When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1895, Chamberlain offered his services to his country once again. He contacted Maine Governor Llewellyn Powers, as well as the Secretary of War and to Senator William Frye. In the letter to Frye, Chamberlain offered to organize a division of New England troops to be distributed among several training camps, and also expressed a hope that he could go to Cuba himself. He wrote:
He was seventy years old when he wrote this letter. The Secretary of War politely acknowledged Chamberlain's offer, but turned to younger men instead. Senator Frye and his colleague, Senator Hale, thought of him as one of the peace commissioners, but nothing came of that--as well as the suggestion from someone else that Chamberlain be considered as head of the new Philippine government.
In 1899, Chamberlain's desire to be of service came to the attention of friends in Maine, who wrote to President William McKinley, asking him to secure a position for Chamberlain to serve the Federal Government in the state of Maine--centering primarily on the post of Collector of Customs for Portland. Many letters and petitions were sent to the President, to Senators Frye and Hale, and to the First Congressional District's representative, Amos L. Allen. Even with all these letters, and expressions of support from other prominent Mainers, Chamberlain did not get the post. (Chamberlain seemed to show a reluctance to speak and work for his own advancement--not because he was shy about doing so, but because he had a great distaste for self-adulation--and he also realized that there's no such thing as an "indispensable man".)
In spite of that setback, however, Chamberlain's friends managed to secure for him the post of Surveyor of the Port of Portland. It was a less prestigious position than that of Collector of Customs, but it was much less strenuous, given the state of Chamberlain's health at the time. Chamberlain finally agreed to take this post (although he was disappointed at not getting the Collector's post), and was officially appointed by President McKinley on March 20, 1900.
The Portland Customs House (the building in the middle with the tower), Portland, ME.
Chamberlain's office was located here.
Photo courtesy of David Lepkowski.
Do not copy without his express written permission.
Chamberlain received many congratulations on getting this position--but inside he was quite distressed. In December 1899, Chamberlain wrote of this distress to an old friend, General John T. Richards:
Then he really said what was on his mind, and heart:
As he thought of the Surveyorship, Chamberlain scoffed:
In the end, he applied himself vigorously to the task at hand, determined to make more of the job than it originally offered, and soon made good friends of everybody at the Customs House--especially the Collector. He was also grateful that the job was not strenuous, especially when he suffered a violent inflammation of the Petersburg wound in 1900.
From November 10, 1900 to January 10, 1901, Chamberlain took an extended trip to the Mediterranean, hoping that its warmer climate would aid in the recovery of this most recent infection from his Civil War wounds.
He had wanted to see the ancient classical lands there, especially Italy. But wet winter weather there forced a change in plans, and several acquaintances urged him to go to Egypt, where the drier climate would be better. Chamberlain took their advice enthusiastically, and took up lodgings in Cairo. He did have a brief bout with illness while there, but he received the best of care. He also applied to the Secretary of the Treasury for an extension of his leave, which was granted - and so was able to really relax and enjoy himself.
During his stay in Egypt, Chamberlain developed a consuming interest in both the country's historic past, and exciting present. According to a story later told by his niece, Alice Farrington, Chamberlain became interested in Islam. He would read the Koran in the original language at bedtime -- and then, as if to remind himself that he was, after all, a Christian, he also put his Bible on his night-table, and would read an equal portion from each book before retiring!
All in all, Chamberlain loved his stay in Egypt, and said afterwards that:
Fannie did not accompany Chamberlain on this trip; by this time, she had lost her sight completely, and she was left in the care of Grace and her family. Chamberlain did not forget his wife; he wrote to her just before he left:
Chamberlain himself got seriously ill while in Egypt, which delayed his trip home; he returned in the spring of 1901.
Besides his work as Surveyor, Chamberlain also fulfilled many speaking engagements at this time. He spoke at many historic anniversaries in the East, as well as at meetings of the GAR and the Loyal Legion. His most significant address during this time was given on the hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth in February 1909, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. He chose as his theme "Abraham Lincoln Seen from the Field":
At the conclusion of the speech, the veterans sat in momentary silence, then leapt to their feet in thunderous applause.
Chamberlain's last home, Ocean Avenue, Portland, ME.
Photo by Cheryl Pula:
Cheryl and I found this wonderful old house on a cold, damp day in October. I hope the current occupant didn't see us, snapping pictures like crazy! He must have thought we were nuts.
