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@ElizaBTweetin: January 23, 1873: Gen. Joshua Chamberlain

Posted on January 31, 2014

Eliza B. Wheaton Diary, 22-27 Jan. 1873

Eliza B. Wheaton Diary, 22-27 Jan. 1873

It has been many weeks since we have elaborated upon Mrs. Wheaton’s diary entries, but Civil War hero Gen. Joshua Chamberlain’s visit to the Seminary on Jan. 23, 1873, cannot be overlooked.

Many of our readers will know Chamberlain (1828-1914) from the film Gettysburg, in which the 20th Maine Infantry figures prominently, especially at the Battle of Little Round Top. At the end of the war, on April 12, 1865, Chamberlain was chosen to accept the Confederate surrender of arms at Appomattox Court House, where he ordered his men to salute the defeated Confederates.  He was profoundly affected by his experience at Appomattox, which he described in detail in his book The Passing of the Armies, and recounted during his visit to Wheaton.

The Rushlight  (Vol. 18, No. 2, March 1873, p. 29) reported great enthusiasm for Gen. Chamberlain’s lecture, even quoting Virgil's Aeneid:

    The fifth lecture in our course that of Gen. Chamberlain upon "The Surrender of Lee", was one of the most enjoyable we have had. It is always exciting to hear a soldier "fight his battles o’er again" and the pleasure is doubled when, like our lecturer, he simply says, "quaeque ipse vidi [that which I have seen]" not adding "Et quorum pare magna fui [and in which I played a great part]."

    Having nobly defined the sometimes censured Army of the Potomac, the General gave us a minute and vivid account of the Rebel retreat, the battle of Appomattox Court House and the final surrender of the Confederate army. This included finely drawn pictures of Grant, Lee and Sheridan and other generals, together with many anecdotes of officers, men and army life, on both sides.

     The General left the girl portion, at least, of his audience, in a state of wild enthusiasm, which has since subsided into a quieter, but not less earnest admiration of both lecture and lecturer.

His military career established Chamberlain in the minds and hearts of the citizens of Maine, who annually elected him the state’s Governor from 1866 to 1869 by huge margins (he received 72% of the votes in 1868!).  Congress awarded Chamberlain the Medal of Honor, our country’s highest military honor, in 1893.

Joshua Chamberlain, President of Bowdoin College, 1874

Joshua Chamberlain, President of Bowdoin College, 1874

But Chamberlain was an academic at heart. He taught himself ancient Greek in order to pass the admission exams at Bowdoin College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1852. Having made himself fluent in Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac, Chamberlain was named Professor of Modern Languages at his alma mater in 1861, but soon thereafter enlisted in the Union Army. He returned to Bowdoin as its President from 1871 to 1883. It was during this period that he spoke at Wheaton. Wheaton's future president Samuel Valentine Cole, who graduated from Bowdoin in 1877, would have studied under Chamberlain, who taught every subject except maths and sciences.

Fascinating as this visit may be, it leaves questions.  Wouldn’t Mrs. Wheaton have invited the President of Bowdoin College, along with other guests, to dine in her home? She does not indicate this in her diary. Even more interesting, however did he eat his soup?

More information about Chamberlain (including the photo above) is available in the finding aid to the Chamberlain Papers at Bowdoin College.

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