Defense Media Network

Joshua Chamberlain Was “The Real Thing” in the Civil War

Col. Joshua Chamberlain was one of the great heroes of the Civil War. He was “the real thing,” wrote a soldier who served with him – a scholar and politician who exhibited audacious heroism in combat. Despite all this, Chamberlain was not well known to the general public until Jeff Daniels portrayed him in the film Gettysburg (1993).

A single word – “Bayonets!” – shouted by Chamberlain galvanized the soldiers from Maine.

The film reprised one of the largest battles ever fought in the Western Hemisphere – second in scale only to Antietam. Audiences witnessed the pivotal moment that came when Chamberlain, a true citizen soldier, ordered a downhill bayonet charge at the hill called Little Round Top.

In July 1863, more than 100,000 soldiers from North and South clashed at Gettysburg, Pa. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia ran up against Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. The three-day battle cost 53,000 casualties on both sides and marked the beginning of the end for the South.

Painting of Col. Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg

Artist Mort Kunstler’s depiction of Col. Joshua Chamberlain leading his famous bayonet charge at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Painting by Mort Kunstler

Chamberlain’s performance that day as commander of the Union Army’s 20th Maine Regiment was an extreme example of the bravery and sacrifice of many soldiers on both sides in the War Between the States, which is marking its 150th anniversary this year.

Born in 1828 in Brewer, Me., Chamberlain attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where he became a professor of rhetoric, and married in 1855.

On the second day at Gettysburg, Chamberlain’s regiment was assigned to defend Little Round Top, a rocky, wooded hill at the extreme flank of the Union Army’s defensive line. Any attack that overwhelmed Chamberlain’s understrength regiment of just 386 men (down from 1,000) could give Confederate forces the high ground and enable them to defeat the Union army. Chamberlain’s troops were desperately low on food, water, and ammunition.

Col. William C. Oates’ 15th Alabama Regiment attacked Chamberlain on Little Round Top, the Confederate soldiers coming up the hill just as Chamberlain began positioning his regiment. In their first skirmish, Chamberlain’s 20th Maine opened fire and sent the Confederates scurrying for cover.

Oates regrouped. He ordered a charge up the hill toward Chamberlain’s position. In all, Chamberlain’s soldiers withstood six attacks by the persistent southern troops, but the onslaught seriously threatened Chamberlain’s left flank. Chamberlain withdrew some troops and reorganized his defenses just as Oates rushed his position a seventh time. Now, the 20th Maine’s soldiers were exhausting their last ammunition. The Confederate troops were about to overwhelm them.

A single word – “Bayonets!” – shouted by Chamberlain galvanized the soldiers from Maine.


Bayonet Charge!

Chamberlain led his charging men down Little Round Top in a furious counterattack. Oates, unable to maintain his position, ordered a retreat off the hill. The Union Army’s Brig. Gen. Stephen H. Weed soon reinforced Chamberlain on Little Round Top, and the Confederate threat, which might have changed the outcome at Gettysburg, was ended.

Chamberlain continued to distinguish himself after Gettysburg. Wounded at Little Round Top, he was wounded five more times, twice so severely that his obituary was published. Six times, a horse was shot out from under him.

Joshua Chamberlain by Matthew Brady

Bvt. Maj. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain as photographed by Mathew Brady. Library of Congress photo

Gen Ulysses S. Grant promoted Chamberlain to brigadier general at Petersburg, Va., in June 1864 on what was thought to be Chamberlain’s deathbed. The new general officer’s younger brother Thomas, also an officer in the 20th Maine, urged surgeons to keep trying to repair Chamberlain’s shattered pelvis and bladder. Chamberlain recovered, returned to battle, and finished the war as a brevet major general. Grant chose him to preside over the Confederate surrender at Appomattox on April 12, 1865, nearly two years after the Gettysburg battle.

After the war, Chamberlain was elected governor of Maine and later became president of Bowdoin College. He died in 1914.

In the 1880s, Chamberlain took aim at the cheapening of the Medal of Honor. He initiated revocation of the award of the medal to hundreds in another Maine regiment who had done nothing more heroic than extend their enlistments. Thanks in part to his efforts, the medal is now recognized as the nation’s highest award for valor.

It was only after this, on August 11, 1893—thirty years after Gettysburg—that Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for “heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults.” The 20th Maine’s regimental color sergeant, Sgt. Andrew J. Tozier also was awarded the Medal of Honor for the same action.

Chamberlain isn’t among the heroes for whom statues were erected at Gettysburg, Still, today he is viewed today as one of the most inspiring officers of the Civil War and enjoys respect in both the north and south of this once-divided nation. Actor Daniels portrayed him again the film Gods and Generals (2002)

This article was originally published on July 6, 2011


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-6996">
    Dwight Zimmerman

    Sixty-four Medals of Honor were awarded to members of the Army of the Potomac who fought at Gettysburg, including Chamberlain. During that period, the 27th Maine Volunteer Regiment received 864–the entire complement–for agreeing to extend their enlistment in order to help guard Washington, DC. What was even more amazing was that only about a third of the regiment agreed to extend their enlistments during the crisis, but they all were awarded the Medal of Honor as a result of a mistake by Secretary of War Stanton. The striking of the unit from the Medal of Honor roll occurred in what was called the Purge of 1917.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-7053">
    Larry Roach

    Bravery was commonplace on those battlefields. Men cut down in their prime – blue & grey. Amazing acts of heroism knwn only to the spirits of the deceased. How does one gauge one worthy of a medal – any act deserving of merit?

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-7067">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    It’s true. You have to wonder if bravery was so common because life was so hard, brutal, and short in those times. In reading about the Civil War you can’t help but come across, again and again, the amazing accounts of valor and humanity in what was a slaughterhouse built from technology that had outrun tactics.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-8480">

    Acts of extreme bravery have taken place in every war or contingency fought by U.S. Forces since our Civil War. I am somewhat dismayed by the low number of Medal of Honor awards authorized by Congress in the 10 plus years the U.S. has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Having spent more than four years in both theaters I can attest to the bravery our men and women in the field exhibit. I believe the troops of today are among the bravest, most dedicated and patriotic our wonderful country has ever sent into battle. May God Bless them all.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-robert-f-dorr bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-8486">
    Robert F. Dorr

    The Medal of Honor is awarded by the executive branch, not by Congress. A typical citation for the award, at least in the modern era, refers to “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of [one’s] life above and beyond the call of duty.” We would probably see more awards from our current wars if those wars enjoyed greater support from the public. However, when a military member of a sophisticated modern nation fights an illiterate Pashtun tribesman, the opportunities for individual valor are sparse. When an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot drops a million-dollar satellite-guided bomb from 20,000 feet in order to destroy a $10,000 pick-up truck, that pilot is considered to be in “combat.” But is it really combat? To my knowledge there has not been a Joshua Chamberlain-style bayonet charge since the Korean War.

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