Visiting Joshua Chamberlain’s House (Part 2)

(Part 1 can be seen here).

A Remarkable Life

By any measure and for any time, General Joshua Chamberlain lived a remarkable, dramatic life of adventure – especially for a professor of religion.  Most famously, he was the colonel leading the 20th Maine Volunteer Company in the Civil War who defended the far left flank of the entire northern Army of the Potomac on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. With a left-wheel, bayonet charge down the rocky hillside, they are credited with saving the army, and perhaps the war, on that July 2nd day.  He endured one of the six serious wounds he ultimately received in the course of the war, leaving him in constant pain for most of his long adult life.  One of those wounds was a .50 caliber minie-ball through two pelvic bones, which nicked his bladder, and was universally considered fatal.  When General U.S.Grant heard about the grievous wound, he had Chamberlain promoted to General on the spot in the field, in order for him die as a general. From the hospital, Chamberlain wrote a lovely “last letter” to his wife as he lay awaiting death.  Against the odds, he recovered and rejoined the war effort, despite a significant limp and severe difficulty in riding his horse.  He continued to lead his regimen so well, as fate would have it, he led them to trap General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as they retreated from Petersburg to Appomattox Court House.  The Fighting Professor was then asked by General US Grant to be the regimen to receive the official surrender of Lee’s army.  At the crucial moment of the surrender, as Lee’s army approached to lay down their swords, heads’ bowed in grim defeat, Chamberlain ordered his men to “present arms”, a gesture of honor and respect to a worthy opponent.  It memorably altered the moment’s tenor, converting it from a conquest of a hated enemy to a hat tip to a future colleague, and becoming a symbolic offer of “charity towards all” harkening back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Chamberlain had a kind of “perfect pitch” for history’s pregnant moments.

Following the war, Chamberlain returned to Maine, serving four terms as Governor, followed by a lengthy stint at President of his alma mater, Bowdoin.  Much of this time he spent writing his memoirs, particularly of his exploits in the Civil War, mostly from within the house on Potter Street, just off the Bowdoin campus.  This is where the Chamberlain Museum is now located.  We turned in.

A Remarkable House

We arrived just in time to sign up for a tour of the facility, which overlooks the Bowdoin campus.  The tour is enthusiastically led by a loquacious volunteer, an 80-something docent – my absolute favorite kind of historical guide.  The WWII vet, so reminiscent of the men I cared for during my clinic during residency at the University of Pittsburgh VA hospital, is full of facts, opinions, and a gleaming eye for the kids on the tour. As he limps through the house, holding on for support, he offers an authoritative opinion on anything and constantly asking, “What other questions do you have?”

The lovely old mansion is somewhere between dilapidated and magnificent, with cracked walls competing with restored, original furniture.  The on-going, underfunded restoration effort is battling with an on-going process of weathered decay, with the final outcome standing in the balance, a distant echo of Little Round Top itself.  The lady up-front tells me they just received a small private grant to restore the chimney, but need about 50 times that much to complete the full restoration. Two of the rooms have significant recent water damage, making one of them, the kitchen, off-limits for the tour.

The house itself has an unusual history.  Built originally in early 1800s, the original structure was later moved en masse and pivoted, rotated from facing Maine Street to facing Potter Street and the Bowdoin campus.  Later, when Chamberlain became college president, his wife refused to move into the official president’s house a short distance away.  In order to maintain the desired living quarters while adding an area to conduct official business, the entire structure was then jacked up 11 feet, and a new ground floor was added, a predecessor of Chicago’s later raising of its downtown buildings from the sinking muck they were built upon.

A Remarkable Collection

In the first room, the docent asks the kids, what U.S. President with the initials J.Q.A. was in office at the time of Chamberlain’s birth.  To my delight, my 11 year old nails it – John Quincy Adams.  I’m especially tickled because the kids rarely pay attention at these history tours I inflict upon them, but because I’m reading a biography of John Adams right now.  Which leads to another of those “can-you-believe-it?” facts of history – Chamberlain’s wife “Franny” is related, in a tangential way, to the Adams family.  She was born to a relative by marriage of John Quincy’s, then adopted by another, childless member of the family.  A tenuous tie between the Revolutionary Generation and the Civil War generation – I absolutely delight in such connections.  The docent is equally delighted that one of the kids got the answer to his question, and we’re off and running.

