The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 2 July 1863, while serving with 20th Maine Infantry, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top.
Chamberlain's great-grandfathers were Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. One, Franklin Chamberlain, was a sergeant at the Siege of Yorktown. His grandfather, also named Joshua Chamberlain, was a colonel in the local militia during the War of 1812 and was court-martialed (but exonerated) for his part in the humiliating Battle of Hampden, which led to the sacking of Bangor and Brewer by British forces. His father also had served during the abortive Aroostook War of 1839.
Chamberlain was born in Brewer, Maine, the son of Sarah Dupee (née Brastow) and Joshua Chamberlain on September 8, 1828. Chamberlain was of English ancestry, and could trace his family line back to twelfth century England, during the reign of King Stephen. He was the oldest of five children. It is said that he was his mother's favorite while his father was tough on him. He was very involved in his church, mostly singing in the choir. His mother encouraged him to become a preacher while his father wanted him to join the military, but he felt a reluctance towards both options. He suffered a speech impediment until shortly after graduating from Bowdoin College. He entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1848 with the help of a local tutor, professor william Hyde. Chamberlain learned to read Ancient Greek and Latin in order to pass the entrance exam. While at Bowdoin he met many people who would influence his life, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of Bowdoin professor Calvin Stowe. Chamberlain would often go to Listen to her read passages from what would later become her celebrated novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. He also joined the Peucinian Society, a group of students with Federalist leanings. A member of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society and a brother of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, Chamberlain graduated in 1852.
He married Fanny Adams, cousin and adopted daughter of a local clergyman, in 1855, and they had five children, one of whom was born too prematurely to survive and two of whom died in infancy. Chamberlain studied for three additional years at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, returned to Bowdoin, and began a career in education as a professor of rhetoric. He eventually went on to teach every subject in the curriculum with the exception of science and mathematics. In 1861 he was appointed Professor of Modern Languages. He was fluent in nine languages other than English: Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Chamberlain believed the Union needed to be supported by all those willing against the Confederacy. On several occasions, Chamberlain spoke freely of his beliefs during his class, urging students to follow their hearts in regards to the war while issuing his own proclamation that the cause was just. Of his Desire to serve in the War, he wrote to Maine's Governor Israel Washburn, Jr., "I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery." Many faculty at Bowdoin did not feel his enthusiasm for various reasons and Chamberlain was subsequently granted a leave of absence (supposedly to study languages for two years in Europe). He then promptly enlisted unbeknownst to those at Bowdoin and his family. Offered the colonelcy of the 20th Maine Regiment, he declined, according to his biographer, John J. Pullen, preferring to "start a little lower and learn the Business first." He was appointed lieutenant colonel of the regiment on August 8, 1862, under the command of Col. Adelbert Ames. The 20th was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps in the Union Army of the Potomac. One of Chamberlain's younger brothers, Thomas Chamberlain, was also an officer of the 20th Maine, and another, John Chamberlain, visited the regiment at Gettysburg as a member of the U.S. Christian Commission until appointed as a chaplain in another Maine Volunteer regiment. The 20th Maine fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg, suffering relatively small numbers of casualties in the assaults on Marye's Heights, but were forced to spend a miserable night on the freezing battlefield among the many wounded from other regiments. Chamberlain chronicled this night well in his diary and went to great length discussing his having to use bodies of the fallen for shelter and a pillow while listening to the bullets zip into the corpses. The 20th missed the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 due to an outbreak of smallpox in their ranks (which was caused by an errant smallpox vaccine), keeping them on guard duty in the rear. Chamberlain was promoted to colonel of the regiment in June 1863 upon the promotion of Ames.
Beginning with his first election as governor of Maine and continuing to the end of his life, Chamberlain was active in the Grand Army of the Republic. Despite continual pain and discomfort from his wounds of 1864, he made many return visits to Gettysburg and delivered speeches at soldiers' reunions. He made his last known visit on May 16 and 17, 1913, while involved in planning the 50th anniversary reunion. Because of deteriorating health, he was unable to attend the reunion less than two months later.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain learned of the Desire by General Robert E. Lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia when a Confederate staff officer approached him under a flag of truce. "Sir," he reported to Chamberlain, "I am from General Gordon. General Lee desires a cessation of hostilities until he can hear from General Grant as to the proposed surrender." The next day, Chamberlain was summoned to Union headquarters where Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin informed him that he had been selected to preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry as part of their formal surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12.
Chamberlain left the U.S. Army soon after the war ended, going back to his home state of Maine. Due to his immense popularity, he served as Governor of Maine for four one-year terms after he won election as a Republican. His victory in 1866 set the record for the most votes and the highest percentage for any Maine governor by that time. He would break his own record in 1868. During his time in office, he was attacked by those angered by his support for capital punishment and by his refusal to create a special police force to enforce the prohibition of alcohol.
