Sunday, May 20, 2007

Gentleman of the Highest Literary and Moral Value

Joshua Lawrence Chaimberlain
is perhaps the best known of the Civil War Heros.
He was a teacher of Language, Rhetoric and Oratory at Boudwin College in Maine when the War broke; his request for leave in order to join the Union was denied, so he "took" his Sabbatical and joined anyway.
His only qualifications were that he was a 'Gentleman of the Highest Literary and Moral Value."

Commissioned as a Lt. Colonel for the 20th Maine, he kept a Diary throughout the War.

The Mother of Invention did a post a while back about the "Northern Lights" and I left a comment concerning the Battle of Fredericksburg Virginia, December 13,1862. It was a terrible defeat for the North, losing 12,000 men to the Souths 5,000. But many of those from the South were only missing, gone home for Christmas.
There had been a severe lack of "Generalship" in the North, otherwise the War would never have gone on as long as it had.The Union General for this fight was Ambrose Burnsides, a genial and dapper man, whose whiskers set a fashion, but lacked decisiveness.

The Confederacy had stayed alive, due to the luck and daring and sheer genius of its high command, especially that of Robert E. Lee. And as the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on the heavily fortified Maryes Heights, Lee could not believe Burnsides would make such a blunder. A Confederate Artillery Officer said 'Sir, a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."

As the Union advanced, a rousing cheer went up from the Rebels. It was not the Rebel yell you have heard of before, but a manly "Hurrah" that was used to show respect for the bravery of those who were now crossing the field to attack them. It is my understanding this happened a lot during the Civil War, and on both sides too.

Chamberlain was at Fredericksburg, and his Army of the Potomac was so defeated as to have had to take shelter during the night of the 13th behind and among the bodies of his fallen comrades. The temperature dropped well below frezzing that that night and a bitter wind too; wounded men on the Battlefield froze, as well as bled, to death.

From Chaimberlains Diary:
"But out of that silence rose new sounds more appalling still;
a strange ventriloquism, of which you could not locate the source,
a smothered moan, as if a thousand discords
were flowing together into a key-note weird,
unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness;
the writhing concord broken by cries for help,
some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity;
and some on friendly hands to finish
what the enemy had so horribly begun;
some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names,
as if the dearest were bending over them;
and underneath, all the time,
the deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless,
or too heroic,
to articulate their agony...

It seemed best to bestow myself between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and still more chilling, the deep, many voiced moan that overspread the field."

All that night and into the next day, the 20th Maine lay shielded and huddled behind the corpses of the fallen. General Burnside, through tears, said he himself would lead the next attack, which would have been the 14th such to fail, but his Aides talked him out of it.
That afternoon, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which Lee graciously granted. Federal forces retreated across the river, and the campaign came to an end.
That night Chamberlain and his men began to scrape out shallow graves for the fallen, the northern lights began to dance.
This is an extremely rare thing that far south, and Chamberlain wrote:

'Who would not pass on as they did, dead for their Country's life, lighted by the Meteor splendors of their Native Sky"

Seven months later, on a little hilltop in Southeastern Pennsylvania, he would save the Union Army, and quite possibly the Union itself.
We will look at Joshua Lawrence Chaimberlain some more this week in preparation for Memorial Day.


Mother of Invention said...

Yes, I remember now...almost spooky and eerie...making it all seem special and honourable.
You should have been a history can make it come alive.

steve said...

MOM---I'm still trying to build this post! No peeking!
But thanks, I hear History Teachers have some great PERKS....

Akelamalu said...

I know nothing of American history, apart from what I see on the big screen! This was really interesting, thanks. :)

GEWELS said...

The excerpt from the diary is what makes it most real. To read the thoughts of one who endured it all.

Very moving. Yes, a History teacher are you- in your next life.

steve said...



steve said...

And yes, I agree that its Chaimberlains words that stick...the post is really just a way to quote him...he has more, as we shall see.

Akelamalu said...

I will, thanks. :)

Barbara said...

"The Killer Angels" and "Cold Mountain" gave me insight into this war that threatened to tear our country apart. It's these personal accounts that convey the agony of so many on both sides.

Head Duck Wrangler said...

is a delightful bit about forced servitude - slavery.

Quack, Quack!