One hundred fifty years ago, on a series of fields and hills outside a tiny little town in Southern Pennsylvania, the course of history for our United States of America changed direction. The Confederate forces met the Army of the Potomac and engaged in three days of battle. The tide of the Civil War, and indeed our nation’s identity, was turned.
One man involved in that decisive battle had a seminal moment on the second day of the battle. A professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College who who had never left Maine until enlistment. On that July 2nd, as he followed orders to defend the end of the line on a tiny hillock which has come to be known as Little Round Top, he displayed courage and leadership of the type not encountered in common hours.
By all accounts, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a non-assuming man of quiet intellect, introspection, and strong convictions. He joined the union army because he was given (read forced to take) a sabbatical from his teaching after engaging in conversations about the war: a direct deviation from the orders of the president and board of trustees of the college. In line with his personal code of mores, he could not in good conscience go off to France while the boys he had influenced were signing up to fight, so he enlisted, choosing to enter as a lieutenant, rather than the Major rank offered to him, as he had no military experience.
By the time he reached Gettysburg, Lawrence (as he liked to be called) was a Colonel. As the 20th Maine (the division of volunteers under his command) took up their place at the end of the Union line on a ridge overlooking the Confederate position, Chamberlain was given the order: “you may not retreat.” His was the position that protected the flank of the greater Union army. Lawrence took this command to heart, and the 20th Maine rebutted charge after charge until they eventually began to run out of ammunition and his men told him they could not repel another assault. This is when he gave his famous order: “fix bayonets and charge.”
Now in retrospect, sitting in my air conditioned office and sweating my deadlines, I am astounded that a man of no distinguished upbringing or outward signs of compelling leadership can issue a command in a moment of extreme stress that still resonates this many years later. Lawrence Chamberlain, through quiet conviction and without seeking material gain, made a series of decisions that put him in a position to influence, and then when put to the ultimate test made decisions that have influenced how our United States of America continued to grow.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain helped to sway a battle, which swayed a war, which swayed history. He continues to influence me, and others, through his leadership and his conviction in what he believed. On this weekend of celebration for our national history, we can thank many men and women for what we have. I will choose to reflect on a man whose convictions defined him. A man who, when all was said and done, returned to Maine and Bowdoin College, choosing to continue his peaceful, personal life.