Besides the speeches, Chamberlain also did a lot of writing about his war experiences. In early 1913, the editor of "Cosmopolitan" magazine asked him to contribute an article, which became "My Story of Fredericksburg". He was also contacted by "Hearst's Magazine" for another article, which became "Through Blood & Fire at Gettysburg". (Unfortunately, the first article caused a serious rift to develop between Chamberlain and his old comrade, Ellis Spear. It seems the editors of "Cosmopolitan"--a Hearst-edited publication--did some "colorful editing" of the article, which infuriated Spear. He thought it was Chamberlain's work--but when Chamberlain himself found out about it, he TOO was infuriated! But Spear didn't know this, and began to publicly condemn his former commanding officer.) He also presented papers on the subjects of the White Oak Road battle and the battle at Five Forks, which became the basis for his only published book, "The Passing of the Armies"--which was not published until after his death.
In May of 1913, Chamberlain made his last known visit to Gettysburg, as Maine's representative on the planning committee for the 50th anniversary reunion in July of that year. He went once more to that southern slope of the hill, where his Twentieth Maine had won their undying fame:
As he sat there, he thought he could see in his mind's eye his old comrades returning once more:
Sadly, Chamberlain's health wouldn't permit him to go to that great reunion--his doctor, the faithful Dr. Abner Shaw (the same man who saved Chamberlain's life at Petersburg in 1864) would not permit him to go. The heat would probably have killed him. But he saw the Maine contingent off at the train station in Portland--no doubt wishing with all his heart that he could be with them.
In August 1913 Chamberlain visited his daughter's family at their summer home, sailing and spending time with the family. He was even considering writing a book about Gettysburg, but he soon fell ill again, and Grace came from Boston in December to be with him. Dr. Shaw was also with him. Later that month, he felt well enough to sit up in a chair and dictate letters to his surviving sister, Sae. This illness really sapped his remaining strength; and by January 1914, he was completely bedridden. On January 20, 1914, he said in a letter to Sae:
Two weeks later, he would write:
He was almost recovered from this illness, when he caught cold and suffered a relapse. This time there was no hope of recovery, and, with Grace and Wyllys at his bedside, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain died, quietly, at his home in Portland, on February 24, 1914. Grace especially was crushed by her loss; her husband Horace came down from Boston to comfort her.
Three days later, on February 27, 1914, a military funeral was held at Portland's City Hall, under the charge of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion. Hundreds of people lined the streets as Chamberlain's coffin was taken from his Ocean Avenue home to City Hall. Two thousand people gathered inside City Hall; they included such dignitaries as Maine's governor, representatives of the governor of Massachusetts, officers of Bowdoin College, as well as members of the Loyal Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic. His casket was attended by an honor guard. After two music selections--Beethoven's funeral march "On the Death of a Hero", and Chamberlain's favorite, "The Death of Asa" from Grieg's "Peer Gynt"--the eulogy was delivered by Rev. Jesse M. Hill. He told the crowd, in part:
Following a prayer, and the playing of "Taps" from the upper gallery, the casket was taken from the hall by the honor guard, to the strains of Chopin's "Funeral March". The funeral procession then made its way through Portland, to the train station, where a special train waited to take Chamberlain home to Brunswick.
Grave of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain,
Pine Grove Cemetery, Brunswick, ME.
Photo by Cheryl Pula.
Cheryl took this picture of Chamberlain's grave, on another damp day in Maine. It's always decorated with flowers, flags, small rocks, pinecones, notes--and pennies!
I wonder what it was like, that cold February day, when Chamberlain was finally laid to rest...
In Brunswick, life came to a standstill, as the train carrying Chamberlain's body pulled into the Maine Central station. Businesses closed, classes at Bowdoin were suspended, and flags flew at half-mast. Members of the Grand Army post in Brunswick acted as escorts, and, led by Bowdoin students as a body, proceeded to the First Parish Church for the final service. Cello music was played, a soloist sang two of Chamberlain's favorite hymns: "Abide with Me" and "Nearer My God to Thee", and Bowdoin President William DeWitt Hyde delivered the eulogy. In it, he described Chamberlain's life and career, and attempted to explain why he was such an extraordinary man:
After the service, the funeral procession made its way on the Bath Road, to Pine Grove Cemetery. After a salute of three volleys was fired by the National Guard escort, Chamberlain's casket was lowered into the earth, to lie beside his beloved wife, Fannie. In the days to come, both his daughter Grace and his son Wyllys would also be buried in this family plot.
So ends the story of this great man, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I want to end this by quoting a passage from "Sunset of the Confederacy", a book written by West Point graduate General Morris Schaaf. It seems an appropriate way to end. In this passage, General Schaaf tries to explain why he thought Chamberlain was selected to receive the Confederate surrender at Appomattox:
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