American History and Genealogy Project


The Hero of Little Round Top

Among her heroes, Maine will always have a place for Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 'The Hero of Little Round Top."

Little Round Top was a hill on the field of Gettysburg, Pa., where a decisive battle of the Civil War was fought and where the gallant troops of the North repulsed the attacks of the Southern armies in a fierce, hand-to-hand conflict that was marked by heroism and devotion, on both sides.

Here, on a hot day in July, two days before the anniversary of American Independence of that year, the troops of the 20th Maine Infantry, forming the extreme left of the National defense, sustained the assaults of Gen. Longstreet on the extreme right of the Confederate armies, and, turning again on them, drove them from the field, saved the heights and took many Confederate prisoners, leaving the hill-top strewn with dead and wounded.

The leader of the Northern troops in this heroic stand for the Union on Little Round Top was General Chamberlain, a soldier, a scholar, a statesman, afterward a Governor of Maine and President of Bowdoin College and ever a gentleman of winsome and gentle manner, great in peace as he was in war.

When the war broke out in 1861, Gen. Chamberlain was only 28 years of age, a Professor at Bowdoin, from which he had been graduated six years before. He was born in Brewer, Maine, on a farm and, by his own scholarly attainments, his fine bearing and his nobility of character, had attained supremacy in many branches of work. When the war broke out he immediately offered himself to his country. After he had become famous, a lady once asked him how he happened to have been in the Civil War. ''Madam," said he, "I didn't happen." He did not "happen'' to be in the war; he went, as a soldier should go, eager to be of service to human freedom. He was given a lieutenant's commission; became Colonel; he saved Little Round Top, the most important position of the great battle of Gettysburg against a foe that outnumbered his troops three to one, and before the end of the Civil War, he was a Major-General of the Union armies.
He was a very handsome man, erect, tall, with a flashing eye, a strong, musical voice. Apparently regardless of danger he was willing to lead his men into any place where duty called. In the bloody battle of Petersburg, he was leading his troops to assault when a bullet passed through his body. He believed the wound to be mortal. He felt his life-blood ebbing away with his strength; yet he stood, leaning upon his sword, ordering the advance. Thus he stood until the last man of his command had passed him; and then, when no soldier of his should see him fall, he fell to earth and was carried from the field, as though dead. Six times was he wounded during the war and for all of his life, afterward, he suffered continually. At Little Round Top, he was fearfully wounded in the charge that passed up the hill in which the Maine boys drove the Southern soldiers from the hill, capturing over 800 Confederate prisoners in the assault. As he lapsed into unconsciousness, he grasped firm hold of a little bush beside which he had sunk. Years afterward, when Gettysburg had become a memory, he still retained the impressions of that moment and he said, "I felt that if I let go of that little shrub, I should die. I thought that with release of that, my soul would leave my body." And so, in the intervals of pain and unconsciousness, he kept fast hold until he was carried from the battlefield to be restored later to health and strength.

From Gettysburg to Appomattox, Gen. Chamberlain, in spite of all his wounds, was able to follow the course of the victorious armies of the North. Appomattox was the last great battle-field of the war. It was here that the Army of General Robert E. Lee laid down its arms, stacked its battle-flags and with generous terms of surrender from General U. S. Grant, dispersed sadly to its homes. When the historic moment for the surrender came and when it became the duty of General Grant to receive Gen. Lee's sword in token of complete surrender, it was Gen. Chamberlain who was deputed to receive the sword of the great Southern general. Seated on his horse, his uniform soiled by smoke and dust, Gen. Chamberlain watched the ragged Confederate troops file by. As one Confederate color bearer delivered up the tattered flag of his regiment, he burst into tears, saying, ''Boys! You have all seen this old flag before. I had rather give my own life than give up that flag." The sentiment touched Gen. Chamberlain and he made the remark that endeared him to the South and was repeated thousands of times: "Brave fellow! Your spirit is that of the true soldier in any army on any field. I only regret that I have not the authority to bid you take that flag, carry it home, and preserve it as a precious heirloom of a soldier who did his full duty."

General Chamberlain came home to Maine after the war, one of the most honored and beloved of the soldiers of that great struggle. His college made him its President. His State made him four times a governor. He brought back to Maine his wounds, his suffering and his wonderful spirit of devotion to humanity. His hair was as white as snow. His face was set in lines that indicated the stormy background of his life. It was a suggestive picture to see him about the town of Brunswick, driving his old war-horse, Charlie, one of six horses that he rode in the service, five others having been shot under him. Twice his horse saved the life of his master. Once a bullet went into the horse's neck that otherwise would have struck his rider and once the horse galloped from the field with his unconscious master upon his back. Charlie died in Brunswick and was buried near Gen. Chamberlain's summer home by the sea.

It has been said that the greatest soldiers are often the tenderest and most considerate of men. This has been true in many cases but not always. It was true in the case of Gen. Chamberlain. He had difficulty in saying ''no" to any person seeking his favor. He saw the high and noble heroism of his foes, even though he felt the injustice of their cause. He was a firm and lasting friend of General Lee of the Southern Armies.

He was once cruising among the Casco Bay Islands, when his yacht was visited by a party of picnickers. Gen. Chamberlain joined them on the shore around their campfire and here he told stories of the war. It was in the era when ill feeling yet ran high between North and South and another member of the party followed Gen. Chamberlain by severe arraignment of the South.

In the party was a young lady from Virginia whose feelings were deeply hurt by the tirade. One person alone noticed; this was Gen. Chamberlain. With his customary kindness and thoughtfulness, he began telling stories of the bravery and generosity of his foe and so won back the smiles to the young girl's face and left her full of admiration for the generous and gallant general of the North.

These qualities of human sympathy made him a magnetic orator and a wonderful writer. His oration on Maine, delivered by him at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, stands out as the finest historical address ever delivered on any subject connected with Maine and with perhaps no equal among the addresses of similar scope, in the history of our country. He wrote the most beautiful English and he spoke it as well. He was author of many books especially connected with historical matters touching his native State and the Civil War. Later in life, he recounted in a series of magazine articles, subsequently put into a book, all of his war time memories, and they are as interesting and as freshly vigorous and picturesque as though written by a young man, instead of by a man long past the allotted term of life.

Thousands of boys loved and admired Gen, Chamberlain. He met them all over the world in his travels, boys whom he had helped through college. A friend of Gen. Chamberlain was once standing in front of the Parthenon, the ruin of the renowned Greek temple at Athens, when the photographer, an Armenian, hearing the word "Bowdoin College" asked for Gen. Chamberlain. "I adore Gen. Chamberlain," said he. ''I was a persecuted Armenian, He loaned me the money to give me my education." This young man was a photographer of renown and a photograph of the statue of Hermes, which he sent to Gen. Chamberlain, hung in the Brunswick home of the General up to the time of his death.

The death of Gen. Chamberlain occurred at Brunswick in 1914, at the age of 86 years. The house where he lived and died in Brunswick was the home of Longfellow, when he lived and taught at Bowdoin. Gen. Chamberlain lies buried not far from his Brunswick home. His funeral was a great military and civic honor. He died in the love and veneration of his country and of his State, having proved by his life and his death the virtues as well as the victories of a Christian soldier and a true and cultured gentleman.

Home of General Chamberlain in Brunswick

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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