"My Brave Young Brother: Tom Chamberlain"

Chapter Four:

"My brave young brother" - After the War

notes at end of chapter

Soon after the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington on May 23, in which the First Division staff, "Colonel Spear, Major Fowler, Tom Chamberlain, my brave young brother...",(1) marched in their appropriate place, much of the 20th Maine was mustered out. But "by special order of Genl Meade" (as Lawrence told Sae), Tom was retained as the Division's Assistant Commissary of Musters, while the remnant of the regiment was enlarged by the inclusion of residues from other Maine units, the 16th and the 1st Sharpshooters.(2) Unintentionally, he thwarted the ambitions of his friend, Captain Holman Melcher, who wrote to his brother early in June: "I do not expect the position of a Field Officer in the new organization, for Col. Spear remains and Captain Chamberlain, who is my senior in rank."(3)

That month, Tom was brevetted to Lieutenant Colonel (mustered in June 20) for bravery at Five Forks, and later to Colonel of U.S. Volunteers.(4) When the last of the 20th was finally mustered out on July 16, he was second-in-command to Colonel (brevet Brigadier General) Ellis Spear, and almost sorry to be going home. He wrote to sister Sae: "...if there was a Foreign War, I would enlist tomorrow morning as a private if I couldn't get anything better"; and added, "I shall bring home my Nigger who will always take care of my things hereafter."(5) In March of the following year, Ellis Spear had occasion to describe Tom's service to General J.L. Hodsdon, Maine's Adjutant-General. The young man had, he said, risen "by force of his own character from the ranks, and filled a variety of difficult positions with marked ability and success."(6) This was a glowing testimonial indeed from Spear, who was not given to offering praise unless it was due.

Sadly, however, although Thomas had been a first class soldier and officer, all was not well. Back in February 1865, after Tom's return to Maine on leave, father Joshua had written to Lawrence with some concerns about his sibling. Lawrence did his best to offer reassurances:

"I...was sorry to hear, both from you & from Mother, that Thomas was so restless & roving while at home. However, I think you need have no fears of his indulging any incorrect habits whatever.
"He annoys me chiefly by being too sensitive, & allowing a few cowardly fellows disturb his peace of mind. It is more creditable and more safe to have such men enemies than friends, & in my opinion it will be a good thing for him to have to stand his hand among men just as they come [sic]."(7)

The fact was that Tom had apparently started drinking, and this seems to have got worse when he attempted to build a peacetime life for himself. In 1866 he went to Brooklyn, New York, and kept the books for his brother John, as well as earning very good money as a tobacco inspector; but John had been ailing since his Gettysburg adventures and by early 1867 he was on the point of death, having suffered several pulmonary haemorrhages.(8) Tom wrote to Lawrence on January 16 that he and his sister-in-law, Delia, had spent six sleepless nights sitting up with John until their sister, Sae, arrived to relieve them, "but still we all stay up with him. Every night." He added that "Poor John does not yet know that in all probability he will never go to his office again & still he enquires after his business all the time... You had better come right over if it is possible any way - for he could not die without seeing you - I think you had better start at once." Sae told Lawrence the doctor thought there was "one chance in a hundred for John to rise from this bed."(9) Nevertheless, he rallied slightly and lingered for a few more months until finally succumbing to lung disease (like brother Horace), on August 11.(10)

Tom then tried to set up his own business in New York. In 1869 he asked for help from Lawrence to acquire an office, but the older man could not take time away from his schedule in Augusta as Governor of Maine, and he also had his own money worries. He replied to Tom on June 5, in the didactic tone which he often took with his family and others, no doubt to their irritation:

"I declare I would not have an office, if I were you, which requires so much 'fixing up'...
"I am under bother enough as I am, but I don't have to beg anybody to favor me & I hate to have you do it. I will do everything I can to have your matters go well & had hoped to go to N.Y. before this...
"I don't see now how I can take time & go there before July. You must make the best of the situation, & with the backers you have...
"I am sorry to disappoint you, but can't help it."

