"My Brave Young
Brother: Tom Chamberlain"
notes at end of chapter
Everyone with even the slightest interest in the American Civil War knows about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Far fewer people have heard of Chamberlain's youngest brother, Tom. Those who have seen Ron Maxwell's 1993 film Gettysburg, where Tom is sweetly (but not entirely accurately) portrayed as a boyish, hero-worshipping innocent, will at least be aware that he was with the 20th Maine during that battle. Keener Civil War enthusiasts may also have read that he was somehow involved in saving Lawrence's life at Petersburg. But Tom Chamberlain was more than a footnote to the career of his famous brother. On the contrary, he served honourably throughout the War, from the formation of the 20th Maine in August 1862 until after the ending of hostilities.
Born on April 29, 1841, and named after a member of the state legislature and U.S. representative from Maine who died in that year, Thomas Davee Chamberlain was the last child of Joshua and Sarah ("Sally") Chamberlain, a couple who were, by then, fast approaching middle-age. Young Tom grew up on the family farm in Brewer, Maine, with his four older siblings: Joshua Lawrence (born in 1828), Horace Beriah (1834), Sarah Brastow (1836, known as "Sae") and John Calhoun (1838). Their upbringing seems to have been strict and religious but also loving. Tom was a mischievous and likable boy - his brother called him a "little rogue" - and, as the baby of the family, he was his mother's favourite. In 1859 she wrote of one of her grandchildren: "...we love her as well as we do...any of our children - (Thom not excepted)". However, from an early age he suffered with the chest ailments which were fated to haunt this particular Chamberlain generation. During one illness, in 1855 when Tom was fourteen, mother Sally wrote to Lawrence: "Again you might see me seated and seriously watching Tom's short and rapid breathing...yes he is down again...he requires constant nursing."(1)
Lawrence was fond of telling a story about his childhood, which gave him, he said, "an order for life". A hay wagon had become stuck in a ditch with its wheels straddling a stump. His father told Lawrence to "Clear that wheel!", and when he asked how he should do it, Chamberlain Senior replied, "Do it; that's how!".(2) This philosophy would be an influence, for good or ill, on all the children: it led to high achieving, but also to intense frustration when difficulties arose. In due course, Lawrence, Horace and John all attended and graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, going on to careers in teaching, law and business. Lawrence and John also studied at Bangor Theological Seminary, but mother Sally was to be disappointed in her ambition to see her oldest son enter the ministry.
Tom, alone of the boys, did not go to college. Whether this was due to lack of intelligence, application or inclination, it is difficult to say, but events in his later life tend to suggest that he was prone to lose interest when things were not working out as he hoped, and also that he was easily led by ill-chosen friends. For whatever reason, by his mid-teens Tom was working as a clerk in a grocery store in Bangor. He seems to have settled down well enough in the job, and was soon a trusted and valued employee; indeed, when the Civil War broke out it became clear that his employer, Frank Sabine, had come to rely almost too much on him.
Tom first thought of volunteering in the late spring of 1862, when his friend, Captain Augustus B. Farnham, who was recruiting for the 16th Maine, promised him a lieutenantcy in that regiment. His mother vetoed the idea, perhaps because she was still mourning the loss of another son: Horace had died of tuberculosis in December 1861, at the age of twenty-seven. In doing so, she may have saved Tom's life, for the 16th Maine would be practically destroyed in the first day of fighting at Gettysburg.(3)
Later in 1862, Tom read in the newspapers that brother Lawrence was to be Colonel in the newly forming 20th Maine Regiment. Lawrence, then a teacher at Bowdoin, had been granted a two-year leave of absence, in theory to travel in Europe, but his real intention was to seek an army appointment (feeling that he did not have the experience to become Colonel he eventually accepted the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 20th). Tom believed that his mother could now be talked into allowing him to enlist, provided she knew that he would be with Lawrence. He wrote to his brother in July saying that his health was good, that "I like warm weather...I hardly ever saw weather so warm but I could stand it well.", and that, although he would prefer to be quartermaster or a lieutenant, "I don't care so long as I go". He could be ready to leave at a week's notice, unless Frank Sabine put any obstacles in his way. Sabine was spending a lot of time in Augusta, helping to organise new recruits, and leaving his shop in the hands of his trusted employee. Tom feared Sabine would use his influence to keep him from leaving ("He said that on examination I would be rejected"), but in the end this did not prove to be a problem.(4)
Lawrence's motives for joining the fight were mixed - some personal, some patriotic and some religious; but it's hard to resist the impression that Tom volunteered originally (like so many others) just for the adventure and the chance to visit what he expected to be hot and exotic climes.
