“Chamberlain” by Michael Shaara

A crop of "Guerrilla Warfare. Picket Duty in Virginia," 1862

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.

Plot Summary | Read the Story | Thinking About the Text | Thinking with the Text | About the Author

“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.

Plot Summary

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).

(View Jeff Daniels’ performance of the speech from the 1993 film adaptation, Gettysburg, or read it online at What So Proudly We Hail.)


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Thinking about the Text

Section Overview

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.

Shaara’s Chamberlain

  • Consider Shaara’s description of Chamberlain: “He had a grave, boyish dignity, that clean-eyed, scrubbed-brain, naïve look of the happy professor.” What does this mean? Imagine yourself as a war-weary veteran before an officer with such a look. Would you take him seriously?
  • Shaara tells us that Chamberlain “had a gift for [making speeches] ... when he spoke most men stopped to listen. Fanny [his wife] said that it was something in his voice.” What does this mean? Can you recognize it in what he says to the mutineers and how he says it?
  • Look carefully at the scene between Chamberlain and the captain who delivers the prisoners. How would you characterize the differences between the two men? What do we learn about Chamberlain from that encounter?
  • Look carefully at the scene between Chamberlain and Bucklin. What do we learn about Chamberlain from that encounter?
  • Later, as Chamberlain walks over to speak to the mutineers, Shaara remarks: “He had a complicated brain and there were things going on back there from time to time that he only dimly understood, so he relied on his instincts, but he was learning all the time.” What does this mean?
  • Just before Chamberlain addresses the men, Shaara describes Chamberlain’s “faith” and his reasons for fighting. What does this tell you about the man? Why can he not rely on these ideas in speaking to the men?

Video Excerpt 1

WATCH: What kind of person is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain?

The Mutineers

  • What are the condition, mood, and attitude of the mutineers as they march into Chamberlain’s camp?
  • What are the basic grievances of the mutineers? Should we sympathize with them?
  • Why do you think Bucklin has such anger at “these goddamned gentlemen, these officers”?

Video Excerpt 2

WATCH: What are the mutineers’ grievances?

Chamberlain and the Mutineers

  • The bulk of our attention is directed to Chamberlain’s speech to the men. But Shaara also lets us watch his actions toward them from the time they arrive, including his manner, tone, and gestures, and the order in which he proceeds. Look carefully at all aspects of his conduct. How do they strike you, as a reader? How might they have moved you were you among the mutineers?
  • Chamberlain deliberately speaks quietly and slowly. Why does he choose this strategy? What is its effect on his audience?
  • Chamberlain’s speech is divided into five distinguishable parts (in ten separated passages of direct quotation) beginning with, “I’ve been talking with Bucklin ...” and ending with, “... We have to move out”:
    1. He addresses their “problem.” Promises to do what he can;
    2. He outlines his orders: he won’t shoot them, though he is authorized to do so;
    3. He describes the situation, and their freedom to choose whether to fight;
    4. He explains things they should know if they choose to fight (including the regiment’s history, the reasons they volunteered, and the reasons they fight);
    5. He concludes his argument, reminding them again of their freedom to choose, of the importance of the battle, and a delivering a personal appeal.

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.

Video Excerpt 3

WATCH: How does Chamberlain respond to the mutineers?

  • Chamberlain appeals to a variety of causes. What is the highest or most fundamental appeal he makes? Is it persuasive to you?
  • In general, why do you think Chamberlain’s speech was so successful with the men? Would you have been persuaded by it to choose to fight—and very likely die?
  • Do you think that Chamberlain’s speech would be as effective today? Why or why not?

Video Excerpt 4

WATCH: What case does Chamberlain make to the mutineers?


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Thinking with the Text

Section Overview

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

  • What is courage? What makes it so difficult?
  • Winston Churchill called courage “the first of human qualities ... the quality which guarantees all others.” In what sense might this be true?
  • How does one encourage public-spiritedness and sacrifice?
  • How important—and effective—are national ideals for inspiring men to fight? Is there a difference between fighting for your fatherland—for blood and soil (what Chamberlain calls “dirt”)—and fighting for a cause? Does it depend on the cause?
  • Should military service—or some other form of national service—be a civic duty? Why or why not?
  • What is the difference between military courage (and military service) and other sorts of courage (including public service)? Which do you regard as most important? Why?

Video Excerpt 1

WATCH: What is courage? What makes it so difficult?

Video Excerpt 2

WATCH: What motivates people to fight in service to their nation? What motivates Chamberlain?

Leadership and the Military

  • What are the virtues necessary for leaders in a democratic republic? Are the virtues needed for military leaders different from those of civilian leaders?
  • On the one hand, we Americans want excellent leaders, people whom we can admire and follow. On the other hand, we Americans do not wish to be led, and we do not believe that some people are really better than others. What does this tension imply for leadership in America?
  • The United States maintains civil control of the military. It also has a volunteer army, comprising mainly citizens who serve only for a short time and who are not and will not become professional soldiers. These citizen-soldiers are, however, ruled by a cadre of professional soldiers whose entire career is spent in uniform. What special challenges of leadership do these arrangements produce?


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