Perhaps realising that he had been rather hard, he finished the letter on a more conciliatory note: "If things get too blue, you must let me know because I can manage to come on a case of life & death." On the back of the letter, Tom scrawled a memo to himself: "I wrote L. today not to think of coming for me, as I was O.K. and not to trouble himself one bit for me as I could get along without him by paying 100$ to a man I know."(11)

But Tom soon found 'getting along' on his own in New York difficult again. Towards the end of 1870, Lawrence wrote his father that he did not think Tom's "associations there now are profitable", and that he had advised him to go into business in Boston with a Mr Farms. In 1872, Lawrence was helping Tom "into the 'cyder' business", and commented on his lack of self-reliance, putting it down to an "excess of a good quality, viz. modesty."(12) By 1873, Tom was being sent money by the family. Lawrence gave him $100 and told his father, on May 16, that he would try to get Tom "the fitting out of the ship Bombay now due at Boston, though that will be a little awkward. It can be done I suppose. I own an eighth of her." Nothing seems to have come of this, and Tom set himself up as a stationer on State Street in Bangor, selling newspapers and periodicals, while living in the Brewer family home.(13) He also served as a deputy marshal, before obtaining a position as a clerk in the Washington D.C. pension office. He was there from 1879 to 1886, but they were not happy years and little opportunity for advancement offered itself.(14) At least in the army, he wrote Lawrence in 1879, "a man stands a chance of promotion - somebody will get killed"; he though he might try the post office instead. When Tom returned to Maine in 1886, Sae told Lawrence: "If he has no money he is in a very dangerous way, in short on the highway to ruin. I have more fears about Tom than I wish to express here." She asked whether Lawrence could find work for him in Florida.(15)

Lawrence, who had interests in a land development syndicate in Florida, arranged for Tom to go into partnership with one of his associates, Captain A.E. Willard. Tom ran their store in Homosassa, on the state's west coast, while Willard provided the capital. But soon Willard was complaining about Tom's failure to keep the books accurately or to pay for his board. There was talk of his "strange and unbusinesslike behavior" and "laziness". In Maine, the family worried increasingly about his dissipation and inebriation. His sister-in-law, Fanny, told her daughter that Tom reminded her of one of her (Fanny's) brothers, Sam Adams, who had similar problems, but "is a much truer man than Tom, although not making so good an outside appearance."(16)

Tom's one salvation was his wife, Delia Farley [Jarvis] Chamberlain, John's widow. They had become close when both of them looked after John during his final illness in 1867, but romance did not blossom until 1869. That April, Tom wrote to Sae, enquiring after her new son ("I take considerable interest in babies some how lately...") and asking a curious question: "I want to know how old Delia is - Can you tell me?" By November he was telling his mother that he was soon going to be married (although he did not say to whom) and that he would then be able to look after her in her old age. "We will all be happy," he said, but old Mrs Chamberlain was sceptical: "Poor boy they hope his anticipations may be realized but fear not." To Delia, Tom poured out all his woes. She wrote to Lawrence that, "He seems to feel that he was born to be unlucky... I cannot blame him for feeling very much discouraged." Delia and Tom were married in Boston on December 14, 1870.(17)

For a brief while all went well for Tom, although the children he wished for never came. Delia used her own money to help his business, and Lawrence paid them a visit in 1871, reporting that they were "happy as gulls on a rock". By 1872, however, they were back in Maine, and when Tom went to work in the Washington pension office, Delia remained behind. Nevertheless, she stuck with him until the end, even when, in the winter of 1885/86, Tom left her penniless and needing to beg money for her board from her mother-in-law, Sarah Chamberlain. There seems to have been nothing malicious in his actions. When Sae found out what had happened, she wrote him "some plain if not wholesome advice, which he received with the utmost courtesy[,] admitted his deficiencies, and pledged himself to do better." He even repaid an old bill owed to her husband. Sae commented that "I feel sure if Tom had any money he would have sent Delia enough for necessary expenses."(18)

