|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.
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.|