Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Wounded Lion of the Union

By Sarah Handley-Cousins, 7-5-13

At this year’s sesquicentennial of the battle of Gettysburg, thousands of visitors will wander the battlefields, contemplating the terrible and magnificent events of those three days. Many will make their way to one of the most compelling spots on the battlefield, the rocky tor called Little Round Top, where they will ponder, discuss, and probably argue about the deeds of one of the battle’s most famous participants, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.

On July 2, 1863, Chamberlain, who had been a professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., before the war, cemented his place in history by playing a crucial role in the defense of Little Round Top, protecting the Union line’s vulnerable left flank. After being prominently featured in Michael Shaara’s book “The Killer Angels” and its film adaptation, “Gettysburg,” Chamberlain is one of the most popular figures of the Civil War era. Visitors to Gettysburg this July won’t be able to make it down the street without seeing Chamberlain’s face on signs, T-shirts and key chains.

For most of those visitors, Chamberlain’s story begins and ends with his actions at Gettysburg. In reality, it was far more complicated – and much less glorious. Almost a year after his defense of Little Round Top, Chamberlain stood before his men near Petersburg, Va. As he lifted his sword to motion for a leftward oblique, a Minié ball smashed into his side. The lead bullet traveled through his right hip to the left, crushing his bones and cutting into his bladder and urethra on its way. Blood pooled around his feet. Chamberlain knew the wound was likely to be mortal but feared that falling in front of his men might derail their momentum, so he held himself up on his saber until he weakened and fell. He lay bleeding into the Virginia soil for almost an hour, thinking of his mother as the life drained out of him. When he finally arrived at the field hospital, Chamberlain asked the surgeons to leave him and see to the soldiers first. Then he laid back to wait for the end.

But the end never came. The surgeons ignored his requests and instead worked with tenacity on his extensive wounds, toiling through the night until they could give the colonel a slight chance of recovery. For weeks it appeared he wouldn’t survive, but somehow, miraculously, he was back at the front of his brigade within a few months.

During the course of the war, Chamberlain was wounded six times and fell gravely ill twice. He returned to command quickly each time, though still weak and in pain. Chamberlain’s perseverance garnered respect among his comrades, who nicknamed him “the Lion of the Union.” By the end of the war, he was a major general and a bona fide war hero. He translated that popularity into four years as the governor of Maine, followed by 12 years as the president of Bowdoin. Even in his old age, Chamberlain was adored among Civil War veterans, speaking often at commemorations and encampments. Today, almost 100 years after his death, Chamberlain is still so well known around the state that his name and likeness appear on bottles of Maine pale ale.

Yet, in all this attention, little consideration has been paid to Chamberlain’s wounds and subsequent disability. When they are discussed, it’s often as proof of his valor – his scars have become a kind of physical manifestation of his gallantry in battle. Yet, as historians of disability Peter Logue and Max Blanck caution, we must be careful not to “assume that veterans always understood their own disabilities as prestige symbols.” For Chamberlain, his wound was more like an old enemy than a badge of courage. The man on so many a tourist’s keychain lived the majority of his life with pain, incontinence and infection.

The wound quietly tortured Chamberlain for almost 50 years. Because of the damage to his urethra, Chamberlain often required the use of a catheter, which created a fistula at the base of his penis. The hole never healed. It leaked constantly and left him susceptible to chronic bladder and testicular infections that caused him, he said, “unspeakable agony.” A surgery in 1883 attempted to close the fistula. Chamberlain barely survived, and his symptoms – including the fistula – soon returned. Over the next 30 years, infection plagued Chamberlain’s self-described “weak spot,” rendering him bedridden. When he died in 1914, it was of an infection of the old wound.

Despite his ambition and firm work ethic, Chamberlain’s body repeatedly failed him, though he often tried to ignore his pains. When his father-in-law visited his camp in 1865, he noted that the general was “pretty miserable but constantly working.”

In the spring of 1883, Chamberlain’s health took a turn for the worse. He had been postponing surgery to maintain his demanding schedule, traveling for speaking engagements and continuing his duties as president of Bowdoin. Chamberlain’s physician, J. H. Warren of Boston, finally insisted that he have the surgery immediately. The doctor believed that the delay of treatment, coupled with Chamberlain’s intense work schedule, had left his health in a precarious state. The general had little choice but to resign his long-held post at the college in the face of a long and arduous recovery away from Brunswick. The family’s finances suffered as a consequence.

At nearly 60 years old, Chamberlain tried his hand at various new ventures – real estate investor, art school president, railroad executive – but was successful at none. His pension allotments, though high compared to the average payment, weren’t enough to cover his medical costs and provide for his family. In 1893, after another health crisis, he applied for an increase in his pension, supported by affidavits from Army comrades – most notably the former general Fitz John Porter – who attested that Chamberlain was an “almost helpless invalid.” The increase was denied. An attempt at a private pension bill in 1906 also failed.

By the turn of the century, Chamberlain was facing penury. Many friends, including Ellis Spear, who fought with him that day in Gettysburg, undertook a letter campaign asking that Chamberlain be given a patronage position in the port of Portland, Me. President William McKinley gave him the post of surveyor of the port, a position the old general held until his death.

Chamberlain’s case is only one example of the struggles of hundreds of thousands of disabled Civil War veterans. The pain and difficulty of wartime wounds and illnesses did not simply resolve with the surrender at Appomattox, and although prosthetics manufacturers made much of their ability to “fix” disabled soldiers, the majority of veterans suffered wounds, like Chamberlain’s, that no artificial limb could repair.

These old soldiers often struggled to make a living, support their families and function in Gilded Age society, and although many received pensions, they were often insufficient for those who could not work to supplement the payments. Moreover, by the 1880s, pensioners found themselves at the center of the public criticism of perceived fraud and waste in the pension system. Chamberlain was fortunate to receive the post in Portland, but many other, less-well-connected veterans were unable to do so. Instead, they filled soldier’s homes, poorhouses, prisons and asylums.

Almost 20 years after the ball slammed through him, Chamberlain searched out the spot where he fell on the field at Petersburg. Bullets still littered the ground. As he gathered a few, Chamberlain asked “what it was all for, & what would come of it.” Undoubtedly many other disabled veterans wondered just the same thing.

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Sources: The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion; Alice Rains Trulock, “In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War”; John J. Pullen, “Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Hero’s Life and Legacy”; William J. Harmon and Charles K. McAllister, “The Lion of Union: The Pelvic Wound of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain”; Max Blanck and Peter Logue, “Race, Ethnicity and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War America”; James Marten, “Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America”; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain pension file, National Archives; George Adams diary, First Parish Church, Brunswick, Me.; J.L. Chamberlain Collection, Bowdoin College Library.

Sarah Handley-Cousins is a graduate student in history at the University of Buffalo.

Image: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain


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