by Canon Mark A. Pearson
(c) Copyright 2013, Mark A. Pearson. All rights reserved. One time copying for non-commercial use is granted by the copyright holder.
“General, you have the soul of the lion and the heart of the woman” — Union Brevet Major General Horatio G. Sickel to Brevet Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Quaker Road, Virginia, March 29, 1865.
In our day, the tenets of Christianity are being progressively pushed to the sidelines of the public arena. The Ten Commandments, part of the foundation of our legal system, have been removed from court rooms and the town square. People advocating particular public policies are told to keep their religion private and out of the discussion. Across Europe and North America people are increasingly told that if one espouses a belief about some issue, that belief must be argued on the basis of principles held by people in common, not on the basis of one’s religion. One may privately be a Christian but Christian belief must not be part of one’s advocacy of a particular position.
Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn, discussing God-talk in the run-up to last Fall’s presidential elections expressed the view of many: “I do not believe that religion should play any role in politics.” [Sally Quinn’s column, “On Faith” of October 11 in The Washington Post entitled, “The God vote meets the rage of atheists, agnostics, and humanists.”]
The Ontario, Canada, Education Minister told media that “Catholic schools should not be teaching that abortion is wrong because it is a violation of the government’s newly-enacted anti-bullying bill.” [“Official transcript confirms: Ontario minister says Catholic schools can’t teach pro-life views,” http://www.lifesitenews.com/news October 12, 2012.]
Increasingly, one may not in any way indicate he or she is even a Christian. In cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights lawyers for the British government argued that Christians should “leave their religious beliefs at home or move to another job” when faced with a clash between their faith and their jobs. Two of these cases were brought by a former nurse and by a British Airways worker who were penalized for wearing crosses to work. [http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue17307.html, “British Government: Christians should leave faith at the door.” September 6, 2012.]
Such a view was not formerly held in our country. The founding fathers, while enshrining in our Constitution a prohibition of a national State Church, made no secret of their Christian faith. Their patriotic actions flowed naturally from their beliefs about Christ. John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence wrote, “Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual . . . . Continue steadfast and, with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.” [History of the United States of America, Vol. II, p. 229.]
Incendiary patriot and ratifier of the Constitution Patrick Henry wrote, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ [cited in M. E. Bradford, The Trumpet Voice of Freedom: Patrick Henry of Virginia, 1991, p. iii].
William Lawrence, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, says to those who would restrict or even ban a connection between personal religion and public policy: “Any elected official who does not know about the importance of religious institutions in the Civil Rights movement, for example, should forego any aspirations for an elected office and return to school for some basic and advanced courses in American history.” [Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog, May 8, 2012.]
We will observe the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this July 1-3. Many believe this battle was the turning point of the war. Had the Confederacy won, General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would have marched the 85 or so miles to Washington, laid a letter outlining the terms of the victorious Confederacy on the desk of Union President Lincoln, and the South would have received its independence. But the South did not win. Gettysburg was the high water mark of the Confederacy and, though the war continued for nearly two more years, the South was now on the defensive and would eventually lose the war.
If the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the war, one of the major turning points of the battle was the skirmish on July 2 on a hill known as “Little Round Top.”
Sent to defend the southern slope of Little Round Top, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment were placed at the far left end of the entire Union line. Brigade commander Col. Strong Vincent knew the strategic significance of the small hill and the need for the 20th Maine to hold the Union left “at all hazards.” Otherwise, Confederate soldiers could swing round and attack the Union line from the rear as well as from the front, clear the hill and place artillery on the hill to fire down the entire Union line.
Troops from the 15th Alabama Infantry regiment under Col. William C. Oates charged up the hill while other troops attempted to flank the Union position. After several such Confederate charges, Chamberlain widened his line and deployed its far left at an angle so it could later make a sweeping motion, like a door slamming shut, blocking the flanking movement and slamming into the Confederacy’s right.
