Red Booth Notes: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – Defending Freedom
And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order—do we call it?—fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command we heard, or His forgiveness we must forever implore?
—The Passing of the Armies,
by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1915)
The scene is unforgettable. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, one of the greatest heroes of The Civil War, is seated under a tree with Sgt. Kilrain, his comrade in arms, speaking of why it is so vitally important to win this desperate conflict. To preserve the union, yes—but no less vital—to secure freedom for the sons and daughters of Africa. “I never knew that many black men in Maine,” Chamberlain admitted, “but those I knew…well, you looked in the eye and there was a man. There was a divine spark, as my mother used to say.”
These are lines from the now classic film, Gettysburg. Chamberlain’s words in this setting are therefore imagined, but they run very close to the deeply held faith he possessed. As The New York Times noted in its review of the film:
[Jeff Daniels’] Colonel Chamberlain confronts an exhausted, battleworn brigade of Union soldiers who refuse to fight any more and who have been thrust under his supervision at the worst possible moment.
Addressing them with a simplicity and directness that convey a complete understanding of their plight, he wins a loyalty that transcends all the conflicting issues and philosophies that the film [raises]. He is a leader whose sad blue eyes contain the “divine spark” that [his] character professes with a trembling passion to believe is innate in every human being.
Faith animated every aspect of Chamberlain’s life. The true story of how it shaped him, lent him courage, and gave him some of the great words that enrich our common cultural memory, is more powerful still than any film could convey. A gifted theologian and scholar, this bookish professor from rural Maine was a most unlikely soldier. Yet his resolve and keen sense of duty were such that he bucked the administration of his college, forsaking a promising academic career, to heed the summons from Abraham Lincoln to fight for his nation. Moreover his beloved wife Fannie, and his father—whom he greatly respected—were opposed to his going. Nevertheless, he felt he could not do other than he had done.
Tried in the crucible of war, and sustaining wounds from which he never really recovered, Chamberlain and his troops exhibited extraordinary valor that turned the tide in The Battle of Gettysburg.
Like Lincoln, whom he believed was summoned by Providence to serve America in an historical moment as dire as any she ever faced, Chamberlain was given to his time and to his country. Caught up in the epic struggle that was our American Iliad, Chamberlain too, was an indispensable man.
* * *
On a crisp autumn day, nearly ten years ago, I went to see my elderly cousin Joe Frost at his home in Eliot, Maine. Peppery and learned, he was much like his poet cousin Robert. In his early eighties, he still “got around spry,” and liked to say that he was “a veritable ball of fire.”
I had no doubt of it. He always lighted up when he got ready to show me one of his literary treasures, and that day was no exception. The last time we had visited we had spoken of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The next time we visited, Joe had said, he had something he wanted to show me.
Now that day had come. From a bookshelf in his library, Joe retrieved a nondescript three ring binder stuffed full of mylar sleeves containing old letters. It took him but a moment to find the letter he was looking for. He paused, and then began to read in voice that had once been full and rich, but now sounded as though it had been “tuned and broken at the capstan bars.”
For the few moments that he read I was taken back to scenes from Maine as it was in the late nineteenth century. I heard echoes of the voice that had once ordered men to descend Little Round Top in a desperate bayonet charge that has become legend. I heard the rhythms of finely wrought prose, and looked upon lines rendered in vigorous penmanship. The writer of these words had been dead for more than ninety years when my cousin read to me that day, but for a few moments there was a bridging of the years. History drew close and became more immediate. Joe was doing what he could to pass on something he cherished: the memory of a man whose name and whose words had been an inspiration to him. A man who had rallied to defend his nation, though he was a most unlikely soldier.
I think that is what Joe liked best about the man: someone who was bookish and learned, but someone who understood that there are times when ideals must be more than articulated and taught. There are times when they must be defended, even if it requires our last full measure of devotion. All this came through as I heard Chamberlain’s words read by my aging cousin, another Mainer who’d fought in a war that threatened everything he knew.
And so, to me, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is more than a name. More than the profile of a man with thoughtful, determined eyes I’ve so often seen as a frontispiece portrait in books that are yellowed with years.
“It was a divine providence which brought forth the man,” Chamberlain had once written of Abraham Lincoln. What was no less true, was the nation had need of such men as Chamberlain was. His gift to posterity was a life of conspicuous gallantry and deep humanity. He was “a man of God, a scholar, and a soldier.” His life, to quote his own words, was one that took on “the shape and symmetry God meant for it.” In 1856, when he took up his duties at Bowdoin College as a professor of Natural and Revealed Religion, he had no way of knowing that within ten years he would have fought in “twenty hard battles,” and be “struck six times by bullet and shell.” But then he believed what Shakespeare, whom he so often quoted, had written:
There’s a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
It was enough for him, and more than enough for the nation that had need of men like him.
 From page 55 of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915).
 From the review by Stephen Holden, “When War Was All Glory and Bands and Death,” in the Oct. 8, 1993 edition of The New York Times, and posted online at: http://movies.nytimes.com/mem/movies/review.html?res=9F0CE0DF173EF93BA35753C1A965958260
 For an in-depth discussion of Fannie Chamberlain’s opposition to her husband’s taking up arms, the reaction of Chamberlain’s colleagues at Bowdoin College, and the opposition of Chamberlain’s father to his fighting in The Civil War, see pages 8-9 of In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War, by Alice Rains Trulock, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
 From page 4 of Joshua L. Chamberlain, Abraham Lincoln: A Paper Read Before the Commandery of the State of Pennsylvania Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States on February 12, 1909, (privately published, 1909).
 From page xviii of The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, ed. by Jeremiah E. Goulka, Foreword by James M. McPherson, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, as quoted on page xxxiii of The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, ed. by Jeremiah E. Goulka, Foreword by James M. McPherson, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
 From page vii of The Biographical Note for The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915).
 Chamberlain cites these lines from Shakespeare on page 181 of his book, The Passing of the Armies: An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915).