The brothers' parents finally agreed to let Tom go, but only after making Lawrence promise to look after him. Father Joshua wrote to his oldest son at the beginning of September, as the regiment left the state, instructing him to "Take care of Tom until he gets seasoned to the trenches," and suggesting that the boy might do well on an observation post or in military stores. He continued by telling Lawrence that he should make sure Tom either started as an officer or was promoted at first opportunity.(5) The new Lieutenant Colonel had already done his best. In August he had written to a military assistant of the Governor, recommending several people for staff positions, and saying: "Thomas D. Chamberlain of Bangor a brother of mine, wants to be Quarter master sergeant. He is abundantly competent for the place having been for some time chief clerk in F.M. Sabine's store, and I should like to have him receive the appointment."(6) Such a relatively safe post out of the front line would have satisfied their parents, but it was not to be. The new Quartermaster Sergeant would be Howard L. Prince who, by all accounts, did the job well; he was eventually promoted to Captain.(7) Tom, after a short time as a private, had to be content with his appointment as sergeant in Company I.(8) This seems to have been Lawrence's first and only attempt to influence his young brother's army career: as it turned out, Tom was well able to advance on his own merits.
The 20th Maine mustered in at Camp Mason, Portland, on August 29, 1862, and the September roster listed Tom Chamberlain as an unmarried clerk of Bangor, aged twenty-one and 5'8" in height.(9) The height is the same as that given for Lawrence, but other sources indicate that the older man was an inch or two taller.(10) Tom himself may still have had some growing to do: towards the end of his life he was measured by a doctor at 5'9".(11) In 1862, he was slightly-built to say the least, weighing just 120 pounds. But, to his surprise, he proceeded to put on weight, even though his first encounter with "coarse food" and "strong coffee from Camp Kettles" brought on an attack of biliousness of such proportions that he could not travel south with the rest of the regiment and had to join them shortly afterwards.(12) By late October Tom was able to write to his sister, Sae, telling her that, despite the frosty Maryland weather and poor health and morale amongst the men (not to mention the army as a whole), he was well and now weighed 132 pounds. He added, "What makes it strange is that I should have gained 12 pounds living on worms."(13) The worms (maggoty bread) must have been remarkably nutritious, for when he wrote to the family on the same subject again, the following February, he had put on a total of 30 pounds.(14)
Lawrence later described Thomas at around this time as "a handsome fellow".(15) Photographs taken during the War show a young man with heavy sideburns joining together in a moustache, and brown hair perhaps a shade or two darker than Lawrence's (which was also brown, although it was greying by the 1860s so tends to look blond in pictures). Tom's eyes were the same distinctive grey blue as those of all the Chamberlain boys, but without the sheer character and determination of Lawrence's. He seems a little diffident-looking; but it may simply be that he did not take a good picture. Certainly, one which he sent to Sae in the Spring of 1863 was described by her as making him look like a "scape-grace".(16)
During the final months of 1862, in camp in Maryland and then in Virginia, Tom and the rest of the regiment were to discover the realities of everyday army life in the Fifth Corps. The previous year, Oliver Norton, of the 83rd Pennsylvania in the same brigade, had famously written home: "The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly, drill. Between drills, we drill, and sometimes stop to eat a little and have a roll-call."(17) According to Lawrence, who at one time planned to write a history of the Corps, it had "a certain severity of reputation quite distinctive in the comradeship of the army," and its officers "prided themselves on strict observance of Army Regulations and military habitudes". As an example he cited the fact that: "my young brother, Tom, when a private in my regiment came sometimes to see me in my tent, but would not think of sitting down in my presence unless specially invited to do so." Lawrence may not have been quite as strict with his brother as it sounds: during marches and picket duty he carried Tom's blanket for him on the back of his horse.(18)
