As the Civil War approached, it looked as if Chamberlain's life was almost perfect: he had a beautiful wife, two children he adored, and was considered an "up-and-coming" professor at Bowdoin College. By this time he was teaching Rhetoric at the college, along with German and Spanish--and he was also working hard on some new ideas for teaching his Rhetoric students the uses and appreciation of their native language, while developing their powers of expression by encouragement and stimulation of their undergraduate minds. He'd also bought a house, after years of living in rented rooms: a modest, but roomy, Federal-style 1 1/2 story 'Cape', with a beautiful garden.

This is Chamberlain's home as it looks today; it's now owned by the Pejepscot Historical Society.

Cheryl and I took a nearly-one hour tour of Chamberlain's home. The Society has done a marvelous job painstakingly restoring the house to its original state. We saw lots of artifacts: photographs, books, his horse's saddle and blanket--and the bullet that nearly killed Chamberlain at Petersburg, VA, in 1864.


During this time, Chamberlain also suffered a terrible personal loss: his brother Horace, an up-and-coming young lawyer, died of tuberculosis on December 7, 1861--Joshua and Fannie's sixth wedding anniversary. He had a very hard time dealing with Horace's death. He expressed his thoughts about death in a letter to his sister Sae in early 1862:

"So it is not after all for him, as it is for the thought of the thing, for myself, and for us all, that I feel sad. That he should be cut down at the very opening of his career, and when he had so much reason to anticipate a prosperous course. Seems almost against the order of nature. For him I have no doubt, the change is not a sad one. I do not think for a moment that it is not infinitely better for him, and that having once passed the great boundary he had no wish to be here again."(7)

By this time, however, critical national issues overshadowed personal concerns and sorrows. The issue of slavery, and its westward expansion, caused emotional debate and violence for decades. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States signaled to many Southerners the death knell to their way of life. One by one, eleven Southern states eventually seceded and declared themselves a new country: the Confederate States of America. First and foremost in Chamberlain's political beliefs was that the United States was a Union of one people; the people living in the United States constituted the people of the United States, and all formed the Indivisible Union. When secession came, he said:

" was no peaceful separation; it was war upon the Union; and that meant the destruction of the United States--body, life and being".(8)

On April 12, 1861, the guns of the state of South Carolina opened fire on the United States' Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and the country was doomed to civil war. Thousands of men flocked to President Lincoln's call for troops to preserve the Union and their country.

At Bowdoin College, some upperclassmen enlisted immediately. Other students organized drill companies, such as the Bowdoin Guard and the Bowdoin Zouaves. Bowdoin's alumni flocked to the colors as well; in the end, nearly 300 Bowdoin men would serve the Union cause. As time went on, it was clear this war would not be a short one--and an "irresistible impulse" began to stir in Chamberlain himself, to get involved in the conflict. On July 14, 1862, he wrote a letter to Maine's governor, Israel Washburn, which read, in part:

"To His Excellency Governor Washburn: In pursuance of the offer of reinforcements for the war, I ask if Your Excellency desires and will accept my service".(9)

Washburn knew both Chamberlain's grandfather and father--the former, a colonel of militia in the War of 1812; the latter, a lieutenant colonel of militia in Maine's bloodless Aroostook War. The governor relied on Maine's leading men to raise new companies of infantry to fill the state's quota for new regiments. Chamberlain was confident he could raise the number of men needed for an entire regiment:

"...I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn. But, I fear, this war, so costly of 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."(10)

For Chamberlain, his desire to be "placed at his proper post" would be faced with personal, and professional, obstacles to overcome. His father, who had wanted him to go to West Point and become a career soldier, would declare the conflict "not our war". Fannie was opposed to his going--she liked being a college professor's wife, and she didn't like the idea that her husband would be risking not only his life, but the entire support of her and their children. And as far as Bowdoin College--well, they didn't want him to go, either!

The College got wind of his plan to use a two-year leave of absence to study in Europe--which was a benefit he'd received as the newly-appointed Professor of Modern Languages--in order to go to war. An uproar ensued, and Chamberlain also found himself in the middle of a religious power struggle for control of Bowdoin. It was feared that, if Chamberlain did not return, his position would be filled by a man not of strict orthodox Congregationalist persuasion--something his friends on the faculty wished to avoid above all other considerations. These friends failed to convince him, so they sent a representative to Governor Washburn, telling him that Chamberlain was, in their words:

"No fighter, only a mild-mannered common student"(!)(11)

One state official, Attorney General Josiah Drummond, warned the Governor that:

"...his old classmates &c. here say that you have been deceived: that C. is nothing at all...."(12)

In spite of such pressures, however, Governor Washburn assigned Chamberlain as Lieutenant Colonel of Maine's Twentieth Infantry Regiment--the Governor originally wanted him as a Colonel, but Chamberlain declined, knowing that he needed to learn the business of war from a lesser position of authority. So it was done: On August 8, 1862, Chamberlain mustered in as second-in-command to Colonel Adelbert Ames, a Regular Army officer, and a Mainer from Rockland.

"Lt. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain" by Maine artist Ken Hendricksen, from a period photograph.

I took this photo at a Brunswick restaurant called "Joshua's Tavern". Wonderful place, filled with pictures of JLC. It's also a hangout for Bowdoin College students.

Chamberlain reported to Camp Mason in Portland on August 18, 1862. Here is where the 20th Maine came together--a very unsoldierly-appearing lot, made up of men from all over the state, and from all sorts of occupations. They came from places like Aroostook and Piscataquis counties; they were farmers, clerks, lumbermen, storekeepers, fishermen, builders and sailors. Somehow this independent bunch had to be turned into soldiers, and very quickly. And Adelbert Ames was the man to do it! A graduate of West Point, who had been wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), he had his work cut out for him. As he looked in disgust at this untrained, undisciplined and very unmilitary bunch, Ames was heard to say:

"This is a HELL of a regiment!"(13)

The 20th Maine left Camp Mason on September 2, 1862; after catching a steamer in Boston, they arrived at Alexandria, VA, after a voyage of four days. After camping overnight in Washington, they were marched to join their assigned brigade--the Third Brigade, First Division, of the Army of the Potomac's Fifth Corps--in Virginia. After witnessing yet another ludicrous marching performance, Ames lost his temper and bellowed:

"If you can't do any better than you have tonight, you better all desert and go home!"(14)

Fortunately, the 20th Maine didn't do that! They were drilled, and drilled--and drilled some more. Ames himself took Chamberlain under his personal wing, trying to cram as much of the regulation drill manual into Chamberlain's head as he could stand! He found Chamberlain to be an excellent and willing student. The men, however, were a different story at first--some thought they would have killed Ames the first chance they got in battle! But in time, the men would see the ultimate benefit of Ames' pushing and prodding. And, that opportunity would come none too quickly...

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