A PRIDE OF LIONS, Joshua Chamberlain And Other Maine Heroes by William Lemke, Covered Bridge Press, softcover, 390 pages, $14.95.
When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant chose Maine Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain to command the Union parade at the formal ceremony of surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 12, 1865, it was a measure of the high esteem in which the commander of the Union forces held Maine’s most distinguished native son.
Chamberlain resolved to fulfill the duty the same way he had handled every other assignment in the tragic and bloody four-year War Between the States — with the professionalism born of the traditional Yankee conviction, instilled in him by his parents, that anything worth doing is worth doing well.
“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,” Chamberlain wrote. He knew that such an action would be criticized in some quarters, where it undoubtedly would be construed as a salute to the Confederate cause rather than a salute to a worthy foe. But he did it because it was the right thing to do to help heal the wounds of a struggle that had pitted countryman against countryman, brother against brother for far too long.
Though most Mainers know of Chamberlain’s heroic exploits at the decisive Battle of Little Round Top, many might not realize the extent of his participation in other Civil War campaigns nor just how much Grant and other top Union brass depended upon the former Bowdoin professor’s military skills in the quest for victory.
The author, a history professor at St. Joseph’s College and a state legislator, makes the Chamberlain war record come alive by following the Brewer native through five separate Civil War battles, interspersed with the exploits of other famous Civil War officers from Maine.
Among these heroes are Hiram Berry and Adelbert Ames of Rockland, Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds, Selden Connor of Fairfield, Thomas Hyde of Bath and Neal Dow of Portland, who was perhaps better known as a tireless and abrasive advocate of prohibition and the driving force behind the 1851 law outlawing the sale of liquor in Maine.
“All were lions of a state that, in the nation’s hour of need, produced a pride of lions,” Lemke writes in the book’s preface.
Lemke’s exhaustive research (the book’s bibliography consumes 15 pages), his easy style, and a knack for telling the obscure anecdote that brings out the human quality in his characters makes for delightful reading.
Hear, for example, Tom Hyde of the Seventh Maine philosophize about his recent promotion to major, an offer he at first refused until he was “almost forced” to assume a rank he knew he was not prepared for: “I did not know then that the principal duties of a major were to ride on the flank of the rear division, say nothing, look as well as possible, and long for promotion.”
From youthful dreams of battlefield glory through the horrors of hand-to-hand combat in the miserable Wilderness campaign the reader rides in tandem with the Maine officers, most of whom seem to have graduated from Bowdoin College. Chamberlain’s Little Round Top saga is there, in detail. But so are other campaigns, including Petersburg, where Chamberlain suffered near-fatal wounds. War is hell, and no one came to know the truth of that ageless cliche better than the brave men from Maine.
“Standing in the quiet by old gravestones in shaded cemetery plots decorated by little flags on the Fourth of July, you can still hear the old lions roar,” Lemke concludes. Thank God their roar was loudest in the Union’s darkest hour of need.