Each week I have shared a story about one of my heroes and this week of the 4th of July I would like to tell you the story about Joshua Chamberlain. This is the kind of man who old legends are written about but in this case is a true story. Perhaps you have heard how if we think of life as a big web then everything that happens changes everything. This is a story that really demonstrates the fact.
Joshua’s mother wanted Joshua to become a minister because he was gentle and hated to kill anything even though he was known as a crack shot. His father wanted him to go into the military because two of his grandfathers had fought in the Revolutionary War. Joshua thought both of those choices had too many restrictions so he became a farmer, poet, musician, writer and in 1862 he was a college professor in Maine. Saying he was a linguist is not strong enough because this Renascence man knew 10 languages. If that is not enough he had manners, was known as an honest man, cheerful and generous. He was tall with piercing blue eyes. In 1862 Joshua married and became the father to five children. It seemed he had it all when he volunteered for the Union army. The reason was because he was so sure that it would be a disaster if the country divided.
The day I wanted to tell you about was at a Gettysburg and the fight for a hill called the Little Round Top. Joshua was the officer in charge of the 20th Maine which included his two brothers. Tom was a junior officer and John the chaplain. The 20th had 238 men far from the 500 that would be a full regiment. General Meade brought him another 120 deserters at gunpoint from a Maine unit that had disbanded, he ordered to turn them into soldiers or shoot them.
He listened to their stories, concluded they were mistreated and told the generals what he believed and told the men if they followed him he would respect them as a soldier. You see the officers had better food and sleeping arrangements than the men except in the Maine 20th. Joshua slept outdoors with his men rain or shine. When he ordered them to do something, he picked up a shovel and helped. He worked, slept and ate side by side with these men asking nothing more of them than he asked of himself, according to all the written records he was funny and encouraging.
His mission, to get to the top of the Little Round Top before the Confederates and hold it no matter what. They did get to the top first, John, Tom and Joshua riding together. Most of the time when you found one of them you had found all three but at the top but when a Confederate cannonball missed them by inches Joshua ordered his brothers to separate saying, “Another such shot might make a hard day for mother”. Lee knew if he won this battle in Gettysburg he had a clear shot to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington and the war would be over. Little Round Top was where it all came together. The fighting went on for two hours. General Oates a Southern General said it was, “The most destructive fire he had ever seen.”
Joshua took stock, half of his men were dead or badly wounded, his commanding officer was dead, outnumbered two to one, they had no ammunition, his back was up against the wall.
What could he do? What do you do when you feel you have no choices? Well this is what Joshua did-he told his men to fix their bayonets to the empty rifles. No matter how brave those southern soldiers were when 200 wild desperate men came running down the mountain those exhausted men ran. Joshua ran down the mountain and head first into a Confederate officer who shot at him. It only grazed his head and when Chamberlain put his sword to the officer’s throat he raised his hands in surrender. Within minutes the 200 men in the Maine 20th had 400 prisoners.
It was Joshua who accepted the formal surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox. As the former enemy lined up in front of him he ordered his men to attention, then ordered his men to salute with compassion and respect. Stories of Joshua’s kindness spread across the south making him very popular everywhere.
Over the course of three years he commanded men in 24 battles, wounded six times, many horses shot out from under him. His soldiers captured 2,700 prisoners and eight battle flags. After the war he drafted by the Republican Party. as Governor. Elected by the largest majority in Maine’s history, holding the place of Governor for four terms. Then he became the President of Bowdoin College. He died at 85.
I told you this story because I believe we need heroes, people to model after and remind us that sometimes things look hopeless but there is still another choice. Maybe Joshua Chamberlain is who Winston Churchill was thinking about when he said, “When you are going through hell just keep going.” But in my mind what makes him a hero is his kindness, compassion, leadership and humor.
This 4th of July holiday weekend I hope you remember men like Joshua Chamberlain.