Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Recall Our Joshua Chamberlains In The Building Of Our Nation
Every Fourth of July is a special day for recalling people of all walks who have moved our nation forward from the times of its origin to today.
The holiday known for its brass bands and fireworks is also time to weigh the grimmer work of patriotism. The words of our time grow less civil each year: Partisan vitriol smokes the air as would rifle shots at Gettysburg. History leaves clues.
The Civil War of 1861-1865 is rich with lessons for our time. Much can be learned from the leadership of army volunteer Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, who rose to the rank of general in the Union Army.
Chamberlain, as did President Lincoln, had a keen sense of the larger view. His brand of patriotism recognized that nations are of many parts. There are times to fortify aspects and times to pull them back together. He led accordingly.
Assemble the parts. Then-Colonel Joshua Chamberlain led the 20th Maine Regiment at Gettysburg. His men of the 20th Maine stood at the Union’s left flank at Little Round Top. Chamberlain’s biography tells of his heroic will and skills that held the crucial left flank against the enemy onslaught in that epic battle. For his prowess at Gettysburg, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
In all, Chamberlain fought in 20 battles and numerous skirmishes, was cited for bravery four times, had six horses shot from under him and was wounded six times.
He showed his skill and bravery again in the surrender parade at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Chamberlain learned of Lee’s decision 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 John 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 he was told 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. Thus Chamberlain was responsible for one of the most poignant scenes of the Civil War.
As the Confederate soldiers marched down the road to surrender their arms and colors, Chamberlain, on his own initiative, ordered his men to come to attention and “carry arms” as a show of respect.
What happened next is described in Chamberlain’s written account, “The Passing of the Armies”:
Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the ‘carry.’ All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, not a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead.
Chamberlain’s salute to the Confederate soldiers was unpopular with many in the North, but he defended his action in his memoirs. After the war, Chamberlain entered politics and four times was elected governor of Maine. He later was president of Bowdoin College.
Pressing needs wait to be filled in today’s civil war of growing divides and bitter replies. Our great need is a glint of a Joshua Chamberlain and John Gordon. Not one alone, but both.
Imagine six horses being shot from under you. Imagine six wounds by gunshot. Imagine raising a salute of arms to your countrymen who caused your losses. Imagine building our nation with such a profound regard for it.