With his men out of ammunition and outnumbered nearly three to one, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge down the hill into the armed Alabama soldiers as the left of his line swung in from the side. His report from the day reads in part: “Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it, but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors. The men turned towards me. One word was enough, — “BAYONETS!” — It caught like fire, and swept through the ranks.” [Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “Through Blood and Fire at Gettysburg,” in Hearst’s Magazine, June, 1913; published in book form with the same title, Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994, p. 23.]
As battlefield conditions made it unlikely that many men heard Chamberlain’s second order — “Forward” — most historians believe he directly led the charge. Amazingly, this combination of frontal assault and flanking maneuver worked and the North prevailed.
Chamberlain’s brilliance was recognized at the time. The historian of the Fifth Corps, the corps to which Chamberlain’s 20th Maine belonged, later said: “. . . the little brigade of [Strong] Vincent’s with the self-sacrificing valor of the 20th Maine, under the gallant leadership of Joshua L. Chamberlain . . . saved to the Union arms the historic field of Gettysburg. Had they faltered for one instant — had they not exceeded their actual duty . . . there would have been no grand charge of Pickett, and ‘Gettysburg’ would have been the mausoleum of departed hopes of the national cause; for Longstreet would have enveloped Little Round Top, captured all on its crest from the rear, and held the key of the whole position.” [William H. Powell, History of the Fifth Army Corps (Army of the Potomoac): A Record of Operations during the Civil War in the United States of America, 1861-1865. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1896. pp. 530-1.]
Confederate Colonel Oates later commented on Chamberlain, “His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat. Great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.” [Willard M. Wallace, Soul of the Lion. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Stan Clark Military Books, 1960, p. 104.] For his brilliant leadership and his bravery under extreme fire Congress eventually bestowed upon him the Medal of Honor.
There has been a resurgence of the recognition of Chamberlain’s heroics. Chamberlain has prominent mention in the book The Killer Angels (1974), an historical novel by Michael Shaara which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. The movie “Gettysburg,” based on that book, was released in 1993.
Frederick Allen, managing editor of “American Heritage” magazine wrote, “This astounding, almost intimate hand-to-hand combat, far more than the hopeless Pickett’s charge the next day, was the pivotal moment of the Civil War and the nearest the Confederacy came to an out-right tide-turning victory.” [In the New York Times Book Review, 8 March 1998, p. 17. Cited in John J. Pullen, Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero’s Life & Legacy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999, p. 185.]
Of the several popular current biographies of Chamberlain a few border on hagiography, downplaying or even avoiding his faults, while the author of at least one treatment opts to bring his faults to center stage, downplaying both his exploits and his Christian commitment. Neither imbalance is true or fair to Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a Christian disciple and an imperfect human being and as such is relevant to us in the decisions we have to make.
Who was this Yankee colonel, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain? Why was he at Little Round Top commanding a regiment? Chamberlain (September 8, 1828 – February 24, 1914) was no professional soldier, though he participated in over twenty battles and was wounded six times. He was a Maine boy, a graduate of Bowdoin College and Bangor Theological Seminary. In the late 1850s he was a young professor at Bowdoin, initially teaching logic and natural theology and tutoring freshman Greek, a committed Christian and a man of compassion.
There were, to be sure, deeply committed Christians on both sides of the conflict. The South could name, among many leaders who were believers, Leonidas Polk, Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, a Confederate Lieutenant General who died at Pine Mountain, Georgia, in 1864; and Generals Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
But among so many committed Christians on both sides, it was arguably Chamberlain whose actions turned the tide and won the war. Those actions came from who he was as a Christian.
Chamberlain’s Christian faith
Chamberlain entered Bowdoin College in 1848. He encountered some experiences that frightened him, ranging from students skipping classes to drinking alcohol to excess. Devoting himself to Christian discipleship and helping bring his classmates to similar discipleship were of importance to Chamberlain as an undergraduate. He taught Sunday School in a church outside Brunswick his first two years of college, and was a choir leader at the Brunswick Congregational Church his final two. He wrote, most likely to his mentor Benjamin Galen Snow, an 1846 Bowdoin graduate and a student at Bangor Theological Seminary, discussing his sense unworthiness and also his joy at seeing people come to faith. He wrote:
We have also had a refreshing from the Lord. Four have indulged hope this term. There is still interest. We have had no Class meetings yet. The chief difficulty is in a room. No pious classmate has a room in which it would be convenient to meet. At the beginning of the term there were only two pious persons in the class, there are six now. We shall probably hold our class meetings in the room of one who has lately indulged hope.
