Joshua Chamberlain, Little Round Top, and the Memorial That Never Was

A few months ago, prior to the arrival of the frigid weather we are now enjoying, I had the pleasure of bringing a group of visitors around Little Round Top. It was a fairly predictable tour. We visited the requisite sites as we made our way south along the crest of the hill, namely the Gouverneur Warren statue, Hazlett’s Battery and the 44th and 140th New York Monuments as we roughly followed the progress of the battle on July 2nd. It was a good forty-five minutes before we made our way into the trees and down a tail-like ridge known as “Vincent’s Spur” which runs across the southern face of Little Round Top. Our final stop of the program was at the 20th Maine Monument, which is situated on a shelf of rocks well below the summit and nearly on its reverse slope.

I usually stop here last whenever I bring visitors around Little Round Top. It is a relatively non-descript place, covered with boulders and rocks like the rest of the hill. Unlike the western slope, this part of Little Round Top is completely wooded. Visibility here is, at best, a hundred yards; much less in the summer when heavy vegetation covers the field. Compared with the rest of Little Round Top, with its sweeping views and elaborate monuments, Vincent’s Spur is slightly underwhelming.

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A view from the right flank marker of the 20th Maine down Vincent’s Spur. The rock walls visible were built following the battle of July 2nd.

Despite this, it remains among the most visited spots on the battlefield and ranks as a high point for many. This has less to do with the geography of the spur than it does with the actions of the 350 infantrymen of the 20th Maine and their commanding officer, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

For students of the battle of Gettysburg, the story of the 20th Maine and Chamberlain is well known. For a brief time on July 2nd, 1863 the regiment was the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac. They fought on the spur for about ninety minutes and during that time lost almost 130 men killed and wounded. After having withstood repeated assaults by the 15th and 47th Alabama they made a desperate counterattack, drove the Confederates from the slopes, and captured a substantial number of prisoners in the process. That evening under the cover of darkness, they advanced up the craggy side of Big Round Top and occupied the summit.

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Joshua Chamberlain, post-war

The heroics of the 20th Maine and Chamberlain have received a significant amount of attention in the past 150 years; some would argue a disproportionate amount. Their story has been retold (and perhaps embellished) in works of history, literature, documentary and Hollywood film. Chamberlain, an academic turned warrior, has come to embody the archetypical American citizen-soldier, an unlikely hero who triumphs despite the seemingly overwhelming odds against him. A significant portion of Chamberlain’s post-war years were spent cultivating that very image of himself. He was fortunate in his efforts in that he was an eloquent writer and he had survived the war when so many of his fellow officers were killed.

Chamberlain’s apparent self-aggrandizement riled the feathers of a number of his contemporaries. Ellis Spear, who had served as second in command of the 20th Maine during the Battle of Gettysburg, had a cordial relationship with Chamberlain after the war, but disparaged what he perceived as Chamberlain’s attempt to glorify himself at the expense of others. “His literary ability was of a high order, and he always had a gracious manner,” Spear wrote a fellow Little Round Top veteran in 1916, “but he was absolutely unable to tell the truth and was of an inordinate vanity.”

Of a similar opinion was Oliver Wilcox Norton, who had served on the staff of Col. Strong Vincent during the battle. Writing to Bishop Boyd Vincent on June 5, 1916 Norton concluded, “I used to think very highly of General Chamberlain; he was always very nice to me, but during the last two or three years I have come to the conclusion that he was more anxious to claim credit to himself than accord it to his associates.”

Not long following his death, Chamberlain fell into a kind of obscurity. It wasn’t until the publication of John Pullen’s classic regimental history of the 20th Maine appeared in 1957 that Chamberlain began his resurgence. This was helped along by the publication Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angel’s in 1974 and the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War in 1990.

The 1993 Turner film Gettysburg had the most substantial impact in catapulting Chamberlain to the folk-hero status he now enjoys. Following the release of the film, visitors flocked to Little Round Top in such numbers that the National Park Service had to add waysides, additional parking, and signage to guide visitors to the monument.  Yet two decades have passed since the release of the film, and it’s no-longer the touchstone it once was for visitors to Little Round Top. That being said, Chamberlain remains a well-known figure, having in a sense outlived the product of popular culture most responsible for his modern day renaissance.  

Normally I conduct an informal poll near the 20th Maine Monument. Who has heard of Joshua Chamberlain before? Usually about half the group has some familiarity, noticeably more than if I were to ask the same question regarding Vincent, Warren, or James Rice. Usually I have at least one true Chamberlain admirer who has traveled to Gettysburg specifically to see where the fight for Vincent’s Spur took place.

It has become a fairly common occurrence on Little Round Top for visitors to ask to see where the Chamberlain statue is. Such was the case with my tour group when we had concluded our program a few months back. Surely someone as famous as Chamberlain, a Medal of Honor recipient and bonafide Hollywood hero, would have some sort of monument on Little Round Top. My negative answer usually results in general disappointment.

