Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born on September 8, 1828, in Brewer, Maine. He was the first of five children of Joshua and Sarah (Brastow) Chamberlain. Chamberlain came from a distinguished military ancestry; his great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War; his grandfather fought in the War of 1812; and his father served in the Maine militia.
After attending a military academy in Ellsworth, Maine, Chamberlain enrolled at Bowdoin College in 1848 and graduated in 1852. In 1855, he received a bachelor’s degree in divinity at Bangor Theological Seminary. On December 7, 1855, he married Frances “Fannie” Caroline Adams. Following his marriage, Chamberlain returned to Bowdoin College, serving on the faculty as an instructor and professor of rhetoric and modern languages.
Battle of Fredericksburg
In 1862, Chamberlain enlisted as a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine Regiment, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac throughout the American Civil War. Lacking any formal military education, Chamberlain learned from books on the subject and from battlefield experience. Chamberlain was present at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), but his first real taste of combat came at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), where he and his men resorted to using their dead comrades as shields from enemy snipers while stranded on the battlefield overnight.
Battle of Chancellorsville
An outbreak of smallpox forced Chamberlain’s regiment to perform guard duty during the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863).
Promotion to Colonel
In June 1863, Chamberlain attained the rank of colonel, after the War Department promoted his regimental commander, Adelbert Ames, to brigadier-general on May 20.
Battle of Gettysburg
Chamberlain achieved everlasting fame at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 for his defense of a strategically important hill named Little Round Top. After withstanding several Confederate assaults, Chamberlain’s troops, out of ammunition, fixed bayonets and beat back the Rebels with a heroic charge. Their actions prevented the Union army from being flanked, possibly winning the battle and perhaps even the war for the North. For his gallantry and leadership, Congress awarded Chamberlain the Medal of Honor thirty years after the battle.
Following Gettysburg, Chamberlain contracted malaria in 1863 and did not resume active duty until April 1864. Upon returning to duty, Chamberlain served throughout the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox campaigns.
Wounded at Petersburg
At the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 18, 1864, a gunshot wound to his leg and groin incapacitated Chamberlain. The injury was one of six wounds that he received during the war. Expecting Chamberlain to die from his wound, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant gave him a battlefield promotion to brigadier-general the next day. Despite his grave prognosis, Chamberlain recovered and returned to the line in November.
Chamberlain received wounds again, in the arm and chest, at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm, on March 29, 1865. The courage and leadership he displayed during the battle prompted U.S. President Abraham Lincoln to brevet Chamberlain to the rank of major general.
Surrender at Appomattox Court House
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain received Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s request for a cessation of hostilities, as a prelude to surrender talks at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. General Grant selected Chamberlain to preside over the official surrender review on April 12, 1865. During the ceremony, Chamberlain required his troops to display dignity and respect for their vanquished opponents.
Governor of Maine
Following the war, Chamberlain mustered out of the volunteer army on June 16, 1866. Declining an offer of a colonelcy in the regular army, Chamberlain, instead, returned to Maine, where he entered the political arena. Chamberlain won election to the first of four one-year terms as Governor of Maine in 1866.
In 1871, Chamberlain retired from politics and became the president of Bowdoin College. Ill health caused by his Civil War wounds forced him to resign from that position in 1883. During his later years, Chamberlain suffered from severe pain and repeated infections resulting from his wound at Petersburg.
His infirmities did not prevent him from remaining active during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain was a popular speaker at many Civil War commemorations, the more prominent of which were the twenty-fifth and fiftieth anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1888 and 1913. He also represented Maine at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. From 1884 to 1889, Chamberlain spent much of his time in Florida, where the warm weather benefited his health. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Chamberlain as Surveyor of the Port of Portland, Maine, a position he held until his death.
Chamberlain died on February 24, 1914, in Portland, Maine. Attending physicians attributed his death to an infection of the wound he received at Petersburg nearly fifty years earlier. Chamberlain’s final resting place is in Pine Grove Cemetery, Brunswick, Maine.
Chamberlain’s memoirs, titled The Passing of Armies, were published in 1915, one year after his death. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, and the movie Gettysburg, based upon Shaara’s novel, later immortalized Chamberlain’s heroics during the Battle of Gettysburg.