[From Joshua L. Chamberlain to “My Dear Pastor,” Bowdoin College, May 5, 1848. learn.bowdoin.edu/joshua-lawrence-chamberlain/documents]
He was an enthusiastic supporter of the revival that swept through Maine in 1848-49. [Edward G. Longacre, Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1999, p. 24.]
Later, when the young professor offered his services for the war to Maine’s Governor Israel Washburn, Chamberlain was still uncertain whether this was the appropriate action or was it the taking of his recently-granted two year study sabbatical in Europe? Biographer Alice Rains Trulock, notes that, “As he was always wont to do in making any important decision, he would have been looking for God’s will for him on the issue . . . .”
[Alice Rains Trulock, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992, p. 61.]
Chamberlain’s orthodox faith was demonstrated by the attitude of the college’s conservative trustees towards his intention to offer himself for military service. While both the trustee and overseer boards of Bowdoin College were willing to grant him an academic sabbatical, they were not willing to let him go off to war where he might be killed. New England Congregationalism, having seen the defection of Unitarians half a century earlier, was going through another doctrinal fight. There was a power struggle for the soul of Bowdoin and if Chamberlain’s position became vacant by his death in the war, “the much sought after position would likely be filled with a man not of strict considerations.” [Trulock, p. 11.]
After the War, Chamberlain served as Bowdoin’s President. He wanted to reform the curriculum moving it from strict classical lines to include practical sciences and engineering. This was at a time when the debate over science versus religion in general and Darwinism in particular was raging. Some wondered if to be for science was to be against Christianity, but in the midst of his defense of science Chamberlain’s Christian orthodoxy came through. He wrote:
I do not fear these men of science, for after all they are following God’s ways, and whether they see him now or not, these lines will surely lead to him at the end. . . . We must have the spirit of reverence and faith, we must balance the mind and heart with God’s higher revelations, but we must also take hold of this we call science.
[Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “The New Education,” typescript, archived in the Special Collections Room, Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, quoted in Trulock, pp. 343-4.]
As he was near death at the beginning of 1914, Chamberlain said, “I am trying to get a little closer to God and to know him better.” [Wallace, pp. 309-310].
Some people today might not immediately recognize Chamberlain’s deep orthodox faith, perhaps because they are used to the God-talk of present day Baptists and charismatics. Verbal expressions of piety from New Englanders and members of more historic denominations, however, were (and still often are) nonetheless real despite their verbal restraint.
Nor should we be fooled by Chamberlain’s concern for the social dimensions of the Gospel he often expressed. In our day American Protestant Christianity has only recently emerged from the shadows of the century-long rupture between the necessity of salvation by faith in the atoning work of Christ upon the cross and the necessity of manifesting Christian commitment in helping meet social needs. Chamberlain, like many whose faith was formed in the early nineteenth century, did not see the choice as either/or. That unfortunate separation would come a few decades after Chamberlain’s middle years. Trust in Christ as Lord and Savior and concern for the dignity and well-being of others were (and are) both parts of Christian discipleship and they were so for Chamberlain.
Why Did He Want to Fight?
Christian commitment motivated many on both sides of the Civil War. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865), “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. . . .” Christians, believing they were right and believing they were following God’s leading, fought on opposite sides. Why did they fight? Why did Chamberlain want to fight?
A concept of government
First, many fought for a concept of government. It may seem odd to us that a young man from Pike County, Alabama or Brewer, Maine would fight for something as seemingly abstract as political theory. But many believed that how one was governed was important. From the beginning of the nation there was the clash between Federalism and “Jeffersonian democracy.” The former, the position of the first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, supported a strong national government to help our nation flourish. The latter, named for its most articulate spokesman, third president Thomas Jefferson, advocated a limited role to the federal government.
