- My Hero

Yes, it's Hero Week over at The Story Girl!  As my contribution, I've decided to blog about General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and why he is one of my personal heroes.

The real General Chamberlain

It all started when my family discovered the movie Gettysburg (1993) shortly after it was released to VHS.  We loved it.  We watched many, many times.  And from the first viewing, my brother and I were drawn to Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and his younger brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell), who was his aide-de-camp.  They have a sweet, teasing relationship, one of the better depictions of brothers I've seen.  Tom keeps calling his brother 'Lawrence,' and Chamberlain keeps telling him not to because he's afraid the other men will think he's only made Tom his aide because he's his brother.  Chamberlain has sworn to keep Tom safe, and he figures the best way to do that is to keep him close.

Tom and Lawrence Chamberlain in Gettysburg

If that weren't enough to make me like him, Chamberlain makes this really awesome speech during the movie, all about how the Union army is fighting to set other men free, something that he says has never really been done before in the history of mankind.  It's a beautiful speech, and he makes it to a bunch of would-be-deserters that he's been tasked with adding to his ranks just before the battle.

Chamberlain speechifying

And if that weren't really enough, Chamberlain also then heroically leads the fight at the Battle of Little Round Top, where he and a handful of men repulse charge after charge by the Confederate Army.  They run low on ammunition, so he orders his men to fix bayonets and charge, a textbook move no one else thought of doing. And it works.

(Also, he quotes Hamlet in one scene.  Heart!)

One more shot of Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain just cuz it's a nifty shot

So yeah... I really loved Chamberlain in this movie.  Brave, kind, resourceful -- what's not to love?  While in college, I learned that he had written a memoir, and determined to find it.  Soon after I graduated, I bought a copy and read it.  And that book cemented Chamberlain's status as my hero.

Before I go on, I need to explain that I was born in Iowa, then moved to Michigan when I was three.  But when I was twelve, we moved to North Carolina.  Until then, I had always thought of the Civil War as something that happened so long ago that no one really cared about it anymore.  But, when I moved to the South, I discovered that people there still cared a lot about it.  They had lost, they had been humiliated thanks to Reconstruction, they had been looked down on ever since.  The defeat their forefathers suffered still stung.  I've lost count of how many bumper stickers I've seen that say things like "Yankees, go home!" or "We don't care how you do it up North."  I've been called a "d--n Yankee," right to my face.  None of that has anything to do with racism or slavery or even politics, just with people feeling like they're still being looked down on just because they were born south of the Mason-Dixon line.

So, over the past twenty years, I have come to sympathize with the Southerners a great deal.  Not with slavery or anything to do with that, but just with the people who live in the South, and those who lived there back during the Civil War.  Yes, they fought a war that, at its core, was about protecting the ugly institution of slavery.  But that didn't mean they needed to be ground into the dirt by the North's boot once they'd lost.

Okay, so that is why what Chamberlain did at the end of the war meant so much to me.  By war's end, he was a general; he'd received the Medal of Honor; he'd become very respected as a military tactician even though, before the war, he was a college professor.  Of foreign languages.  At Appomattox Courthouse, he had the honor of accepting the surrender of the Confederate infantry after General Lee signed the surrender. And it is what he did there that makes me honor and revere him so.

I'm just going to quote directly from Chamberlain's book here because I could never explain it so well.  His words here give me chills every time I read them and envision the scene -- Union troops lining the road down which the defeated Confederates must march to surrender their weapons.  Here's what he says:

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply.  I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms.  Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in th eleast.  The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union.  My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness.  Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood:  men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve;  standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; -- was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?
Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier's salutation, from the "order arms" to the old "carry" -- the marching salute.  Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual, -- honor answering honor.  On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!
(p. 195-196.  Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence.  The Passing of the Armies.  Bantam edition, 1993.)
Oh, how that magnanimous, that gentlemanly action warms my heart.  Chamberlain took a good bit of grief for his actions, as he expected he would, but he stood by them as honorable and right.  It is his refusal to disgrace or mock the brave Confederate soldiers, his insistence that they be respected -- that is what makes Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain my hero.

Chamberlain in later years.


  1. John Gordon (the Confederate general who was leading the troops that day) later spoke highly of Chamberlain for his gesture. I love Gordon's response to it -- the gallant side of the South's fight.

    Killer Angels (in a scene which I seem to recall from the movie) discussed how for many in the South, it wasn't so much about slavery as States' rights, the anti-federalist position that the best Federal government was the one that handled the heavy lifting and left the bulk of day to day governance to the states.

    Do you remember the scene with Thomas Chamberlain where he is talking to some Southern prisoners and they say that they don't care about slavery -- they're "fightin' for their rahts" and Thomas looks confused as he tries to figure out what "rahts" are? :)

    Anyway, I'm so glad you wrote this and brought General/Governor Chamberlain to a wider audience. This is a man I'D follow into battle. We'll [probably] not see his like again.

    1. Yeah, the whole States Rights thing gets thrown around a lot, and for a while I totally bought into that that was the only issue, but ultimately, it was about the state's rights to decide whether or not to have slaves.

      I love that scene with Tom! He gets my favorite (and most-quoted line) from the whole movie, too: "If I walk up and down this hill too many more times, my legs are gonna fall off." :-D

  2. I was fascinated while reading your post. I, too, have been giving more thought to the subject of the civil war. I read a little of "Gone with the Wind," and I saw just how much the South was affected by the Civil War. I realized I'd been writing it off all these years.