Old Mrs Chamberlain died in November 1888, and Tom, home in Bangor again, was able to pay off some outstanding debts. But his health, which had been poor for some time, was failing. The bronchitis he contracted on the Weldon Railroad raid, back in 1864, had worsened progressively, exacerbated no doubt by his alcoholism and by the family's apparent propensity to chest ailments. By 1890 he was suffering from severe lung and heart disease, and applied for an invalid pension, stating that: "I was unable to do anything but light work, as the exertion produced a cough, when I was first discharged... and I have not been able to do a days manual labor since discharge but have grown gradually worse; had several hemorrhages from right lung." He had, he said, supplemented the treatment of Dr E.F. Sanger, his physician in Bangor since 1865, with "probably half a barrel of Winchesters Hypophospites and Extract of Malt. Also lots of different kinds of medicine." Tom told the examining doctor that he sometimes lost his voice for a month at a time.

The doctor's physical examination revealed: "Loud, rough sonorous rales throughout left lung. Inspiratory murmur very feeble throughout the left lung, almost totally absent in apex, with pleuritic adhesions over the lower lobe of right lung... Heart...irregular in rhythm..." He recommended that Tom be granted a pension with a "total rating for the disability caused by disease of lungs, ½ for that caused by disease of heart."(19)

But Tom was not yet finished. Indeed, at the end of 1891 his nephew Wyllys wrote that, "He had a time of it here for a year, but all is going well with him now." Tom was fond of Wyllys, Lawrence's son, partly perhaps because he had no children of his own, and partly because they were similar characters in many ways. Wyllys told his mother that Tom "...is very kind to me. Knows how it is himself to be out of health and out of work at the same time." Tom had set up as a pension and insurance agent in Bangor, first on his own, and then with lawyer Harry Chapman under the name of "Chamberlain & Chapman". Chapman, as a Justice of the Peace, signed one of the forms for Tom's 1890 pension application; and, in 1893, the firm handled Lawrence's claim for an increase in his payments.(20)

It was only a matter of time before Tom's constitution broke down completely, and the inevitable happened in the summer of 1896. Sae and Delia nursed him through his last, desperate illness, and, on July 30, Sae wrote to Lawrence: "I don't know how he can live thro' so much misery. The Dr. says his constitution is like iron... Poor Tom, he told Delia the other day he should not live a month & he didn't want to."(21) He died two weeks later, in the early hours of Wednesday, August 12. It happened so soon after midnight that the devastated Delia at first thought he had gone from her on August 11, the twenty-ninth anniversary of the death of her first husband, John Chamberlain.(22)

After the funeral service on August 14, Tom's body was taken from Bangor to be buried, the following day, in the Jarvis family plot in the cemetery at Castine, Maine.(23) It is a lovely spot, on a hill overlooking a beautiful view of the bay. His simple, grey marble gravestone bears the inscription:

August 12, 1896
Aged 55 years
Lieut. Col. 20th Maine Vols.
Brevet Col. U.S.V.

A faithful and distinguished
soldier of his Country

Two of Tom's elder siblings outlived him by many years: Lawrence was finally conquered by his old Petersburg wound in 1914, and Sae survived until 1921. Delia must have retained loving memories of her second husband, despite his failings. She never remarried, and when she died on July 24, 1923, "well known and highly esteemed in the community", she left $200 to the Brewer Public Library in his memory.(24)

Poor Tom. The times in his life when he was truly contented or successful always seemed fated to be short-lived. Possibly he was happiest during his years in the army. Yet despite his honourable service in twenty-five battles and skirmishes, he rarely went to regimental reunions, and was not present at the dedication of the 20th Maine monuments at Gettysburg in 1889, where Lawrence gave a memorable oration.(25) Perhaps he felt overwhelmed by the larger-than-life presence of his brother, or perhaps in some way he blamed the War for his later comparative lack of success. But if Tom was a victim of the War, he was far more a victim of himself.