The Colonel of the 20th Maine was Adelbert Ames, a courageous and ambitious West-Pointer in his late twenties, who was a stickler for discipline and determined to lick his green troops into shape. Tom Chamberlain eventually came to respect him: the following February he was one of the officers who signed a "To Whom It May Concern" letter supporting Ames' leadership, and denying that the Colonel had "subjected [the regiment] to harsh and unnecessarily severe discipline".(19) But this was by no means Tom's initial impression. In October he told the family that "Col. A. will take the men out to drill & he will d'm them up hill and down. I tell you, he is about as savage a man as you ever saw... I swear the men will shoot him the first battle we are in." He hoped that Ames would end up in prison or promoted out of command of any men. Corporal James C. Rundlett of Company G confirmed this general feeling: "I am safe in saying that I have heard 20 men say that [Ames] will not come out of our first engagement alive... in my opinion his Reign is short", "...he is a cruel, heartless rascall." Nevertheless, Tom himself did not fall foul of Ames, and was starting to take a pride in his own drilling abilities: "I drill the co. every day and do it up like an old soldier. I tell you we have to do it well or get a damning."(20)
Aware that the folks at home were worrying about him, he hurried to reassure his sister that being a file closer meant he was as safe as any soldier could be: "...if you shoot a Sergeant you have to fire through two men first. A Sergeant never fires his gun until the men in front are killed & then not unless you want to show off." Meanwhile Lawrence seemed to be finding his new life less difficult. Tom wrote Sae that "I wish you could hear Lawrence give off a command & see him ride along the battalion on his white horse. He looks splendidly... Lawrence told me last night that he never felt so well in his life."(21)
By November 20, Tom had impressed his superiors to the extent that they appointed him acting Second Lieutenant of Company D. This was followed by a further promotion on January 12 to First Lieutenant of Company G, "agreeably to the request of" its Captain, Ellis Spear.(22) Tom's future in the regiment would be in Company G and his association with Ellis Spear, a teacher from Wiscasset and former student of Lawrence's, would last in some form throughout most of the War.
Having been held in reserve at Antietam, and seen minor action at Shepherdstown Ford during the Confederate withdrawal in September, the 20th Maine's first experience of a major battle was at Fredericksburg, on December 13-16. The regiment, along with the rest of the Third Brigade of the First Division, Fifth Corps, was not sent in until late on day one, by which time the worst of the fighting was over. Wave upon wave of Federals had been broken against the Confederates on Marye's Heights, and the Maine men spent the night among the dead and wounded on the field. For warmth, Lawrence slept between two dead men, with a third as a pillow. He wrote of "the deep, many-voiced moan that overspread the field...[that] resolved itself into its diverse, several elements: some breathing inarticulate agony; some dear home names; some begging for a drop of water; some for a caring word; some praying God for strength to bear; some for life; some for quick death."(23) The following night the regiment was called back, then sent in again on the 15th as the rearguard for the final retreat.