Many in the South believed in a country where power resided more at the state, not national, level. Not that many decades had passed since the colonies had combined to wage war against the British crown. “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a major figure in the Revolutionary War, was Robert E. Lee’s father, not some distant ancestor. Language used to assert the rights of the “sovereign states” in governing themselves in the new Confederate nation approximated that of the colonies in asserting independence from England. Was a strong federal government with its elites too much like the British crown? Freedom from Britain was a gift from God. Why surrender it to a North American equivalent? When Robert E. Lee, offered a generalship in both armies, decided to fight for his country, he concluded that country was Virginia.
“States’ Rights” was not always a code word for supporting slavery. In the Nullification Crisis of late 1820s/early 1830s South Carolina had said it had the right to refuse to enforce federal tariffs it believed were harmful to its well-being. One of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s brothers was named John Calhoun “after the Southern statesman whom [his father] admired for his position on the rights of states” [Wallace, p. 18.]
Nor was States Rights just a Southern idea. Delegates from the then-five New England states had met in Hartford just a decade and a half previous to the Nullification Crisis with a list of serious grievances against what was believed to be encroaching power of the federal government. While only a minority of New Englanders were pushing for secession, the idea of states leaving the Union was seriously discussed.
On the other hand, many in the North believed that the Union was God-given, worth preserving at all costs. Though Lincoln was an opponent of slavery, his stated aim, especially during the early part of the War, was to preserve the Union.
What about Chamberlain? He considered the Confederate attacks an assault on the democracy. Three of his ancestors had fought in the America revolutionary war. People in the North noted how English newspapers praised the South for trying to end what they called the foolish experiment of democracy and individual merit. Chamberlain felt that people of humble origins such as Lincoln and himself could rise by their own hard work.
Of his desire to serve in the War, Chamberlain wrote to Maine’s Governor Israel Washburn, Jr., “I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery.”
Additional to this clash over forms of government was the difference in culture. The South was stratified, conservative, and agrarian, while the North was generally middle class, liberal and increasingly industrial. There were two cultures, perhaps even two world views, and the gap between them was widening.
A significant number of the people living in a given region of the United States were and are descended from people who lived in a particular region of the British Isles. Those in the American South came from areas more particularly “Cavalier” (Monarchist) and those in New England came from those areas more particularly “Roundhead” (Cromwell’s opposition to the Monarchy). Was the U.S. Civil War was a do-over of the English Civil War, fought along similar philosophical/cultural lines? While Christians must not disagree over core doctrinal or moral teaching, it is legitimate for us to have different opinions on other matters.
Second, they fought because of differing beliefs over the institution of slavery. The Union of the states emerged out of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 only because the final dealing with slavery was put off to the future.
Slavery was the issue that constantly had to be addressed as the country, and therefore Congress, kept growing in size. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was about admitting additional states into the Union in a way that would maintain the balance between Slave and Free. The Compromise was not over canals as opposed to natural rivers, or factories versus farms.
The near caning to death of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on May 22, 1856, was in response to a fiery anti-slavery speech the Senator had given a few days previously. Slavery was always the South’s “Peculiar Institution,” peculiar in its nineteenth century meaning of particular, or one’s own. [See Kenneth M. Stampp’s 1956 work, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.] Each Southern state accompanied its vote for succession with a document outlining the reasons. In each case the right to own slaves was listed, sometimes quite strongly.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s (1811-1896) book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (published 1852) was America’s best-selling book in the nineteenth century. While the quote attributed to Lincoln about Stowe — “So this is the little lady who started this great war” — is apocryphal (it did not appear in print until 1896), the influence of this book in adding moral justification for Northerners fighting the Confederacy was immense.