Joshua Chamberlain does not have any statue or memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield, other than the two monuments to the 20th Maine on Little and Big Round Top. That being said, in the first two decades of the 20th Century, long before he graced movie theaters around the country and while still alive, Chamberlain came very near to having a life-sized bronze statue on the battlefield.

In the early 1900’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ranked as one of the true Maine heroes to emerge from the American Civil War. His prestige was further cemented by his four terms as Governor and his continued involvement with the one of the state’s premier academic institutions, Bowdoin College. Along with an equestrian statue to Oliver O. Howard, the state had intended on honoring its other famed son, Chamberlain, on the Gettysburg battlefield.

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Henry S. Burrage

In 1909 Civil War veteran Henry S. Burrage, a Brevet Major General in the United States Volunteers, was serving as the Maine’s first official state historian. As such, he was partly responsible for work on the Chamberlain Memorial at Gettysburg, and as a matter of course consulted with Chamberlain himself regarding the proposal. On November 22nd, 1909 Burrage wrote Chamberlain from the National Soldiers Home in Portland, Maine regarding the placement for such a statue.

“I enclose a letter from Col. Nicholson concerning the position of the Chamberlain Memorial at Gettysburg. You are the one most familiar with the place and so the best fitted to make the selection. I send the plan. I take it that the position deemed the best by the Commission is the boulder 1.0 feet in diameter and 3 feet high, just opposite the L.F. of the 20th Maine, where from the curve in the avenue a memorial would be seen in front and on either side.”

A copy of the very same blueprint mentioned by Burrage was sent to Jacob M. Dickinson, Secretary of War during the Taft Administration, by Senator Eugene Hale from Maine. With the blessing of the State of Maine, the Gettysburg National Park Commission, and the knowledge of the War Department, it would seem that the Chamberlain Memorial was fait accompli.

Yet, for some reason the project languished. By 1914, the year Chamberlain succumbed to his old Petersburg wound, nothing had been accomplished. From time to time it would be mentioned in official documents and correspondence, or some brief update in a local newspaper. In an article from the November 11th, 1916 issue of the Gettysburg Compiler it was reported that a commission from Maine had been appointed by the Governor of the State and that they had traveled to Gettysburg, but nothing seemed to have resulted from the exercise.

A few years later, in the Annual Report of the War Department for 1918, it was recorded that the site for the monument was selected many years before, with Joshua Chamberlain in attendance, but that the project had not moved forward.

In the end, the project ultimately died, the statue was never placed. It would be easy to blame the passing of time, the death of Chamberlain, and the inauguration of World War I for this fact, but other monuments, such as the Virginia Memorial in 1917, the Alabama Memorial in 1933, and Oliver O. Howard’s equestrian statue in 1932, continued to be placed on the field.

Perhaps the true reason why Chamberlain was never honored with a monument on the battlefield was Chamberlain himself. Buried in the vertical files of Gettysburg National Military Park is a twenty eight word letter written from Col. John P. Nicholson, Chairman of the Gettysburg National Park Commission, to Henry S. Burrage.

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From the tenor of Nicholson’s letter, it would seem as if Chamberlain had no inclination to have his likeness adorn the battlefield. At some point Chamberlain must have expressed this sentiment, either to Burrage or Nicholson or perhaps both. No doubt the repository of some library or institution contains this document. His motivation for such remains a bit of a mystery. It could be he felt his honors had already been accorded him, namely the Medal of Honor and Chamberlain Avenue which for a time ran the length of Vincent’s Spur. Perhaps he thought that the bulk of the glory should go to the men he commanded, particularly those who breathed their last on the hill. The five foot high block of granite that honors the 20th Maine regiment had been humbly serving that function since its placement in 1886.

Chamberlain’s reluctance to his own planned memorial does draw into question the conclusions of Spear, Norton, and others regarding his alleged egotism. Do self-aggrandizers shun memorials in their honor? The answer might be that Chamberlain’s motivations were misunderstood, or that there were limits to how far he was willing to go to further his status as one of the heroes of the battle.

The end result is that the visitors of today will search in vain for a Chamberlain statue, though with the proper amount of sleuthing they may be able to track down the boulder Burrage mentioned as a suitable site. Chamberlain admirers can rest easy however, with the knowledge that his legacy and that of his men is still very much alive on the Gettysburg battlefield.

 Christopher Gwinn, Acting Supervisory Historian

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As a fitting postscript, it can safely be said that though Chamberlain lacks a statue, he remains the only regimental commander at the Battle of Gettysburg who now has his own micro-brew. Perhaps that is some consolation.

