Joshua L. Chamberlain
May 25, 1863
Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain had barely found himself in command of the 20th Maine Regiment when he was confronted with a difficult situation. The Regiment’s first Colonel, Adelbert Ames, of Rockland, had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and transferred to a different command.
More than 120 men of the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment who had paperwork saying that they had enlisted for three years had been abruptly transferred out of the 2nd Maine and into the 20th Maine.
The majority of the Regiment’s men had enlisted for two years. They had gone home. But due to the confusion and chaos of the first days of the War, others had inadvertently signed for three years. Of these, many protested, and some refused to continue to serve. Fifteen soldiers had then been arrested as mutineers and handed
over to Chamberlain. Within some military procedures, Chamberlain was authorized to shoot them if they continued to refuse to do duty.
The transfer within the 2nd Maine, he writes, "has been so clumsily done, that the men were allowed to grow quite mutinous – left uncared for in their old camp after the 2nd had gone for several days & having time & provocation to work themselves up to such a pitch of mutiny that Gen. Barnes had to send them to me as prisoners."
Chamberlain knew that the 2nd Maine had amassed a distinguished record in the two years they had been in service. The Regiment had fought from Bull Run to Chancellorsville. He believed that the soldiers needed "to be handled with great care and skill." Chamberlain tells Governor Abner Coburn, "I sympathize with them in their view of the case."
Two days later on May 27, he writes again to the Governor: "The men of the 2nd are quite unhappy; still feeling that great injustice has been done them in holding them to service longer. I have taken a liberal hand with them because they are nearly all good and true men ...."
In "taking a liberal hand," Chamberlain fed them, gave them blankets, and distributed them among the 10 Companies of the 20th Maine. He appointed one of them, Andrew Tozier, of Plymouth, to the vacant position of Color Sergeant. Tozier would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage at Gettysburg.
By the time the Regiment reached Gettysburg, the number of reluctant soldiers had dwindled. When the battle began, all but one picked up rifles and joined the fight. He was subsequently sentenced to Fort Jefferson, in the Florida Keys. His sentence was later commuted by President Abraham Lincoln.
Chamberlain also describes how the 20th Maine had not been allowed to "mingle with the rest of the Army" during the fight at Chancellorsville, but instead had been ordered to guard telegraph lines. The Regiment had recently been inoculated with faulty Smallpox vaccine, and it was feared they might all be contagious. Colonel Ames is said to have protested vehemently, claiming that at least they might "infect the rebels!" if they were allowed into action.
- What qualities of leadership does Chamberlain demonstrate in these letters?