Yet, it would be false to state that Southerners were uniformly for slavery and Northerners were uniformly against it. Many Southern leaders had already manumitted their slaves. Others had left provisions in their wills that their slaves were to be freed upon their deaths. Most Southern soldiers didn’t own slaves. There was serious discussion in the South during the War that the slaves should be freed once South won the war. Some Southern leaders even said that the South should have freed the slaves first, and then declared independence. For many years prior to the War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis retained as overseer of his slaves not a cruel white but a black man named Jim Pemberton. His slaves were not flogged. Families were kept together. Davis felt slaves would need some generations before they were made “unfit for slavery.” He did not see the North as championing a moral crusade as much as indulging in a power grab [Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month that Saved America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001, p. 326].
Though they were strongly supportive of a War to keep the Union intact, many in the North were not abolitionists. There were slave states — Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky — that stayed in the Union and the Federal government did not force them to free their slaves as the price for remaining in the Union.
What did Chamberlain think about slavery? While a student at Bowdoin, Chamberlain took theology classes from Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe (class of 1824), husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe. At their house, Harriet held “Saturday Evenings” for a group of people, including Chamberlain, and read the latest chapter of her book before sending it off to the abolitionist paper The National Era.
Chamberlain referred to slavery as “a system so repugnant to justice and freedom” [From his lecture “Loyalty,” given in 1866 to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). [ Trulock, p. 59.]
Might Chamberlain have been familiar with the 1845 poem, “The Present Crisis,” by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)? Lowell wrote this poem in protest of America’s war with Mexico but, consistent with his abolitionist views, some of it references slavery. [Certain stanzas of this poem have been compiled as the well- known hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation Comes the Moment to Decide.”]
While voters are usually faced with a multiplicity of issues in any election, on occasion there is one issue that so overrides them all as to be defining — “once . . . comes the moment to decide.” In the years just prior to the Civil War that one overriding issue was slavery. About what major moral issue is this the moment we must decide? Would not the practice of abortion, so similar to slavery in its denial of rights to defenseless human beings, be that issue today?
So Chamberlain’s motives for going off to War were, first, the preservation of the Union, and, second, the fight against slavery, but there was perhaps more. He felt his life was boring. His father had wanted him to embrace a military career and his mother wanted him to go into the ministry. Chamberlain was afraid the military in peace time and ministry in a local congregation both “would bind a man with rules and precedents and petty despotisms, and [would swamp] his personality.” If the ministry were to be his life’s work, he said he would rather be a missionary to somewhere “foreign and exotic” [Trulock, p. 35]. Biographer Willard M. Wallace notes the tedious nature of pre-War collegiate education and how it could have led to a “slow death for even the finest of minds” [Wallace, p. 29].
We do not know how much the avoidance of boredom influenced Chamberlain’s decision to forego his sabbatical and take up arms, nor should we think less of him if it were a factor. Often our motives for doing something right are a mixture of noble aims and high calling with seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. The issue is, did we do the right thing? If we as Christians wait until our motives are pure, there are many good things we will never get around to do.
A Man of Compassion
Chamberlain’s Christian commitment was evident in his deep compassion. Not long after he assumed command of the 20th Maine, a crisis emerged over the length of service of many in the 2nd Maine Regiment. Many had signed up for two years and when that term was over they were free to go home. Over a hundred, however, mistakenly had signed up for three. Their attempt to leave the Army was deemed desertion. They were placed under arrest and given to Chamberlain as prisoners. He was told that if they didn’t obey him, he should shoot them. He spoke with compassion to them, telling them he would not shoot them. Rather, he’d be obliged if they would decide to help him and he’d do what he could to clear their names. Chamberlain later reflected on his speech to the 2nd Maine men that
. . . they could not be entertained as civilian guests by me; that they were by authority of the United States on my rolls as soldiers, and I should treat them as soldiers should be treated; that they should lose no rights by obeying my orders, and I would see what could be done for their claim. [Chamberlain, p. 11.]
Chamberlain did not mention it himself, but others later noted that the men of the 2nd Maine had not been fed for the three days they were in prison camp. Chamberlain ordered that they be fed at once. Neither did he say that he immediately wrote to Abner Coburn, new Governor of Maine, on their behalf. Rather than stay under arrest, nearly all the men returned to duty and fought with the 20th.
