Joshua Chamberlain

Good morning. The flag has been at half-mast for the past few days, and I want to explain why.

You may know that John Risdel, the Canadian who was taken hostage by militants in the Philippines last September, was killed last week by his captors. What you might not know is that John was an Old Boy from the class of 1966; he was just a year ahead of Mr. Webb at UCC. John was the head of Seatons during his final year here. John Risdel

I ask that we keep John and his family in our thoughts and prayers, as we stand now for a moment of silence. Thank you.

There is no possible segue, so I won’t even try.Today’s assembly may seem different, with the Grade 12 boys’ abandoning us this morning to start their IB exams. Laidlaw Hall looks a bit empty, and I confess that, on a personal level, the room seems somewhat strange because this is the first Monday morning in almost a decade when I haven’t had a son in attendance.

Speaking of which, my son, Seamus is a student Bowdoin College, and I mention this only because – in the same week that “Captain America Civil War” debuts, (I am sure that, like me, you are counting down the days!), with thoughts of heroes bouncing in our heads, I want to tell you why a classics master from Bowdoin is one of the men I most admire.

Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain was a Latin teacher at Bowdoin College in Maine, and he had just been awarded an all expenses paid trip to Europe, when the Civil War broke out. Chamberlain passed up the sabbatical opportunity and instead enlisted with the 20th Maine Division to fight for the Union.

Joshua ChamberlainThis was fortuitous because a couple of years later, Chamberlain was in charge of the 20th Maine, as they tried to defend the high ground of southern flank during the pivotal battle of Gettysburg. His troops were greatly outnumbered by rebels from Alabama, rebels who stormed an area known as Little Round Top. Five times the rebels attacked, and each time Chamberlain’s men repelled them. Chamberlain learned, though, that after final assault, his men were out of ammunition. What to do?

Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets to their rifles, and he convinced them to charge down the hill, into the face of the Alabama regiment. It is amazing to realize that 200 men from Maine actually followed Chamberlain’s order and attacked 500 fully equipped soldiers. Chamberlain had what Napoleon called “the courage of the early morning.” Seeing these wild men from Maine come screaming like banshees down the hill in their direction, the Alabama troops wrongfully assumed that they were greatly outnumbered, and they fled the battle.

Two years later, the former Latin teacher was again in an important position, when he found himself at Appomattox on April 12, 1865 for the Confederate surrender. Leonard Sax described the scene this way in his book, “Boy’s Adrift”: “As the Southern General John B. Gordon was leading his troops to surrender – disheartened, sick, many of the men wounded, and all of them wondering what awaited them at the hands of the victorious Union forces – Chamberlain, on his own initiation, gave this command to his men: ‘Attention! Carry-arms!’

Chamberlain’s men snapped to attention and presented their arms as a show of respect to the defeated Confederates. General Gordon, in reply, wheeled his horse around and commanded his men to dip the Confederate colours in answer to Chamberlain’s courtesy. There was not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, not a word nor motion… but awful stillness, as if it were the passing of the dead.

Chamberlain’s salute was reported in Northern newspapers, inciting some controversy. Many on the Northern side felt that it was inappropriate for Chamberlain to have commanded his men to salute the defeated Confederates. Some apparently might have liked it better if Chamberlain’s men had heckled or abused the rebels. But Chamberlain’s education – rooted in the classics – led him to value the magnanimous gesture above the pettiness of revenge or spite.”

After this past week, a week during which we saw too much of Laremy Tunsil’s smoking up via his hacked Twitter account, and heard too much about Jay Z’s infidelity’s via Beyonce‘s “Lemonade”, it’s good to step back in time and know that there are others out there whom we can look to as models of manhood.

Joshua Chamberlain offers us 3 take-aways:

First, it would have been easy to sit out the Civil War, (and I confess, I might have taken that boat to France!) but Chamberlain had a sense of duty and a sense of purpose. If someone were to ask you about your own sense of duty, your own sense of purpose, what would you say? You don’t need to have a ready at the lips answer at this point in your life, but it’s not too soon to begin to think about these questions.

Second, at Gettysburg Chamberlain’s decision to attach bayonets shows his remarkable courage and leadership! It is worth noting that as a child, Chamberlain actually had a speech defect that he overcame and in the process, he learned something about the importance of rhetoric. How many of us could persuade men without ammunition to charge into superior numbers with superior weapons? Have you ever tried to persuade others to do something that was not in their short-term best interest?

Finally, at Appomattox Chamberlain shows us grace. He could have been less than respectful towards General Gordon, but instead, as much as he may have detested Gordon’s politics, he recognized his humanity. In each of these situations, Chamberlain had options; he could have gone to Europe. He could have surrendered, and he could have taunted a vanquished foe. On each occasion, Chamberlain did the hard, right thing.

You will face a number of decisions this day, this week, this month. They may not be life and death at Gettysburg decisions, but they may still be important calls nonetheless. Let me suggest that in almost every dilemma we face, there will be an all too tempting easy option, an “opt out” of one sort or another. I hope, though, that like the Latin teacher from Maine, we will respond with a sense of purpose, a sense of courage, and a sense of grace, as we follow Chamberlain’s example. That’s something that might make even Captain America marvel!


16 thoughts on “Joshua Chamberlain

  1. Lovely talk, Jim — and particularly effective in taking the tragedy of your slain alumnus (terribly sorry to learn of this) and turning it to the remarkable stories about Chamberlain — and all that with good lessons to hold on to.

  2. Jim,
    Thanks for this talk about the murder of your alumnus. Lest we forget they type of world which we now inhabit.
    Western civ seems to be unequipped to deal with what we face.

    Your piece reminds me of the many times I visited Little Round Top and could not get enough of Gettysburg while living in the DC area.

    It was via The Killer Angels, that I rekindled these interests.
    Of course, the movie Glory did similar things for the legacy of Robert Gould Shaw.
    The story of how Saint-Gaudens dedicated himself to the legacy of Gould Shaw’s sacrifice could be a movie unto itself, perhaps.
    You are doing God’s work.

    I am waiting for the book containing a compendium of your talks for these boys. I am sure it will be a NYT best-seller and will be one of those waiting in line for your signature on my copy, I did at a recent David Brooks visit to my high school.

  3. Although Chamberlain is almost always remembered for the historic charge on little round top, they way he handled the “mutineers” from the 2nd Mine infantry and the surrender are perhaps more telling of his character. He had no real choice at little round top— he had to defend the flank and without bullets he needed to charge. I am not trying to downplay the courage of Chamberlain or his men, but although it was a hard decision, it didn’t have the same social capitol as the mutineers or the surrender.

    Chamberlain’s decision to accept the mutineers are the surrender were both socially unpopular. He had the authority to shoot the 120 other Maine men if he pleased and could have humiliated General Gordon, but he chose not to, and I think this is more telling of his leadership and character.

    Sometime the hardest thing isn’t the thing that everybody will see or remember, and often the toughest decisions to make are the one that will upset the people around you.

  4. A bit like the lighthouse keeper shining out into a fog, you will never know if you kept a boy from hitting the rocks, alas. But I can see what happens when there is no voice of reason even trying, such as they have at my kids school. Really nice new building addition planned though, so I’m glad the Head has been busy raising funds for that. Who needs character when you have swell new lab space? Two Bunsen burners each!

  5. Excellent stuff. I assume you’ve read “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara – maybe the best war novel I have ever read. Chamberlain is the centerpiece.

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