Civil War hero, Renaissance man Leader: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was an educator, governor and ambassador, but he is best remembered as a Union army hero at Gettysburg.

Sun Journal

October 12, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

BRUNSWICK, Maine -- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, says Edward L. Langbein Jr., "never met an architectural style he didn't like."

The house on the edge of the Bowdoin College campus -- once lived in by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- was in Cape Cod style with Greek Revival details when Chamberlain bought it. He moved it to a corner lot, raised it 11 feet in the air and built a Victorian Gothic-Italianate first floor underneath.

So now the house has Gothic arches, Georgian curves, Italianate sills, Ionic and Doric columns and a red Maltese Cross.

The Maltese Cross was the standard of the Fifth Corps under which Chamberlain fought at Gettysburg.

The man himself was a rather eclectic blend, too: seminarian, soldier, governor of Maine, Bowdoin professor and president, writer, ambassador and unsuccessful businessman. He was wounded six times in the Civil War and twice got to read his obituary in New York newspapers. He died at 86 in 1914.

Chamberlain is best remembered as the Union army's hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. But by the 1950s, when Langbein (class of 1957) was a Bowdoin undergraduate, Chamberlain was hardly remembered, even on his old campus. Langbein, now a volunteer guide at the old house, had never heard of the former president of his alma mater until he read a book about Chamberlain.

Now a television series and a movie have reawakened interest in the Renaissance gentleman.

The house, which opened as a museum in the 1980s, used to draw 70 visitors a year. This grew to 7,000 annually after the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War" in 1991 and the 1993 movie "Gettysburg." (Visitors have leveled off at 4,500 annually).

In the four-hour film, Jeff Daniels played Chamberlain, ordering "Bayonet!" and leading the outnumbered 20th Maine Regiment in the famous sweep down Little Round Top to push back Alabama troops advancing up the hill. In one touching scene, Chamberlain says, "We all have value," and cools off mutinous members of the tattered 2nd Maine Regiment with firm, fatherly words.

"The speech is fiction," says Julia Colvin Oehmig, but the event happened. Before the battle, Chamberlain listened to, talked with and persuaded most of the troubled troops to stay. For Oehmig, former curator of the Pejepscot Historical Society that owns the museum, the scene typifies Chamberlain's admirable qualities that appeal to Americans today: courage beyond war, honesty, selflessness, spirituality and the search for the common good.

"We have no heroes today in Washington and in Hollywood," she says -- "no heroes on the baseball or football fields. Some people look back and see people like Chamberlain."

Oehmig accompanied about 35 history and Chamberlain buffs, mostly from Maine, on a five-day battlefield tour last week. The "Chamberlain's Civil War" group stopped at Harpers Ferry, W. Va.; Antietam in Maryland, where the 20th Maine was held in reserve; Gettysburg, where Little Round Top is seen by many as the turning point of the battle, and maybe of the war; Fredericksburg, where the 20th Maine first fought; Richmond; Petersburg, where Chamberlain received the most serious of his battle wounds; and Appomattox Court House, Va.

There, on April 12, 1865 -- four years to the day after Confederates started the war by firing on Fort Sumter, S.C. -- Chamberlain had the honor of accepting the Confederacy's surrender.

It was one of his finest hours. Unexpectedly, he ordered his troops to honor the defeated Southerners with a marching salute -- "Honor answering Honor," in his words. He was criticized for that by revenge-hungry Northerners -- and is remembered with some affection in the South. (In later years, he and Mrs. George Pickett always addressed each other as "My dear enemy.")

"For us, they were fellow soldiers suffering the fate of arms," Chamberlain wrote. "We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces, and those battered flags we had met on so many fields and think of personal hate and mean revenge."

What is the source of Chamberlain's modern appeal?

It starts at Little Round Top. One day last year -- not for the first time -- someone placed at the 20th Maine Monument a clutch of flowers and an unsigned note saying "Thank you, General Chamberlain, for saving the Union."

To Langbein, a retired 28-year Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of three tours of duty in Vietnam, Chamberlain's "coolness in crisis" is impressive. Outnumbered at Little Round Top, the colonel and his Maine boys turned the tide of the battle.

In 1880, 10 years removed from the governor's mansion, Chamberlain was summoned from the Bowdoin campus and asked to help solve a state political crisis. Despite many threats on his life, he went about openly and became a virtual military dictator for 12 days to calm down warring, armed political parties in Augusta.

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