The winter of '62-'63 was a cold and unpleasant one for the soldiers of the 20th, and not merely because they participated in Burnside's disastrous January "Mud March". Tom Chamberlain's original tent-mate had been a staunch Christian, whose praying every morning and evening in all weathers seems to have been a source of some amusement to his fellows; but when Tom became an officer in Company G he shared with his new friend, Ellis Spear. In winter quarters near Falmouth just north of the Rappahannock, they were better off than most, in a makeshift wooden shelter which contained a bed of poles covered with pine boughs and a chair made from half a barrel filled with boughs. Spear recalled that: "Fire wood was scarce & green pine at that, nearly incombustible. In bad weather we either both went to bed, or took turns, one lying in the bed, & the other sitting in the barrel." On February 22, they "woke in the morning to find a snow storm blustering outside, & a considerable snow bank on our bed. The cracks between the small logs which formed our walls, had admitted plenty of snow on bed & dirt floor... It was cold & damp outside and cold & damp within."(24)
When the Spring of 1863 finally arrived, the regiment took part in a faulty smallpox vaccination programme, as a result of which several men fell ill and died. The rest were quarantined until after the Battle of Chancellorsville, at the beginning of May, and got no closer to the fight than being sent to guard the telegraph lines. However, one aftermath of Chancellorsville did affect them: for his service there, Colonel Ames, who had been on detached duty, was given the brigade command he had been expecting for some time. In turn, this meant that, on May 20, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain became the 20th Maine's new Colonel.
One of his first tasks was to deal with 120 three-year men from the 2nd Maine who were assigned to the 20th, after the two-year term of the rest of their regiment had expired. They believed they had been misled into signing up for the full three years and some were in mutinous mood, but thanks to Lawrence's careful handling, most became valuable members of the 20th and one, Andrew Tozier, was to receive the Medal of Honor for his conduct as color bearer at Gettysburg. Many of the 2nd Maine men were from Bangor and had known Tom Chamberlain before the War. Private Samuel W. Veazie, a young Bangor lumberman, specifically asked for and received a position in Company G with his old friend.(25)
By May, Tom was serving as Acting Adjutant. The Colonel must have been pleased to have his brother working closely with him, but it would be wrong to assume that his sibling's new status was entirely the result of Lawrence's promotion. In fact, Tom was Acting Adjutant as early as April 12, when he was receiving official correspondence as such.(26)
In June, as the Fifth Corps began moving out with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, to follow General Lee's troops north in what became the Gettysburg campaign, the men of the 20th Maine must have felt that they were a unit of seasoned veterans, ready for anything. Yet the truth was that they had not so far been centrally involved in any major engagement. This was soon to change. But Tom Chamberlain had other things on his mind: he was homesick! On May 22, Lawrence had written to brother John, saying, "Thomas is well & doing well. Mother wrote him a beautiful letter a few days ago. He thinks a great deal of you at home."(27) Perhaps what Tom needed was a visitor from Brewer, and unbeknownst to him, the very person was soon to be on his way.
For some time, John Chamberlain had been wanting to take up a standing invitation from his brothers to visit them. In February, for instance, Tom had written to him: "If I were you I would come out here next vacation for it would not cost more than sixteen doll's..." Finally John had decided that the best way to go about it was to sign on for a short term with the U.S. Christian Commission. He left Maine on June 1, bound for the Commission in Boston. From there he went on to Philadelphia and Washington before travelling into Virginia, where he expected to meet Lawrence and Tom at Stoneman's Station, and be escorted to their camp two miles away. But the 20th had already moved out and was on its way north. Christian Commission work at the Army hospitals occupied him for several days: in the Fifth Corps hospital he found a number of men from his brothers' regiment and, on the 11th, he wrote in his diary of their enthusiasm for their new Colonel, who "don't say go boys but come." All of them, he said, "had the same story to tell of their Colonel and his Adjt. who was not afraid to speak to a private." Eventually John (and a companion, the brother of General O.O. Howard) joined a mail team headed "for the indefinite 'Front'", and caught up with the 20th near Aldie, in the Bull Run Mountains, on June 22 or 24.(28)
John must have been a little disappointed to discover that neither brother was in camp, for Lawrence was in a neighbouring house recuperating from heatstroke, and Tom was on an errand in town. John went looking for them and when, at last, he came upon Tom, "a gay looking horseman cantering up the street", the ensuing reunion was accompanied by much fraternal banter: "How are you, Adjt? Take off my pants. What will you go for them, a 5 spot?"(29) That evening, John borrowed a horse and accompanied Tom on his rounds; Tom showed him the battlefield, north-west of town, "where Douty fell". Colonel Calvin Sanger Douty, from Dover in Piscataquis County, about forty miles from Brewer, was a former Sheriff and as doughty as his name.(30) He had died on June 17, leading his 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment in a charge during one of the savage cavalry clashes which made up the Battle of Aldie.
