Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born on September 8, 1828 in Brewer, Maine. His parents were pretty well off and gave him a good education. They were also very religious and taught him that slavery was wrong.
In 1848, he left home to study at Bowdoin College in the city of Brunswick. There, he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa and studied theology, among other subjects. In 1852, he graduated and moved on to Bangor Theological Seminary in the city of Bangor. In 1855, he married a woman named Fanny, who was the daughter of a priest, and the couple had five children, only two of which survived.
After graduating from the seminary in 1855, Chamberlain returned to Bowdoin College, where he was appointed professor of rhetoric. He taught a number of subjects there, including foreign language. Chamberlain himself knew a total of ten languages fluently, including Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Latin, and Syriac.
At this time, slavery and other issues, such as state rights, were causing large amounts of tension between the northern and southern states. Chamberlain watched the news with interest, particularly since he believed in abolishing slavery. His father and grandfather and even great grandfather had all served for the US Military and he hoped to live up to their expectations.
When the Civil War erupted, he informed the college that he wanted to enlist. They told him that he was more valuable teaching and would not approve of him leaving to join the military. He then asked for a leave of absence to tour Europe and, when it was granted, signed up for the US Army.
Chamberlain was offered the position of Colonel to command the 20th Maine Regiment, but he decided not to accept it. Instead, he took the position of Lieutenant Colonel since he had no military experience and wanted to learn about military strategy and leadership before taking the helm. His brother, Thomas, was also a member of the regiment, but a lower ranking officer than Joshua.
The regiment went on to participate in important battles at Fredericksburg and Antietam. After the battle of Chancellorsville, he was promoted to the rank of colonel after the original colonel, Adelbert Ames, was promoted to a higher position. Chamberlain continued to lead the regiment, mainly around the eastern United States, and soon found himself participating in the famous Battle of Gettysburg.
After the Confederate Army invaded Gettysburg, the Union forces took up a defensive position on a rang of hills. Chamberlain was ordered to defend Little Round Top, a small, but fairly steep, hill at the end of the line. There they waited until the Confederates advanced and the 15th Alabama Regiment, led by Colonel William Oates, advanced.
The Confederates charged up the hill to attack the regiment, with a goal of penetrating so they could flank the Union line. After some fighting, Chamberlain found that his unit was in rough shape due to multiple casualties and low ammunition. He ordered them to fix bayonets and form a line, then advanced in an unusual fashion, effecting the swinging of a door.
The door advance was used since they were at the end of the line. Using the door action, the 20th Regiment was able to attack both the front and rear of the Confederates, resulting in many captures. This move was credited with saving the Union flank and possibly the Battle of Gettysburg.
During the battle, Chamberlain was injured in his foot by a bullet. In 1863, he developed malaria and was recalled from duty for recovery at a hospital. In May of 1864, he returned to the Army after recovering and was appointed Brigade Commander in the Army of the Potomac. His first battle upon returning was the Battle of Petersburg.
At Petersburg, Chamberlain was the receipt of a gunshot that entered his right hip and shot through his groin. He was told by the division's lead surgeon that he would die from the wound and his "death" was reported in newspapers throughout Maine. Chamberlain, however, survived and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General by Ulysses S. Grant. By the end of the year, he was back in command and fighting.
As Brigadier General, Chamberlain was given command of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the V Corps. On March 29, 1865, they became involved in a fight on the Quaker Road during the late stages of the war. Chamberlain was injured again, this time in the chest, and nearly captured by the Confederate forces. After the battle, he was promoted to the rank of Major General by President Lincoln.
On April 9, 1865, Chamberlain was summoned to Union Headquarters to meet with the other generals. He learned that General Lee of the Confederate Army was going to surrender and that Ulysses S. Grant had personally chosen him to accept the surrender on April 12. During the surrender, he made the controversial move of saluting the Confederate soldiers as they came into Appomattox to surrender.
After the war ended, Chamberlain returned to Maine, where he was elected governor. He served for four years before returning to Bowdoin College to teach. In 1871, the college appointed him their president and he served until 1883, when complications from his previous wounds made him unable to work effectively.
In 1893, Chamberlain was awarded the United States Medal of Honor in commendation for his leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg. He continued to return to the battlefield throughout his life, where he gave speeches and reuniting with fellow soldiers. On February 24, 1914, he died from complications from his wounds and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in the city of Brunswick.