“Chamberlain” is a chapter from The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, by Michael Shaara (1928-1988). Previously a prolific writer of science fiction and sports stories, Shaara was inspired to write the novel after discovering letters written by his great-grandfather, who had been injured at Gettysburg as a member of the Fourth Georgia Infantry, and after personally visiting the battlefield. Shaara’s narrative is organized into four days—June 30, 1863, the day on which Union and Confederate armies move into Gettysburg; and July 1, 2, and 3, the days of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War—and each day’s events are told from the perspective of one of the commanders of the competing armies. Shaara’s chapter “Chamberlain” focuses on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914), commanding officer of the Twentieth Maine, and his efforts (on June 30) to encourage mutineers to re-join the battle. As Shaara will recount in a later chapter, Chamberlain, his regiment out of ammunition, would lead a bayonet charge against the enemy, enabling the Union army to hold Little Round Top and ultimately to win the battle. Not reported by Shaara are the various honors Chamberlain received: for his leadership at Gettysburg and elsewhere, he was, during the war itself, sequentially promoted, eventually achieving the rank of brigadier general. For his heroism at Little Round Top, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And, at the very end of the war, he was given the honor of receiving, at Appomattox, the surrender of the Confederate infantry. After the Civil War, Chamberlain was elected to four terms as governor of Maine, following which he returned to his alma mater, Bowdoin College, as its president. He died of the unhealed wounds he incurred during his war years.
Watch editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Eliot A. Cohen (Johns Hopkins SAIS) about the story. For a discussion guide and more, visit whatsoproudlywehail.org/curriculum/the-meaning-of-america/courage-and-self-sacrifice