If Chamberlain’s military tactics made a difference in the outcome of the battle of Little Round Top, so did his humane treatment of his prisoners. His winning them over gave him the necessary troop strength to prevail [Pullen, pg. 181]. When we do the right thing God will honor it, sometimes immediately, sometimes dramatically.
Biographer Pullen contrasts two equally brilliant soldiers, Chamberlain and George S. Patton, Jr. While Patton slapped a soldier to try to motivate him to return to duty, Chamberlain motivated the 2nd Maine deserters with compassion. While Patton diverted nearly 300 of his men for a foolish attempt at rescuing his son-in-law, Chamberlain dispatched his adjutant, his brother Tom, to help plug a gap in the line, even though it put his brother at great risk [Pullen, pp. 175ff].
Another example of Chamberlain’s Christian compassion occurred at the end of the war. Union Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant gave Chamberlain the honor of receiving the surrendering Confederate troops led by Major General John Gordon. Grant had ordered lenient terms of surrender to the defeated Confederacy, but the southern soldiers “did not know how they would be received by the triumphant Yankees. Would they be jeered? Assaulted?” [Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation. New York: Penguin Books, p. 443.]
As the vanquished Rebel army marched forward to deposit their arms and battle flags, Chamberlain, on his own initiative, ordered his men to come to attention and “carry arms,” a salute second only to “pre-sent arms.” This gesture said, “We honor you as men.” Biographer Wallace believes he knows why Chamberlain acted in this way:
“. . . Chamberlain had once been a theological student and a professor of religion and that the moral values of a question or situation weighed heavily in his decisions” [Wallace, p. 188]. Chamberlain describes what happened next:
The General [Gordon] was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment of its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a solider. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with his spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.
By word of mouth . . . Gordon sent back orders to the rear that his own troops take the same position of the manual in the march past as did our line. That was done, and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell. [Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “Bayonet! Forward!” My Civil War Reminiscenses, Stan Clark Miliary Books: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, modern edition of 1994, pp. 235-6.]
He called the Confederate response to the Union’s “carry arms” as “honor answering honor.” Chamberlain’s salute to the Confederate soldiers was unpopular with many in the North who wanted vengeance, but he was highly respected throughout the South for those actions. [Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of Armies. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, p. 261.]
It may have helped bring the North and the South back together, mitigating the extremes of Reconstruction. “Sixty years later a Virginian who had been present at Appomattox on April 12, 1865, asserted that ‘reunion began with that order….'” [“Coming Home Again,” Confederate Veteran 36 (1928): p. 50, in Longacre, p. 247.]
In our treatment of those with whom we disagree we must show similar respect. Scripture calls us to refuse to render evil for evil (1 Thessalonians 5:15, 1 Peter 3:9), and to try to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10).
In the battle of Petersburg (June 18, 1864) a minié ball entered below his right hip and traveled to his left hip, severing blood vessels and damaging the urethra and bladder. The physician who examined him after the battle believed his wound was fatal, but he lived on until February 1914. Chamberlain received many honors and served in a number of significant positions in his long life after the war. He entered politics as a Republican and served four one-year terms as the 32nd Governor of Maine. He served as president of his alma mater Bowdoin College (1871-1883).
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, we as Christians need to affirm, loudly and insistently, that we cannot separate our Christian commitment from our advocacy of particular political and moral positions. In fact, it is exactly that Christian commitment that makes us committed to just causes and a compassionate society. God calls us to be salt and light. Society needs us so to be.
At Chamberlain’s death, Bowdoin President the Rev. William DeWitt Hyde’s eulogy tied it all together. Chamberlain’s Conduct at Appomattox, he said, was a deed “in which military glory and Christian magnanimity were fused [Wallace, p. 312]. As we celebrate Gettysburg and the brave men and committed Christians on both sides of the conflict, what does the example of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain say to us about the necessity of our Christian commitment being the basis for our political views and actions? +