The displays within the house mirror the contrasting quality of the overall building. The displays are not the polished work of, say, the Lincoln Museum in Springfield; rather, they are competent descriptions of the items. They are arranged loosely by themes in specific rooms, but they are not thematically arranged or organized into a narrative.  Our guide points to items that strike his fancy, but completely overlooks some others.  But what a selection of items!  There is a room that contains his actual Medal of Honor – the most prestigious medal given by the military, one that Truman reportedly said he’d have given up the presidency to receive.  It hangs, unprotected, on a wall and receives a short mention by the docent.  In a case, there is a bullet fragment – that was removed from Chamberlain!  The docent doesn’t mention it, but when I ask, he says it’s from the foot wound he received at Gettysburg while fighting on Little Round Top!  We linger over portrait paintings of his parents, while the original Tojani oil painting of the bayonet charge on Little Round Top goes undiscussed.  I have to confirm the authenticity of the painting as we move out of the room.  The house is simply full of amazing artifacts, openly displayed for inspection, and the docent offers great anecdotes.  But one is best served with a prior knowledge of the relevant history in order to fully appreciate the value of many items.

As we meander through the house, we learn more and more quirky facts. The odd-shaped rooms with rounded walls and no corners was designed by the ship-builder, not an architect.  Among those who sat on the furniture in the dining room are U.S. Grant and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Ms. Stowe’s father taught as Bowdoin.  Speaking of Bowdoin, Chamberlain had Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a teacher, and student Chamberlain’s signed book from class is there.  A red velvet-lined chair sitting at a desk looks like a throne – and it is, brought there by Chamberlain as a gift from the Queen of England.  These details provide a rich tapestry to the intertwining lives of history.

Remarkable Legacy

Chamberlain and his wife were something of medical marvels of the age.  His wife had strabismus, which left her with a lifelong vision problem, despite attempts at surgical correction.  Chamberlain’s pelvic wound, which left him with a permanent limb for life, also left him with a damaged urethra, requiring a catheter.  Having received 6 wounds in the course of the war, he lived a remarkably active, long life and was a “happy man”, by all accounts, according to the docent, shaking his head in disbelief.  Like many of the day, several of their 5 kids died of “consumption” – tuberculosis – in part because all 4 boys slept together, since the cause of the disease was not known.  Chamberlain has a personal nurse for much of his later life, to help given his mobility limitations.  The challenges of growing older echo across the ages.

One reason we know so much about Chamberlain’s life is that he wrote so much of it down for us.  While the Civil War soldiers were a remarkable literate lot, Chamberlain was an academic and gifted prose stylist well beyond average.  He left behind vivid, first-hand accounts of his experiences, and he was happy to take a starring role in the script.  Some have criticized him for this, complaining that he, and his defenders like Shaara, have glorified his place in history, while pushing others equally worthy to the side.  People like Gouvernour Warren and Strong Vincent, equally valiant and arguably more important participants on Little Round Top, have been relegated to supporting roles in the story, despite their actual importance exceeding Chamberlain in historical fact.  There’s something to be said for making sure to get your own side of story out – which I try to use as inspiration.  I also encourage those with time and inclination to read the relevant history and decide for themselves the truth.   By any measure, Chamberlain had a fascinating story to tell, and we are lucky to have it to learn from.

Chamberlain’s remarkable life has been an inspiration for this academic over the years.  His bold decision to leave the safe confines of the academy – his took a leave of absence, promising his bosses and his mother he was going to Europe to study – and raise volunteer troops to fight for the noble twin causes of “union” and “abolition” challenges me to pursue my inner beliefs.  That he taught himself the military arts and rose to the rank of Major General, even in those times of rapid ascension via attrition, illustrates true self-sufficiency and personal growth.  His magnanimous gesture to his defeated opponents showed a generosity of spirit, especially coming from someone nearly killed by those adversaries-turned-countrymen.  Would that we all could muster such courage and grace when the telling moment calls.

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Filed under Aging, Civil War, History

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