The Civil Dozen — Part Five(a)

After the Union’s victory at Gettysburg, Chamberlain was given command of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, Fifth Corps, and participated in the Culpepper and Centreville campaign in October. By now, after having undergone his baptism of fire and many trials with the 20th, Chamberlain had earned the respect and loyalty of his men. The soldiers admired his skill and bravery.

They appreciated his humility and willingness to endure the same conditions as them, sleeping on the ground in the harshest of climates. They appreciated his acts of kindness and courtesy towards them. The attention he paid to the sick or wounded in his command was seen over and over again. The time and care he took in sending home the personal effects of those who died was remembered as well.

By mid-June, 1864 Chamberlain became the commander of the 1st Division’s new 1st Pennsylvania Brigade which fought valiantly at Rives’ Salient on June 18, 1864. At one point in this battle, he bore the flag after the color bearer was killed at his side, until he too was shot by a minié ball. Though the wound was severe, Chamberlain maintained his composure until every one of his men had passed from view. Even in his grave condition he refused preferential treatment, insisting that others with far more serious wounds be tended to first. The belief that Chamberlain’s wound was mortal led to his swift promotion to Brigadier General by General Ulysses Grant. This was the only instance of a promotion on the battlefield given by Grant in the entire war. Chamberlain was admitted into the Naval Academy hospital at Annapolis with little hope for his survival. Chamberlain proved them wrong. His will to live was strong. By November he again reported for duty, despite the fact that he could not yet ride a horse or walk a great distance. On March 29, 1865, Chamberlain and his 1st Brigade were engaged in a hot fight in which they had to employ their bayonets. Chamberlain was again wounded, having another one of his many horses shot under him. Chamberlain was nearly taken prisoner but eluded his captors by posing as a Confederate officer.

Finally, on April 9th, General Robert E. Lee called a truce to halt the four-year bloodshed between the two armies.

Chamberlain was summoned to Union headquarters on April 10th, where he was informed that he had been selected to preside over the parade of the Confederate infantry as part of their formal surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12th.

Thus was set up one of the most poignant scenes of the war: Of his thinking, Chamberlain wrote: “The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

As the first group of Confederate soldiers prepared to march by Union forces and surrender their arms, the sound of the bugle peeled. Instantly, from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, the Union forces changed from “order arms” to the old “carry arms” marching salute.

General Gordon was the Rebel commander at the head of the column. Riding with a heavy spirit and downcast face, he was stunned to hear the sound of shifting arms. He looked up and saw the salute. He immediately understood the meaning. The victors were showing honor to the defeated.

The Rebel commander, in a profound salutation, dropped the point of his sword to the toe of his boot. Then facing his own command, gave word for each successive brigade to pass by the Union troops in the same “carry arms” marching salute. They were to answer honor with honor.

With no sound of trumpet – no roll of the drum, no cheer, no word, no whisper, no motion of on the part of the Union forces – brigade after brigade of Confederate soldiers marched through the Union forces on both sides of the road in an awed stillness. It was as if everyone was holding their breath. It was as if it were the passing of the dead!

In his speeches and memoirs, Gordon would always remember Chamberlain’s decision that day. He called Chamberlain “one of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal Army.”

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