“One of the Knightliest Soldiers”

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – 20th Maine

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has always been one of my heroes. Before I understood the concept of heroes, I was captivated by the courage of common men in the Civil War. Some of my earliest memories are of the innumerable hours I spent looking at Civil War books. I stared intensly into the battleground and campsite photos…wondering and projecting myself into the scenes. I was mesmerized by the portrayals of warfare; charging enemy lines, reloading behind trees or barricades (often picket fences), bayonet fights, insurmountable odds, stately commanding officers, and bodies strewn almost randomly across battlefields…puppet-like, lifeless…like discarded dolls. While other kids read comic books and watched cartoons, I devoured Civil War journals, studied maps and battlefield charts, and marched off into our woods to test and experience my imaginary strategies. Even as a college student and adult, I continued to be magnetically attracted to Civil War literature and documentaries. I am still convinced that the life lessons from the “divided union” era are vital to our day.

Perhaps the most captivating thing about the Civil War pictures and stories is that this “conflict of the ages” was played out in familiar settings with common men as heroes and villains. The greatness of Chamberlain is largely due to the fact that he was an “ordinary person who lived an extraordinary life.” His life story, demeanor and perspective is not only inspiring and instructive, but we can identify with him. His life has inspired me, his quotes challenged me, and his courage convicted me. His was a life committed to the dignity of humanity that ascribed greatness to God and esteemed value to the human soul. While our generation drowns in the arrogance so characteristic of an age addicted to mediocrity. His life and age was marked by men of excellence and wholeheartedness—visibly magnified in a willingness to give their lives-“the last full measure.”

Early on in life, young Joshua had the desire to be a missionary. More than a passion, though, he believed a missionary life was his calling and burden. He even made a decision for and commitment to pursue this, although it never materialized as a reality in his life, in the way he thought (imagined). Not one to wallow in disappointment or stay idle in delay; he attended college and seminary where he studied Latin, Greek and learned to speak 9 languages. Through the years, he had overcome his greatest obstacle—a speech impediment and embarrassing stammer by developing a sing song manner of speech. While hoping for an opportunity at ministry or missions, he served as a Professor of Rhetoric and Literature teacher. During this season of waiting, the crises of his century erupted—the Civil War provided a clarion call to duty.

On the Call to Duty

“All great leaders have had one characteristic in common: the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”-John K. Galbraith. This was certainly true of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, as the specter of Civil War produced a conviction of a call to duty and service. As the war broke out, Chamberlain wanted to enlist, but his college administration opposed it because he was too valuable as faculty. He then requested a leave of absence to study in Europe, but immediately enlisted in the Union army instead. He was asked to be the Colonel of the 20th Maine Regiment, but said he preferred “to start a little lower and learn the business first.” He stated that, “…in military matters… what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn. But, I fear this war, so costly in blood and treasure, will not cease until the men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the deepest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery at home and jealousy abroad. This war must be ended, with a swift and strong hand; and every man ought to come forward and ask to be placed at his proper post.”

Chamberlain’s combat resume reads like a log from the whole regiment.

  • 24 Engagements – (20 battles and skirmishes) including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor.
  • Wounded 6x – had 6 horses shot from under him, 2x a death notice was sent out on him…but he lived on.
  • Selected to preside over the Confederate surrender at the Appomattox Court House, his call to salute the “enemy” soldiers became one of the most controversial and memorable scenes of the entire war.
  • He was the last man to die of war related injuries –in 1914.

On Returns to Combat

Joshua constantly attributed any of his faithfulness or bravery to his relationship with and trust in God. He once said, “There is no promise of life in peace and no decree of death in war. And I am so confident of the sincerity of my motives that I can trust my own life and the welfare of my family in the hands of Providence.”

On Heroic Sacrifice

In 1893, Chamberlain was awarded the “medal of Honor” for his leadership at Gettysburg. The citation was for “daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top.” His courage has been cited in books, songs, and movies…and he was referred to as “the Lion of the Round Top” by his contemporaries.

In 1889, Joshua wrote a reflection on Gettysburg that contained one of my favorite quotes from history. I find it inscribed on trail markers of many national battlefield parks; and have frequently pondered its truths while hiking and praying at these historic landmarks.

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls… This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of the Christ – to give life’s best for such high stake that it shall be found again into life eternal.”

Here, Chamberlain speaks of the ideal of heroic sacrifice while providing a providential perspective that reveals an application of the Cross of Christ to the soldier’s life. Chamberlain’s life was a shining light in a dark time, and still casts an influential shadow on those who aspire to the Call to faithfulness and excellence. In our world of consumerism, intoxicated with entertainment, selfishness and excess; we would do well to emulate him. It is true that “in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.” Nevertheless, Joshua’s example rose above his peers, and positioned him as a much needed beacon of leadership dignity, grace and courage.

As John Johnson wrote, “Success focuses its attention on the external-becoming the tastemaker for the insatiable appetites of the…consumer. Excellence beams its spotlight on the internal spirit…success encourages expedience and compromise, which prompts us to treat people as a means to our ends. Excellence cultivates principled living and consistency…” Joshua’s life calls us to remember “the divine spark” in every human heart and the potential for greatness and excellence we possess…if we can only break from the spirit of our age.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain embraced the challenge of his time and fulfilled his destiny amidst great difficulty. May he inspire us all to rise above the storms and contentions of our day. His life speaks across the ages and reminds us of Vaclav Havel’s maxim that “the real test of a man is not when he plays the role that he wants for himself, but when he plays the role destiny has for him.”