To conclude his story, it is interesting to consider the way Tom Chamberlain has been viewed in the century or so since his death. For most of the time he was universally forgotten, although this started to change slightly with the appearance of John Pullen's book The Twentieth Maine in 1957, which also put Lawrence right back into the historical spotlight. But it was Tom's appearances in Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels (1974), and Ken Burns' 1990 TV documentary series The Civil War (where he was quoted, not always accurately), which really began to bring him to public attention, albeit in a limited way. Then, in 1993, came Ron Maxwell's movie Gettysburg, based on The Killer Angels. Tom's central role as an innocent, swept up in and almost overwhelmed by the horrors that surround him as the Battle of Gettysburg raged, seems to have appealed to audiences, causing many of them to wonder whether he survived the War and what he did afterwards. The film also created a few myths about him which some have accepted as fact. Primarily, and in one of the most memorable scenes, it portrays him comforting the fatally wounded Confederate General Lewis Armistead after Pickett's Charge. In fact, Tom was well over half a mile away from that part of the battlefield on July 3; as was his brother, so the final scene, where Tom and Lawrence hug amid the bodies near the Bloody Angle, is entirely fictional. It works, and may arguably have been justified, as an emotional climax to the movie, but it has been taken much too literally. Thomas A. Desjardin, in his instructive 2003 volume These Honored Dead, where he debunks many of the myths of Gettysburg, gives an example of this:

"... a few years after the film's release, a group of schoolchildren were among those who left tributes to the Chamberlains at the Bloody Angle, where Pickett's Charge ebbed. Naively believing they were standing at the spot where the brothers hugged, these children left a ceremonial shrine, complete with a small flag, candles, and words of thanks to men who were nowhere near that spot in 1863."(26)

Another false belief has grown out of Gettysburg's clever use of Winslow Homer's painting, "Prisoners from the Front". It appears in the title sequence, and later forms the inspiration for a scene where Tom talks to some Confederate prisoners, captured in the railroad cut west of the town on the first day of the fight. People have jumped to the conclusion that Homer's 1866 painting depicts Tom. In reality, the Federal officer in the painting is Homer's friend and distant relative, General Francis Barlow (the Brigadier's star can be clearly seen on his shoulder strap), and it records an event that took place not at Gettysburg but near Petersburg in June 1864.

Since the movie, Tom has acquired a female following (admittedly small when compared with his brother's), which insists on hearing nothing bad about him. At the same time, his life after the War seems to have given him a sorry reputation in some quarters. In a 2003 edition of the Civil War News newspaper, a letter complained about an interview that the letter-writer (apparently one of those aforementioned fans) had read elsewhere, with C. Thomas Howell who played Tom both in Gettysburg and its 2003 prequel, Gods and Generals. In it, Howell described Tom as "something of a drunk and a womanizer" in later life; "the reenactors and other actors... would say things, joke around ('you're only going to be a drunk anyway')," he added.(27) The "womanizer" accusation seems to stem solely from claims that Tom fathered a child out of wedlock, although the child's modern descendants have never yet been able to offer anything more than family tradition to support their belief. The "drunk" idea, as I have shown, has some basis in truth, but fails to take account of the periods when he held down perfectly respectable jobs for several years at a time, while his health was improved and his drinking controlled.(28)

It does not do any favours to Tom's memory either to blacken his name unthinkingly, even turning him cruelly into an object of hilarity, or to see him as some sort of suffering, flawless saint.

