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Q and A with COL Joshua Chamberlain

(U) Col. Joshua Chamberlain

What was your relationship like with your brigade Commander (Vincent)?

On May 20, 1863, Strong Vincent assumed command of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps, Army of the Potomac, replacing his brigade commander, who was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville.Vincent directed his men to their positions just minutes before the onslaught by Confederate General John Bell Hood’s men, with the 20th Maine, the 83rd Pennsylvania, the 44th New York, and the 16th Michigan running from left to right (east to west) along the southern face of the hill. There is little doubt that the efforts and bravery of Vincent were instrumental in the eventual Union victory. Vincent impressed upon Chamberlain the importance of his position on the brigade’s left flank and then he left to attend to the brigade’s right flank. As the 4th and 5th Texas pushed back the boys in blue on the southwestern edge, Colonel Vincent ran forward to steady his men. Visible to both the men in blue and their southern foes, the young Colonel cried out “Don’t give an inch!” Shortly thereafter, he fell victim to a Confederate bullet. The Colonel who had risked his career and his life to come to the support of the Union cause would die a few days later.

Artist’s rendering of Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Little Round Top defending the left of the Union line against the attack of Col. William Oates and the 15th Alabama.

On July 12th, 1863, Colonel James C. Rice, commanding in Vincent’s absence, sadly announced the death of the newly promoted Brigadier General.

Chamberlain wrote,

Our Vincent, soldierly and self-reliant, waited word from no superior, but taking the responsibility ordered us to turn and push for Little Round Top at all possible speed, and dashed ahead to study how best to place us.” [When I reached the slope of Little Round Top], I found Vincent there, with intense poise and look. He said with a voice of awe – ‘I place you here. This is the left of the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs.



What was your relationship like with your men? Did you have any problems in your ranks?

On July 1, the Fifth Corps marched to Hanover, Pennsylvania before turning west toward Gettysburg. An overnight forced march got the troops to a location in rear of Cemetery Ridge the next day and Chamberlain’s men took a brief but grateful rest. It was here that Chamberlain faced the distasteful duty of addressing “mutinous” soldiers assigned to the 20thInfantry from the old 2nd Maine, which had been mustered out. A group of men whose enlistments had not expired refused to carry arms and were placed under arrest. Chamberlain’s brief speech and his pledge to plead their case caused all but a handful to take arms and join the ranks of the 20th for the coming battle.

Chamberlain is similar to Lee in many respects — he cares about his men in a fatherly way, yet he doesn’t hesitate to use them, including his own brother, for the sake of the higher good — the Cause. He is idealistic, optimistic, and has faith and pride in his men. He treats them intelligently and with respect, and they in turn respond. The army is his family, his men are his children.

Actor Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain in the movie Gettysburg

Were you prepared for command? How/why were you prepared?

Before enlisting in 1862, Chamberlain was an unlikely military man. He had been educated at Bowdoin College, chose to further his education at a Theological Seminary rather than West Point, received his Master’s Degree from Bowdoin, and then went on to teach and gain a lifetime professorial chair in the department of modern languages. He seemed apolitical prior to the war, and though having spent time with Harriett Beecher Stowe during his student days at Bowdoin, he did not seem to have a desire to stamp out slavery. His father and his colleagues at Bowdoin were opposed to the war. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 20th Maine Regiment in August 1862. Soldiering seemed to be good for him, drawing on his strengths of self-discipline and quick study. He was tutored in the military arts by the Colonel of the 20th Maine, Adelbert Ames, a West Point graduate. He never found the same satisfaction throughout his arguably successful life (four terms as governor of Maine and 12 years as president of Bowdoin College) as he did leading men and fighting for the Union. He served at Fredericksburg, and was promoted to Colonel in May ’63.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, two months later, Chamberlain performed with distinction in defending the Union left flank on Little Round Top, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. With the desperate fight and the bold bayonet charge down the hill, he became “ the Hero of Little Round Top.”

Photo of Col. Chamberlain

What was your mission on 2 July?

Having been placed on the extreme left of the Union line along the Southern slope of Little Round Top, he was to hold off the Confederate force from taking the hill – and told not to retreat for any reason.

Did you adapt to meet your mission objectives?

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – Discussing the capture of Confederate Soldiers at the Battle of Little Round Top, July 2, 1863:

Not a moment was about to be lost! Five minutes more of such a defensive and the last roll call would sound for us! Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors. The men turned towards me. One word was enough. BAYONETS! It caught like fire and swept along the ranks. The men took it up with a shout, one could not say whether from the pit or the song of the morning sat, it was vain to order “Forward!” No mortal could have heard it in the mighty hosanna that was winging the sky. The whole line quivered from the start; the edge of the left-wing rippled, swung, tossed among the rocks, straightened, changed curve from scimitar to sickle-shape; and the bristling archers swooped down upon the serried host- down into the face of half a thousand! Two hundred men!

Ranks were broken; some retired before us somewhat hastily; some threw their muskets to the ground- even loaded; sunk on their knees, threw up their hands calling out, ‘We surrender. Don’t kill us!’ As if we wanted to do that! We kill only to resist killing. And these were manly men, whom we could befriend and by no means kill, if they came our way in peace and good will.

His battle tested veterans were pitched into a desperate fight with the 15th Alabama Infantry on July 2nd and despite nearly overwhelming odds, won the day at Little Round Top thanks to their colonel’s stubborn guidance. After fending off multiple advances, and running low on ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge which sent the 15th Alabama, in the words of its leader COL William Oates, “running like a herd of wild cattle.”

Artist Dale Gallon’s painting of Chamberlain and his wife, Caroline Frances Chamberlain, shortly before the Colonel leaves for the front

What leadership style do you use?

He did not seek praise or advancement , but led by ten qualities of “nature and character”- inspiration, resolution, straight-fowardness, severity of discipline, justice, prudence, sagacity, promptness of action, thoroughness of execution, and balance of character .

Later, on the dedication of the 20th Maine memorial at Gettysburg:

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.

Note: Entry written by Susan Thompson, and posted by Chrissie Reilly.

This post was edited in June 2104 to reflect correction pointed out in comments.

Posted in Civil War.

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  1. cecomhistorian says

    Thank you for the correction – the post has been edited. This summary was taken from a staff ride excercise.

  2. Harry McNally says

    I have to question the historical accuracy of an article that notes Kilrain as a father figure to Chamberlain while ignoring the fact that Buster Kilrain was a fictional character.