After leaving political office, he returned to Bowdoin College. In 1871, he was appointed President of Bowdoin and remained in that position until 1883, when he was forced to resign because of ill health from his war wounds. He also served as an ex-officio trustee of nearby Bates College from 1867 to 1871.
A special edition of his Paris report on “Education in Europe” was published by the United States government (Washington, 1879).
In January 1880, there was a dispute about who was the newly elected governor of Maine, and the Maine State House was occupied by a band of armed men. The outgoing governor, Alonzo Garcelon, summoned Chamberlain, the commander of the Maine Militia, to take charge. Chamberlain sent home the armed men, and arranged for the Augusta police to keep control. He stayed in the State House most of the twelve-day period until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court's decision on the election results was known. During this time, there were threats of assassination and kidnapping, and on one occasion, he went outside to face down a crowd of 25–30 men intending to kill him, and both sides offered bribes to appoint him a United States senator. Having gratified neither side in the dispute, he did not become a senator, and his career in state politics ended.
After resigning from Bowdoin in 1883, he went to New York City to practice law. Chamberlain served as Surveyor of the Port of Portland, Maine, a federal appointment, and engaged in Business activities, including real estate dealings in Florida (1885) and a college of art in New York, as well as hotels. He traveled to the West Coast to work on railroad building and public improvements. From the time of his serious wound in 1864 until his death, he was forced to wear an early form of a catheter with a bag and underwent six operations to try to correct the original wound and stop the fevers and infections that plagued him, without success.
In 1893, 30 years after the battle that made the 20th Maine famous, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg. The citation commends him for his "Daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top." As in many other Civil War actions, controversy arose when one of his subordinate officers stated that Chamberlain never actually ordered a charge at Gettysburg. The claim never seriously affected Chamberlain's fame or notoriety, however. This original medal was lost, and later rediscovered in 2013, and donated to the Pejebscot Historical Society in Brunswick, Maine. A second, redesigned medal issued in 1904 is currently housed at Bowdoin College.
In 1898, at the age of 70, still in pain from his wounds, he volunteered for duty as an officer in the Spanish–American War. Rejected for duty, he called it one of the major disappointments of his life.
In 1905, Chamberlain became a founding member of the Maine Institution for the Blind, in Portland, now called The Iris Network. Chamberlain's wife herself was visually impaired, which led him to serve on the organization's first board of Directors.
Another Forstchen work, "A Hard Day For Mother", is a short story from the first volume in the variety anthology series "Alternate Generals". That work is based on the premise of: "what if Chamberlain was on the Confederate side at Gettysburg?" The story assumes that a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War Chamberlain had taken a teaching job at a Virginia military academy and developed a love for the state of Virginia; that with the outbreak of war he joined the Confederate side under Robert E. Lee; that in Gettysburg he gained the Little Round Top for the Confederacy, fighting against his own brother Tom commanding the 20th Maine; that thereby Chamberlain won the battle and the entire war for the Confederacy; that he later remained in the independent Confederacy and was eventually elected its President; and that his reconciliatory attitude towards the North led to Confederacy and the United States eventually holding referendums and freely deciding to re-unite in 1914, following Chamberlain's death.
The book The Lost Regiment and the subsequent series by author william R. Forstchen chronicle the adventures of the "35th Maine", a Union regiment from Maine having been transported to an alien planet. The regiment was based on the 20th Maine, with the main character and commander of the regiment, Andrew Lawrence Keane, also being a college professor.
US Route 1A is carried across the Penobscot River between Bangor and Brewer, Maine by the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge, a two-lane steel plate girder bridge opened on November 11, 1954.
Ken Burns's 1990 nine-part PBS film The Civil War featured Chamberlain prominently.
A musical, Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance, with book and lyrics by Sarah Knapp and music by Steven M. Alper was commissioned by Maine State Music Theatre in 1993 and received its premiere at that theatre in July, 1996. That production starred Mark Jacoby as Chamberlain and Sarah Knapp as Fannie Chamberlain. It was revived in a revised form by Maine State in 2014. According to its bookwriter, the musical is "an exploration of the perennial conflict between public duty and private devotion. This musical … not only celebrates a great Civil War hero, but also examines a universal theme: How a person’s sense of duty and destiny affect his personal life."
Chamberlain emerged as a key character in Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize–winning historical novel about Gettysburg, The Killer Angels (1974), and in a prequel novel by his son, Jeff Shaara, Gods and Generals (1996). Chamberlain is portrayed by actor Jeff Daniels in the film Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003), based on the books. His portrayal in these books and films significantly enhanced Chamberlain's reputation in the general public, making him into a more popular and well known figure.