Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

JOSHUA LAWRENCE CHAMBERLAIN (September 8, 1828–February 24, 1914)

Kenneth Nivision

By issuing a “soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes” of the Confederate Army on April 12, 1865, Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain solidified himself in the annals of the Civil War as a near transcendental figure. In a similar fashion, the extension of such a symbolic olive branch has transcended history as an event of supreme importance for the American nation, beginning the process of reuniting North and South. Chamberlain’s actions that day also reflect how the leadership qualities of a college professor from Maine developed and crystallized in the bloody maelstrom that was the American Civil War. Moreover, they represent the culmination of his belief of what the Civil War was all about: creating an America of states united, a nation that was free for all of its inhabitants.

Historians have been quick to highlight three characteristics that gave force and meaning to the events of Chamberlain’s life. The first of these qualities was Chamberlain’s deep faith in God and his resignation of future events to Divine Providence. Second, Chamberlain is portrayed as having had a tremendous work ethic that manifested itself in his time as a student and professor at Bowdoin College as well as on the battlefields with the Army of the Potomac. Lastly, historians have emphasized Chamberlain’s great vision, his ability to think and operate in bigger, philosophical terms. In illustrating these principal characteristics, historians have shown a great deal of consensus in their interpretation of the man. They all convey the admiration that the American public has had for Chamberlain.

Yet for all of the importance of these three characteristics, a fourth quality exists that served as a central element of his life and bound all of the particulars together in his actions as a leader in the Civil War. At every step, Chamberlain’s sense of duty to his country—his deep sense of nationalism—drove his actions in the war and after the war. His first commitment was to his nation, and he fought not only to preserve its integrity but also to ensure that it became free

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