Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Great Reunion

If you’ve seen the 1993 movie Gettysburg then you are familiar with the heroics of then-Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.

In “real life” there is some controversy over exactly what Colonel Chamberlain did – and didn’t – do on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. You can find plenty of information in books and on the Internet that discuss the varying opinions as to Joshua Chamberlain’s personal actions and orders. Despite the controversy, it is nearly indisputable that the 20th Maine Infantry, under Colonel Chamberlain’s command and leadership, played an important role on the second day of Gettysburg in defending against Robert E. Lee’s forces.

Chamberlain went on to win fame in other Civil War conflicts, particularly the Siege of Petersburg in which he was severely wounded (and prematurely reported back home in Maine as having been killed in battle). Later, in 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, Chamberlain presided over the official surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia and in a precursor to the healing atmosphere of the Great Reunion, Chamberlain (a Brigadier General by then) ordered his men to “salute” the defeated Confederates via standing at attention.

You can find plenty more about Joshua Chamberlain on the Internet: his 4 terms as Governor of Maine; serving as President of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, which was Chamberlain’s alma mater; and his Medal of Honor for his heroics at Gettysburg. However, the purpose of this blog is to briefly discuss how despite still being alive in July, 1913, Chamberlain was not well enough to attend the Great Reunion.

What makes his absence even sadder is that less than two months earlier, on May 16th and 17th, 1913, Chamberlain made the journey to Gettysburg as the Representative from his state of Maine to the Pennsylvania Commission responsible for the Great Reunion. This gathering of the “Fourth and Final General Conference” is memorialized in Pennsylvania’s official report on the Great Reunion, specifically with a picture following Page 34 of all of the attendees. There, in the middle of the first row, stands General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (see annotated photo below from the official report).

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 9.07.56 AM

Chamberlain’s health apparently deteriorated so rapidly and severely following that mid-May journey that he was unable to attend the Great Reunion. To date I have been unable to locate any details other than general statements, though my research continues. Regardless, I find it especially sad that this great warrior and statesman was in such poor health that he was unable to attend that magnificent event that he had played a hand in planning.

Chamberlain died less than a year later, on February 24, 1914. Interestingly, he is often considered the “final battle casualty” of the Civil War – more than 50 years after the cessation of hostilities! – because his death was apparently due to complications from his terrible wounds suffered at Petersburg. However, he lived with the consequences of those wounds for fifty years, and his post-war career was every bit as stellar as his actions during the Civil War.

Still, I personally wish he had been able to make one final journey to Gettysburg, a month and a half after the mid-May one he was able to make.

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