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16 Responses to Joshua Chamberlain, Little Round Top, and the Memorial That Never Was

  1. David says:

    Great information! I take it the boulder is still there? Are there photos of the boulder/area available online?

  2. John Rohal says:

    It is ironic that Brig. General George Greene who commanded a valiant defense of Culp’s Hill has a statue near the top of the hill. Green got a statue but remains relatively less known today compared to Chamberlain. It is also ironic that the overall defense of East Cemetery Hill is not as famous as actions involving several other prominent elevations in today’s general stories of the history of the battle. I believe that the defense of all of these locations was critically important to the outcome of the battle but factors other than the battle itself have affected what stories will be told and emphasized the most over various times. Christopher Gwinn has illustrated this very well.

  3. Jeff Sexton says:

    I agree that we should have historical accuracy. But why are we not satisfied until we tear down and humanize the hero from our past. Wasn’t his self-promotion typical of many important leaders? Was the role he played dramatically overemphasized or merely embellished? in fact, didn’t he perform (like many of his contemporaries) a tremendous service to the country? I don’t care, I still admire all that he did. During the surrender, who did the men vote to have lead the delegations? Chamberlain. Now and forever.

  4. No self-promotion compares to that of Dan Sickles, who, when asked where his monument was, said that the whole battlefield was his monument.

  5. He does have a statue on the campus of Bowdoin College, here in Brunswick, Maine. :) We made it a point to go to the monument when we were at the park several years ago. It was a quiet day with no wind on the top of that hill. My daughter and I stood next the monument and contemplated what a sight it must have been during the battle and how terrifying for all involved. We said a thank you out loud to all the men who fought there and as we turned to walk away a huge limb dropped from a tree just where we had stood. It was a good two inches in diameter. We just looked at each other and smiled as we walked away.

  6. Denise Botto says:

    Great article! Any way to still get a statue of Chamberlain on the battlefield?!

    • Susan says:

      I think a statue is not an option at this point, but I am working on setting up a special memorial fund in memory of Chamberlain that will help modern day heros suffering from combat injuries. The Joshua Chamberlain Society is already helping soldiers like
      Cory Remsburg who you may have seen if you watched the State of the Union.
      The memorial fund will be remembering the 100th anniversary of Chamberlain’s death that will occur on Feb 24, 2014. I hope that in lieu of flowers Chamberlain’s memory will be kept alive by giving to this fundraiser. The webpage for it will be up soon and a link will appear on my website. Feel free to contact me through my website if you have any questions. http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com

  7. Susan says:

    Thanks for posting the story! Here’s the link to some of those documents.
    http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com/monumentgettysburg.php

  8. Ryan says:

    I’ve heard this before. I agree with Jeff that many leaders embellished themselves but we have two sides to the story. One is Chamberlain’s and the other side was everyone else. Who is to say that it was either of the men? Perhaps it was some obscure person who called for the charge and it was attributed to one of the other men (just raising some other possibilities.) Yet, in the end, do we really care? The charge happened and the Confederates were repelled, and the course of the war changed. That is what matters.

  9. Chip Crowe says:

    Chris thanks so much for posting that story! FYI – the Chamberlain Ale brewed by Shipyard is really good.

  10. Bob says:

    Thank you Chris for a great article. While I admire the accomplishments of the 20th Maine at LRT, I am disappointed that so few know the story of David Ireland and the 137th New York on Culp’s Hill, which is just as compelling.

    • Diane says:

      Excellent point. I’d bet a huge number of Gettysburg visitors never heard of Ireland. I love visiting the monument to the 137th and saying a ‘thanks for what you did’.

  11. M.D. Blough says:

    As late as a letter dated July 1, 1913, Norton was defending Chamberlain against Spear’s attacks to Strong Vincent’s brother, Bishop Boyd Vincent. (“Army Letters 1861-1865″ O.W. Norton, page pp. 379-380) I find it interesting that Norton’s change of opinion comes in 1916, after Chamberlain’s death and just four years before his own. I wonder how much of this was due to Spear’s continuing bitterness at a time when Chamberlain was no longer around to defend himself. Also, Chamberlain was hardly a one-hit wonder. He ended the war as a commissioned Brigadier General and a brevet Major-General. His promotion to brigadier general, in particular, was pushed by regular army officers who were not normally impressed by volunteer officers. He went back to active field duty after his Petersburg wounding when no one would have thought the less of him for ending his service based on the continuing pain and suffering his wound gave him for the rest of his life.

  12. Mr. Dana Jackson says:

    With all due respect to General Chamberlain, I have always felt that he got the credit for what Strong Vincent did. If you study the battle closely, it was Vincent who ordered the troops to Little Round Top and also laid out the positions. He was killed by a sharpshooter right before Chamberlain arrived on the scene. I was disappointed this was not brought out in the movie “Gettysburg”, but I guess with Hollywood, one can’t have everything.
    Dana Jackson

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