    What I mean by that is that I just assumed, "well, they were in the wrong, fighting for slavery is bad." And, fundamentally, it is. But the North seemed to have "kicked a man when he's down." So to speak. And it affected the South more than the North. The women felt it, the children, their homes were gone. I realized then why the South seemed almost to be holding a grudge and to keep the civil war so near.

    So thank you for the wonderful post! I have been reading a lot of Hero posts lately, but this one is by far the best, because it's a wonderful true story.

    1. Thank you, Maddie! I'm glad you liked my post.

      I think one big difference is that the North was never really invaded, except for a short time in Pennsylvania. The common people weren't touched by the war as directly as so many people in the South were. Their cities weren't blockaded, their crops weren't destroyed, their homes weren't invaded, etc. It makes a very big difference. From a military standpoint, yes, things like Sherman's March to the Sea were necessary. But from the standpoint of the civilians affected, it was devastating, and you can see why it made such a lasting impression.

      Especially since it was followed by the harsh punishment of Reconstruction.

      I'll get off my soapbox now ;-)

  3. Wow Hamlette, what an inspiring post! I did not know that Southerners still holds a grudge about the Civil War. I will have to do some research on the Reconstruction period. I do understand what you are saying. Looking at it from the perspective of a woman of color, what happened in the end was 200 years of slavery and the humiliation of Africans coming full circle. Do you know what I mean? I am a huge believer in what is put out, either individually or collectively, always returns to its source. The South had humiliated an entire race of people and in turn they were brought down and humiliated.

    I think the South did care about slavery. If they didn't it would not have lasted as long as it did. Slavery was very important to their way of living. All people were not created equal in their eyes. That was their belief for generations all the way into the 20th century as was witnessed with Jim Crow. I do understand about the states rights thing, but I am not so sure that the South would have decided to end slavery on their own. It was too much a part of the fabric of their lives. Africans were not even considered to be human beings.

    This post gives so much food for thought.

    1. I would say that not all Southerners still hold a Civil War-based grudge, and it's much more so people of my parents generation than those of mine. But there is definitely still some resentment of Yankees, and not all of that stems from the war either, but from the still-prevalent stereotype of Southerners being less advanced than Northerners, or backwards or hillbilly-ish, etc. When the truth is that I find the society as a whole there to be much more genteel and civilized in many ways than up north. But still, many Yankees move South and proceed to try to tell everyone how much better everything is up North, and how Southerners should do everything differently than they do. Very rude, really.

      But anyway, I believe that if Lincoln had lived and his ideas carried out for how to reconcile the rebel states, that life would have been much better for everyone in the South. The harsh way the North treated the South after the war gave rise to resentment that white Southerners then vented on their erstwhile slaves, leading to the harsh Jim Crow laws. Somewhat like the way that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles built up so much resentment in the Germans, which they then vented on the Jews.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments! Thought-provoking, as always. Do you know if any of your forebears were here at that time? I know my family all came here from Germany and Holland starting in the 1880s, so I don't have a familial connection to the Civil War at all, though I find it a very fascinating historical period.

    2. Random other note -- Chamberlain was a devoted abolitionist, which makes his actions at Little Round Top even more magnanimous and striking.

    3. To my knowledge none of my forebears were here during that time period. I know that some kin on my father's side visited the USA some time in the early 1900's, but other than that I never heard of anyone else being here on either side of my family. As far as I know when I came with my parents and older brother we were the first on both sides to come to America to live.

      I agree with you about Southern society being more genteel. Being well mannered goes very far in the South. Northerners tend to be more brash. The South is also a more relaxed way of living. They take time to stop and smell the roses. Many Northerners these days like to head South to live. North Carolina being a popular state that many Northerners are choosing to relocate to. Unfortunately, they bring their Northern ways with them. Atlanta, GA has been spoiled just a bit because of it. I used to want to live there.

      Having said all that the North is not a bad place to live. I hold many fond memories of living here in the North.

      Chamberlain does indeed seems to have been an extraordinary man.

  4. Wow! He is definitely worthy of being called a hero! Sadly, my knowledge of history is dearly lacking. I probably learned about him in school, but I can't remember now. I respect someone like that so much. That's what we all need to aspire to. To respect and encourage, even those we may not agree with. His story is incredible! Thanks for sharing it. :)

    As someone who grew up in VA, I know a little of what you speak of regarding how people view the Civil War. And it's definitely more in our parent's generation than ours. Feelings just don't go away. It takes generations of time and even then it may never go away completely.

    Anyway, I just really wanted to say how awesome this post is. SO glad I read it. Reading true stories about people who live their convictions regardless of what others may think or say is so inspiring! :)

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this and learned from it.

      Chamberlain really isn't a well-known figure, but I respect him so much that if we had had a second boy, I wanted to name him Joshua Lawrence.

  5. Not to sound creepy or anything ;), but we are so friends! I love the Civil War period and watch Glory on any given day. I feel like this about Robert Gould Shaw, Colonel of the 54th. Such an inspiring hero too.

    There's much to learn from the North and the South - I find all of it so intriguing!

    1. The Civil War is such a fascinating era, and I love learning about it.

      I have yet to see Glory, but someone gave me a copy not long ago, so I should be getting to it soon. I've read so many good things about it.

    2. Glory is incredible. I have it right now for a rewatch! :) I LOVE Chamberlain {the bit I know if him so far.} I own The Passing of the Armies and look forward to reading it.

      {Also, I love what you say about the Treaty of Versailles above. I've made the same comparison.}

    3. Jillian, I have to hang my head and admit I still haven't watched Glory :-( Still on my TBW pile!

      I hope you like The Passing of the Armies as much as I did. And I'm glad to hear I'm not the first/only one to come up with that comparison!


Agree or disagree? That is the question...

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)