On the occasion of Union General Joshua Chamberlain’s birthday, it seems fitting to honor him not just for his admirable courage and leadership throughout the Late War, most notably in his defense against incredible Southern opposition at Gettysburg, but for the way he perceived and treated his adversaries.
Of course today, many Americans would like to pretend that a war over slavery, beloved by Southerners and despised by Northerners yielded two armies that loathed each other, but as surely as the War was more complex than that, so too were the competing militaries’ relations. This was well exemplified by an account, written by General Chamberlain, of the surrender at Appomattox.
As Confederate General John Brown Gordon approached Chamberlain and his men on horseback, leading his troops, his head bowed, his appearance downcast, Chamberlain recounts:
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…
In a description of his Confederate adversaries, the words of Chamberlain, who had lived through a brutal war and had as much right as any to hate the Confederates, would be deemed treasonous by many today.
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.
Undoubtedly, General Chamberlain would be as outraged by today’s denigration of Confederates as Lee would be.