When, on June 26, the 20th Maine resumed the arduous march through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, John was with it. Before long, he would be needed.
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1. Alice Rains Trulock, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua
L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War (University of North Carolina
Press, 1992), p.403. Diane Smith, Fanny & Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives
of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Thomas Publications,
1999), p.56 (Lawrence to Fanny Adams, April 11, 1854). Ibid, p.100 (Sarah
Chamberlain to Lawrence, no date [summer 1859]). Ibid, p.76 (Sarah Chamberlain
to Lawrence, October 5, 1855).
2. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.33, quoting Lawrence's unpublished "Early Memoirs".
3. Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.119 (Tom to Lawrence, July 21, 1862). Farnham would become the Major and later Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 16th Maine. He avoided the slaughter at Gettysburg due to illness, and survived a serious wound in the final days of the War (Maine Gettysburg Commissioners, Maine at Gettysburg, 1898, Stan Clark Military Books reprint 1994, pp.58,76; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing Of The Armies, 1915, Morningside Press reprint 1994, p.141).
4. Michael Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond: The Parallel Lives of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Edward Porter Alexander (Crown Publishers, 1994), p.64; Smith, Fanny & Joshua, pp.118-19 (Tom to Lawrence, July 21, 1862). Diana Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer (Thomas Publications, 1998), p.14 (Tom to Lawrence, August 2, 1862).
5. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond, p.66; Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.25 (Joshua Chamberlain to Lawrence, early September, 1862 - letter not dated, but delivered by Tom when he caught up with the regiment).
6. Mark Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire: Selected Civil War Papers Of Major General Joshua Chamberlain (Stackpole Books, 1996), p.16 (Lawrence to Col. Eugene Hale, August 15, 1862).
7. Maine Gettysburg Commissioners, Maine at Gettysburg, pp.273, 287.
8. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.25.
9. Tom Chamberlain's Military Records (National Archives). Thomas A. Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign (Thomas Publications, 1995), p.171.
10. Trulock (p.398) notes that Lawrence gave his height as 5'9" on his passport application in 1900, and as 5'10½" in the 1850s.
11. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives).
13. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, October 26 & 30, 1862 (Bowdoin College). John Pullen, The Twentieth Maine (1957, Morningside Press reprint 1991), p.39.
14. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.81, referring to a letter from Tom probably to John Chamberlain, February 2, 1863.
15. Chamberlain, The Passing Of The Armies, p.294.
16. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.433 (Sae Chamberlain to Tom, May 26, 1863). For typical wartime photographs of Tom, see: Sis Deans, His Proper Post: A Biography of Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Belle Grove Publishing, 1996), p.28; Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.15; Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.138; William B. Styple (ed.), With A Flash Of His Sword: The Writings Of Major Holman S. Melcher, 20th Maine Infantry (Belle Grove Publishing, 1994), betw. pp.156 & 157, plate 6; Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.24.
17. Oliver W. Norton, October 8, 1861, Army Letters 1861-1865 (1903, Morningside Press reprint 1990), p.28.
18. Chamberlain, The Passing Of The Armies, pp.xii-xiii. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, October 26, 1862 (Bowdoin College).
