Directions: This Launchpad, adapted from the What So Proudly We Hail curriculum, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of “Chamberlain,” a chapter from Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels. After reading the story, you can click on the videos to hear a discussion of the story conducted by Eliot A. Cohen (Johns Hopkins, School of Advanced International Studies) with the editors of the anthology, Amy and Leon Kass. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.
“Chamberlain” is a chapter from The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg by Michael Shaara (1928–88). A prolific writer of science fiction and sports stories, Shaara was inspired to write the novel after discovering letters written by his great-grandfather,who had been injured at Gettysburg as a member of the Fourth Georgia Infantry. Shaara’s narrative is organized into four days—June 30, 1863 (the day on which Union and Confederate armies move into Gettysburg), and July 1, 2, and 3 (the days of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War). Each day’s events are told from the perspective of one of the commanders of the competing armies.
Shaara’s chapter “Chamberlain” focuses on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828–1914), commanding officer of the Twentieth Maine, and his efforts (on June 30) to encourage mutineers to re-join the battle. As Shaara recounts in a later chapter, Chamberlain, his regiment out of ammunition, would lead a bayonet charge against the enemy, enabling the Union army to hold Little Round Top and ultimately to win the battle.
Not reported by Shaara are the various honors Chamberlain received. For his leadership at Gettysburg and elsewhere, he was, during the war itself, sequentially promoted, eventually achieving the rank of brigadier general. For his heroism at Little Round Top, Chamberlain was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. At Appomattox, at the very end of the war, he was given the honor of receiving the surrender of the Confederate infantry. After the Civil War, Chamberlain was elected to four terms as governor of Maine and then returned to his alma mater, Bowdoin College, as its president. He died of unhealed wounds incurred during his war years.
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commanding officer of the Twentieth Maine, is abruptly awakened early in the morning by his aide, Buster Kilrain, who tells him that he is about to receive as prisoners 120 battle-weary veterans from the old Second Maine, recently disbanded, who refuse to fight. The advance message indicates that the men are to do their duty, and, if they don’t, Chamberlain is authorized to shoot them.
Chamberlain faces a dilemma. He lacks the manpower to guard and care for the mutineers, but he knows that, since the mutineers are also Maine men, shooting them would make it impossible for him to return home. The mutineers arrive: shuffling, dusty, dirty, and ragged. With heads and faces down, they are clearly weary, hungry, and exhausted. They reflect their status of men in bondage. Chamberlain is immediately aware of the irony of his situation: “How do you force a man to fight—for freedom?” How, then, to persuade them to do so?
Chamberlain first invites the hungry men to eat. As they do, he listens to their spokesman, Joseph Bucklin, who presents their grievances. The prisoners had signed up to fight with the Second Maine and only the Second Maine. War-weary, they had fought eleven engagements and felt that they had already done their share. And for what? They were being treated like cows and dogs—or worse. And (last but not least), because of the “lame-brained officers from West Point,” the men are convinced that the Union cannot win the war. They are, therefore, more than ready to give up fighting and go home.
As Chamberlain listens, a courier arrives to announce that the Twentieth Maine must ready itself to move out immediately—toward Gettysburg. Now urgently needing a solution for his dilemma, Chamberlain speaks directly to the mutineers.
Proceeding slowly, quietly, and deliberately, he addresses the mutineers as free men, enabling them to think anew about why they and other civilian volunteers in the Union army had come to fight. Chamberlain makes it clear that whether they fight again is up to them. All but six “reenlist” with his regiment. (We subsequently learn that only three held out).
The historical Chamberlain was, as noted above, a hero at Gettysburg. But in Shaara’s rendering, he seems more the mild-mannered professor than a steely warrior, showing greater sympathy toward the mutineers than a man in his position likely would have done. Yet his speech to the mutineers is wonderfully successful—far more than he had reason to hope. Thinking carefully about the text may help us understand why.
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Chamberlain and the Mutineers
Pausing after each of these five parts, consider the following: Why does Chamberlain say what he says? What does he mean? Why does he take up the subjects in the order in which he does? And, finally, imagining yourself as a mutineer, and at each turn, ask yourself how you would react.
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Shaara’s “Chamberlain” invites questions about the importance of courage and public-spiritedness, as well as the difficulty in obtaining them. It also raises interesting questions about leadership and about the military in American society.
Encouraging Courage and Public-Spiritedness
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Leadership and the Military