“Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play today”

Although Maine’s most famous Civil War warrior – and many other Maine soldiers and sailors served as capably as he did – Joshua L. Chamberlain was a rank amateur when he joined the 20th Maine Infantry. (Maine State Archives Photo)

When the Civil War Centennial began in spring 1961, we lived on Beacon Street in Brewer. Then as now a dead-end street, Beacon had no claim to fame.

But our home stood on our grandparents’ farm, and they lived on Chamberlain Street. Named for Joshua L. Chamberlain, Brewer’s most famous denizen, the name meant little to me until years later. The Brewer School Department did not play up Joshua’s heroics at Little Round Top in the 1960s, and the “local boy done good” did not get a local statue and park until decades later.

By midsummer 1862, Chamberlain wanted to fight. A rank amateur in terms of his soldierly skills, in a letter that he wrote to Gov. Israel Washburn that July, Joshua L. resembled the bench player quoted in John C. Fogerty’s magnificent 1985 baseball tribute, “Centerfield”:

“Oh, put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play today; Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play today; Look at me, I can be Centerfield.”

Like Fogerty’s unidentified bench-warmer, Joshua L. Chamberlain wanted “to play today” in the bloody war to preserve the Union. He had his detractors then (Ellis Spear some years after the war) and now, but as his letter to Washburn reveals, he was ready to play, today.

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Brunswick July 14 1862

To His Excellency Governor Washburn:

In pursuance of the offer of reinforcements for the war, I ask if your Excellency desires and will accept my service.

Perhaps it is not quite necessary to inform your Excellency who I am.  I believe you will be satisfied with my antecedents.  I am a son of Joshua Chamberlain of Brewer.  For seven years past I have been Professor in Bowdoin College.  I have always been interested in Military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn.

Having been lately elected to a new department here, I am expecting to have leave, at the approaching commencement, to spend a year or more in Europe, in the service of the College.  I am entirely unwilling, however, to accept this offer, in my Country needs my service or example.

Your Excellency presides over the Educational, as well as the Military affairs of our State, and, I am well aware, appreciates the importance of sustaining our Institutions of Learning.  You will therefore be able to decide where my influence is most needed.

But, I fear, this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until the mean of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to rescue our Country from Desolation, and defend the National Existence against treachery at home and jealousy abroad.  This war must be ended, with a swift and strong hand; and every man ought to come forward and ask to be placed at his proper post.

Nearly a hundred of those who have been my pupils, are now officers in our army: but there are many more all over our State, who, I believe, would respond with enthusiasm, if summoned by me, and who would bring forward men enough to fill up a Regiment at once.  I can not free myself from my obligations here until the first week in August, but I do not want to be the last in the field, I f it can possibly be helped.

I am sensible that I am proposing personal sacrifices, which would not probably be demanded of me: but I believe this to be my duty, and I know I can be of service to my Country in this hour of her peril.

I shall acquiesce in your decision Governor, whether I can best serve you here or in the field.  I believe you will find me qualified for the latter as for the former, and I trust I may have the honor to hear a word from you, and I remain,

Yours to Command,
J. L. Chamberlain.
To His Excellency
The Governor

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Unfortunately for Chamberlain, he had his detractors. Learning about Chamberlain’s desire to serve, Maine Attorney General Josiah H. Drummond growled in a July 21, 1862 letter to Washburn, “Have you appointed Chamberlain Col. of the 20th?” The question’s tone implies the follow-up thought, “Are you out of your mind?”

Drummond explained that “His old classmates etc. here say that you have been deceived: that C. [hamberlain] is nothing at all; that is the universal expression of those who knew him.”

Fortunately, Drummond did not “knew him”; Chamberlain has passed into Maine history and legend; 151 years since Drummond took pen to paper, modern Mainers have heard about Joshua Chamberlain —

— but who the heck is Josiah Drummond?

 

 

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.