19. Edward G. Longacre, Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man (Combined Publishing, 1999), pp.106-107 ("To Whom It May Concern" letter, February 5, 1863).
20. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, October 26, 1862 (Bowdoin College). Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.4; Pullen, The Twentieth Maine, p.36 (Tom to John Chamberlain, October 30, 1862, and to Sae Chamberlain, October 14, 1862). Carlotta Wells (ed.), Rundlett's War: Civil War Letters of James C. Rundlett, 20th Maine Volunteers, Company G (Privately published, 1998/1999), p.11 (Rundlett to his father, September 9, 1862), p.41 (Rundlett to his mother, December 2, 1862). Like many other regular army officers, Ames apparently turned swearing into an art-form. As Ellis Spear, with typical dry humour, put it, "the regiment continued to learn military drill and new vocabulary at the same time" (Ellis Spear, "The Story of the Raising and Organization of a Regiment of Volunteers in 1862" in War Papers of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Commandery of the District of Columbia, 1903; reprinted in Abbott and Ellis Spear, The 20th Maine at Fredericksburg: The Conflicting Accounts of General Joshua L. Chamberlain and General Ellis Spear, Union Publishing Company, 1995, where the quote is on p.83.)
21. Pullen, The Twentieth Maine, pp.34, 37 (Tom to Sae Chamberlain, October 14, 1862).
22. Tom Chamberlain's Military Records (National Archives). Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire, p.49 (Lawrence to Abner Coburn, Governor of Maine, February 26, 1863).
23. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "My Story of Fredericksburg" in Cosmopolitan Magazine, December 1912; reprinted in Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Bayonet! Forward: My Civil War Reminiscences (Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), where the quote is on p.7.
24. Tom to Sae Chamberlain, October 30, 1862 (Bowdoin College). Tom's religious tent-mate is named in this letter as "Dea. Morse" (for "Deacon") from Warren. There were two men named Morse in Company I: Corporal John D. Morse, a millman in his early twenties from Thomaston; and Sergeant Hiram Morse, a farmer in his mid-thirties from Warren (Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.176). Presumably "Dea. Morse" was the latter. Ellis Spear, The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear (University of Maine Press, 1997), pp.305-306 (Spear's "Personal Memoranda" of 1896).
25. Samuel Veazie's affidavit in Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Roster information in Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.179.
26. Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire, p.50, gives the text of a formal letter of that date from Lawrence to Tom in his capacity as Acting Adjutant, applying for a five day leave of absence.
27. Lawrence to John Chamberlain, May 22, 1863 (Library of Congress).
28. Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.29 (Tom to John Chamberlain, February 2, 1863). John Calhoun Chamberlain, "A Delegate's Diary", Gettysburg and the Christian Commission (ed. Daniel J. Hoisington, Edinborough Press, 2002), pp.78-79, 83, 88-89 (John Chamberlain's Gettysburg Diary: these leather-bound journals were part of the standard USCC kit issued to delegates). Spear, The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear, p.214 (Spear's Diary). Ellis Spear and John Chamberlain disagree on the date of John's arrival. Spear says it was on June 22, but John recalls leaving Washington on Tuesday the 23rd ("if I remember rightly"), and getting to Aldie (probably) the following day. In his hurry, he accidentally left his diary behind, but he kept notes and wrote them up soon after recovering the journal on July 16. Although it is possible that he was mistaken about the date when he got to the camp of the 20th Maine, he was still writing normal Washington diary entries on June 21 (when he went to see Augustus Farnham at Georgetown), so it seems unlikely that he left the city before the 22nd.
29. Chamberlain, "A Delegate's Diary", p.89.
30. Ibid. William Lemke, A Pride of Lions: Joshua Chamberlain & Other Maine Civil War Heroes (Covered Bridge Press, 1997), pp.157-158.
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Copyright (c) 1998, 2003 Rosemary Pardoe