My Old School

DSC_6979“I’m never going back to my old school.”
–Steely Dan

Well, recently I did go back to my old school, a place called Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. I’ve been working on a magazine article that involves Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and I figured it was time I paid my respects to the old soldier. As most Civil War aficionados know, Chamberlain was a Bowdoin graduate who was teaching at the college when the Civil War began. He joined the army, received an appointment as the lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry, and was serving as the regiment’s commander at the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians argue about the overall importance of the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top on July 2, but I don’t think anyone can deny it was a heroic and courageous stand. He was later badly wounded during the initial attacks on Petersburg, but returned to the army and presided over the official surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. (I’ve written a bit more about Chamberlain’s reputation here.)

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo).

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo).

Like Chamberlain, I am a Maine native. I grew up in Augusta, where Chamberlain, who served four terms as the state’s governor, once made another heroic stand to face down militia preparing to mount a coup against the state government over disputed election returns. I attended Bowdoin for my first two years of college, before decamping to experience a completely different way of life at a university in Los Angeles. I can’t recall if I knew much of anything about Chamberlain at the time. Only later did I learn that he and I belonged to the same fraternity, and that the fraternity house (where I lived after my freshman year) stood just across Potter Street from the building that Chamberlain once called home. It was student housing when I was there; it now houses a small Chamberlain museum.

My wife and I reached Bowdoin on a bright but very cold afternoon in November and headed over to Pine Grove Cemetery to see the general’s grave. After a little bit of searching, we found it at one edge of the cemetery. It’s a modest stone, with just his name and birth and death years, with another marker behind it flush with the ground. Some people had placed pennies on the gravestone, so I followed suit, making sure I put the Lincoln side up.

DSC_6977Chamberlain was an interesting person, not just a plaster saint or a one-dimensional hero. “Chamberlain was much more complex and complicated than historians would have us believe,” noted biographer Edward G. Longacre. “Among other qualities, he was abstruse and direct, caring and insensitive, modest and pretentious, selfless and self-consumed, tolerant and narrow-minded.

“He was, in other words, a human being.”

And now he’s dust, dead a century ago as of last February. All things, including brevet major generals, must pass.

Looking for that perfect holiday gift? What could be better than Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg? (You can order the book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.) Or maybe a 2015 George Gordon Meade calendar–the perfect way to commemorate the general’s bicentennial year! You can get the calendar right here.