Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Myth of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

       I can't help but be amazed at the people that still proclaim Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain the hero of Gettysburg. I understand that all men who fought well in that war were hero's, but what made Chamberlain the hero he is today? Let's take a look at one of my favorite books called These Honored Dead by Thomas Desjardin. He covers many of the misled beliefs dealing with the Battle of Gettysburg and what caused these beliefs to become so ingrained in our history. 
       Desjardin tells us how Ken Burns is the man that made the legend of Chamberlain what it is today. The famous charge that Burns portrays Chamberlain as ordering never occurred. Desjardin says, "Even that in his lifetime Chamberlain repeatedly denied ordering a charge."
       He goes on to say, "To say that Chamberlain saved the Union Army at Gettysburg is to ignore the 15,000 or more men held in reserve in close proximity to Little Round Top." Basically speaking, Ken Burns hollywooded up the film to make Chamberlain the hero that he wanted him to be. Because of Ken Burns and the movie Gettysburg based on the Michael Shaara book The Killer Angels, Chamberlain is so often used in sermons and classrooms as a great American hero. So what are the facts of Chamberlain and his fight at Gettysburg?

Because no one has been able to understand what type hat Chamberlain wore at Gettysburg, he has been depicted in every painting as being without a hat, another myth dealing with Chamberlain and Gettysburg. 

       Even further is the point that Chamberlain had been promoted to colonel the day before the battle, making him the lowest colonel in seniority in the entire Federal Army of around 90,000 men. He was extremely sick at Gettysburg, running a fever because of malaria and with chronic diarrhea. Nothing like what people who watched the movie picture him like today. 
       Desjardin goes further with the legend of Chamberlain. He says, "Legend tells us - five regiments of Confederates had fled in its path (20th Maine), leaving four or five hundred prisoners in Chamberlain's care, among them some of the most battle hardened men in Lee's army. The truth of the matter is that Chamberlain was attacked by one regiment, the 15th Alabama Infantry commanded by Colonel William C. Oates. So how many men did Oates lose in the fight with Chamberlain?
       When we break down the numbers, Oates Alabama regiment lost 167 men. That number includes killed, wounded, and captured. That number is far short of the 400 prisoners of legend. The 47th Alabama (the 15th Alabama was the extreme right of the line there was no regiment to it's right), to the left of the 15th Alabama had only lost 64 men in killed, wounded, and captured. If you were to say all these casualties were captured, which is ridiculous because Oates said the blood of the dead and dying stood in puddles on the rocks, you still don't have 400 prisoners captured by Chamberlain, but 231. How many men attacked Chamberlain's position?

William C. Oates

       We know that William C. Oates claimed he entered the fight at Gettysburg with 644 men, but since that time we know he had just a little over half that figure. Most historians believe Oates miscalculated his strength because he was in an argument with his corps commander Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Witnesses to the fight have all called his 644 man regiment theory as ridiculous. Most historians believe the number to be between 380 men to 400 men at most, a few say as much as 500, but witnesses claim this number too high. How many men did Chamberlain have?
       Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain the newly promoted colonel had about 358 men at Gettysburg. He wouldn't have had but about 250 had not the rebellious members of the 2nd Maine joined his ranks. I say joined, they were forced into his ranks and increased his numbers. So how many men were left when the fighting ended? My wife heard a man tonight claim that Chamberlain began the battle with a thousand men and ended the battle with 80 men and captured 400 prisoners. Let's find the true answer. 
       Of the 358 men engaged, protected by a stone wall against a regiment of about equal numbers only lost 130 killed and wounded. William Oates said that he ordered his men to retreat when the fighting eased up because of heavy casualties and lack of ammunition. His men had marched about 20 miles that morning to reach the field and had sent part of the regiment with canteens to obtain water because they were out. These men didn't return with the canteens in time, so Oates men entered the fight without water on an extremely hot July day. The number that Chamberlain claimed he had captured were about 50 men and those were the wounded that could not escape. 
       What truly made Chamberlain a Civil War hero? He lived until 1914, almost 49 years after the war ended and during that long period of time, he wrote about all his great exploits and how he saved the day at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. He took 400 men and defeated a 400 man Confederate regiment that would have rolled up the Federal flank if they had broken through, although there were 15,000 Federal reserves in the vicinity. I'll buy that if you'll buy my nice ocean front property in Wyoming. 


  1. Tim, the modern legend of Chamerlain's role started long before the movie "Gettysburg" was produced. It began with the publication of "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara and the adoption of that book as suggested reading by tactics instructors in the US Army. As a new Infantry leutenant in 1980, I read the book. (As a Civil War geek, I would have anyway!) The tactical lessons from the book were very valid, even if the history lesson was lacking. The 20th Maine did great things on the extreme left of the Union line that day. Had they failed to secure the flank would the outcome have been different? Probably not. Historic fiction is what it is - fiction. The great benifit of historic fiction is that it can fire the imagination and bring the past to life for the averager reader, not just the history geeks! In the end, it always has to be tempered with history read from scholarly works.

  2. You are correct Mark. I remember my first time to read The Killer Angels. You need to read These Honored Dead by Thomas Desjardin if you haven't already. He goes into all the myths created by Shaara and extended further by the movie. I still think The Killer Angels is a great book, but I think too many people unlike you and I don't understand that it is historic fiction.