Chamberlain an officer? You gotta be kidding me!

Members of the 7th New York Infantry Regiment march through Manhattan while en route to the war in April 1861. By midsummer 1862, the War Department was begging Maine to raise an additional five infantry regiments to help stem the perceived Confederate tide. (Harper’s Weekly)

As the 16th Maine Infantry slowly coalesced at August in summer ’62, the War Department asked Maine to raise three additional infantry regiments. Each would number around 1,000 men, plus 35-37 officers (if you counted the surgeon and assistant surgeon).

Sitting at a desk in Brunswick on Monday, July 14, the 33-year-old professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College wrote “His Excellency Governor Washburn” to ask if he “desires and will accept my service.

“Perhaps it is not quite necessary to inform your Excellency who I am,” the erudite academician wrote, identifying his father and describing a seven-year career at Bowdoin.

“I have always been interested in Military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn,” claimed the husband of Frances Caroline Adams and father of Grace and Harold. He told Washburn that Bowdoin administrators had granted him “leave … to spend a year or more in Europe, in the service of the College.”

The aspiring warrior stated that “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.” Almost 100 of his former students “are now officers in our army,” he claimed.

Asking Washburn to decide “whether I can best serve you here [at Bowdoin] or in the field,” the Brewer-born Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain concluded his letter, then posted it to Augusta.

When Maine suddenly had to raise five infantry regiments in summer 1862, Governor Israel Washburn Jr. was lobbied hard by men seeking commissions on the new units.

Washburn received many similar letters in midsummer 1862. Some came from ambitious officers, others from educated men like Chamberlain, unknown to the politically astute governor. He quietly inquired about Chamberlain; writing Washburn from Portland on July 21, Maine Attorney General Josiah H. Drummond excoriated Chamberlain.

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

Evidently hearing other, positive reports about Chamberlain, Washburn sought an officer’s slot for him. Spurred by “liberal bounties” — the governor raised to $45 the bounty for men joining the new regiments and to $55 the bounty for “recruits for old regiments,” with the money “to be paid” before the recruits left Maine — recruiting went well in July.

In fact, based on recruiters’ reports, the four regiments were attracting more men than authorized. When Stanton asked Washburn for yet a fifth infantry regiment (with the 16th Maine included in that number) in early August, Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon responded that “all companies already enlisted for new regiments,” yet “not necessarily” needed in the four now forming, should report to Island Park in Portland by August 12.

A professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in summer 1862, Joshua L. Chamberlain sought a commission in a new Maine infantry regiment. Maine Attorney General Josiah Drummond thought that Chamberlain was little more than a blow hard who would amount to nothing. (Maine State Archives)

There these companies would form “the Twentieth of Maine Volunteers.” To lead this regiment, Washburn tapped Adelbert Ames, an 1861 West Point graduate from Rockland. Severely wounded while serving with the 5th U.S. Artillery at Manassas, Ames had seen additional combat during the Peninsula Campaign. Although brevetted an Army lieutenant colonel on July 1, 1862, he lobbied Washburn for a command position with a state regiment.

Washburn made Ames colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry, Joshua Chamberlain its lieutenant colonel, and Charles Gilmore of Bangor its major.

Some hometown supporters viewed Chamberlain’s rank as a demotion, because “the son of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of Brewer” had already “accepted the Colonelcy of the Maine 20th Regiment,” William Wheelden bragged in the Daily Whig & Courier on July 22, a day after Attorney General Drummond had trashed Chamberlain.

Now Drummond’s “nothing at all” was apparently commanding the 20th Maine. “This is a significant and gratifying index to the State of public feeling in the present crisis,” Wheelden believed.

He was, of course, incorrect.

We all know Chamberlain. As for Josiah Drummond … eh, not so well.

Sources: Joshua L. Chamberlain, letter to Governor Israel Washburn Jr., July 14, 1862, Maine State Archives; Josiah H. Drummond, letter to Governor Israel Washburn, July 21, 1862, MSA; 1862 Maine Adjutant General’s Report, Appendix A, pp. 8-9; Daily Whig & Courier, Tuesday, July 22, 1962

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

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.