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1. Chamberlain, The Passing Of The Armies, p.339.
2. Nesbitt, Through Blood & Fire, p.200 (Lawrence to Sae Chamberlain, June 6, 1865). Major William T. Gentry, Commissary of Musters, Fifth Corps, to Colonel Fred. T. Locke, May 27, 1865, and to J.C. Bates, Chief Commissary of Musters, May 31, 1865 (Tom Chamberlain's Military Records, National Archives). Maine Gettysburg Commissioners, Maine at Gettysburg, p.285.
3. Styple, With A Flash Of His Sword, p.236 (Holman Melcher to Nathaniel Melcher, June 5, 1865). Melcher joined Lawrence's divisional staff as Inspector-General.
4. Tom Chamberlain's Military Records (National Archives). Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, pp.330, 508.
5. Maine Gettysburg Commissioners, Maine at Gettysburg, p.287. Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.169; Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.88 (Tom to Sae Chamberlain, July 9, 1865).
6. Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.330 (Ellis Spear to Gen. J.L. Hodsdon, March 9, 1866).
7. Lawrence to Joshua Chamberlain, February 12, 1865 (Pejepscot Historical Society).
8. Exactly when Tom started drinking to excess is not known. As early as October 1862, he wrote to his sister assuring her that she was worrying unnecessarily about his drinking, as there was no alcohol or money to buy it in the regiment, and that he would never fall into bad habits. However, too much should not be read into this: Sae may just have been expressing a general fear about the dangers of army life for a young, impressionable man (Tom to Sae Chamberlain, October 30, 1862, Bowdoin College). Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.185.
9. Joint letter from Tom and Sae Chamberlain to Lawrence, January 16, 1867 (Maine Historical Society).
10. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives).
11. Lawrence to Tom, June 5, 1869 (Maine Historical Society).
12. Jeremiah E. Goulka (ed.), The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain 1865-1914 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp.34-35 (Lawrence to Joshua Chamberlain, November 26, 1870). Ibid, pp.42-43 (Lawrence to Sae Chamberlain, March 21, 1872). .
13. Lawrence to Joshua Chamberlain, May 16, 1873 (Pejepscot Historical Society). Bangor City Directory for 1875-1876, where Tom's business address is given as 8 State Street, Bangor. The Brewer section lists him as boarding at Joshua Chamberlain's.
14. Bangor Whig and Courier, August 13, 1896 (T.D. Chamberlain Obituary). Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.368. In 1880, according to the US Census of that year, Tom was boarding, along with a number of other government office clerks, at the Washington hotel of Hiram I. King.
15. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond, p.311 (Tom to Lawrence, May 24, 1879). Smith, Fanny & Joshua, pp.265-266 (Sae [Chamberlain] Farrington to Lawrence, January 3, 1886).
16. Ibid, pp.271, 273; Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.125; Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, p.368 (Albert Willard to Lawrence, July 18, 1889, and John H. Jarvis to Lawrence, September 9, 1889). Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.271 (Fanny Chamberlain to Grace [Chamberlain] Allen, January 8, 1888).
17. Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.202. (Tom to Sae [Chamberlain] Farrington, April 2, 1869). Ibid, p.206 (Sarah Chamberlain to Lawrence, November, no year [1869]). Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.83 (Delia Jarvis to Lawrence, March 1, no year [1870 or earlier]). Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Delia Farley Jarvis was born in Boston on November 4, 1839, making her about eighteen months older than Tom (International Genealogical Index). This being the case, perhaps she had been coy about revealing her true age to him. In the 1880 US Census, the ages of both Delia and Tom are given as 35 (Tom has census entries for both Bangor and Washington, see note 14 above - his age in the latter entry is correct).
18. Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.213 (Lawrence to Grace Chamberlain, no date [early 1871]). Ibid, p.266 (Sae [Chamberlain] Farrington to Lawrence, January 3, 1886). At the time of the 1880 Census, Delia had her parents (and a servant and perhaps a lodger) living or staying with her in Bangor (although Tom is listed as head of the household). This was probably a short-term arrangement.
19. Ibid, p.279. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Tom first consulted Dr Eugene F. Sanger in late 1865, at the suggestion of Dr C.G. Stevens, assistant surgeon of the 20th Maine and a long time friend of Tom's. Sanger had continued to treat him "ever since for Lung trouble, and for nothing else, except once, for a carbuncle on left leg." Tom described Sanger as having "a great reputation as an Army Surgeon." He is best known today for his stint as chief surgeon at Elmira Prison Camp, where he was notoriously (though somewhat unfairly) hated by the inmates.
20. Smith, Fanny & Joshua, p.281 (Wyllys Chamberlain to Fanny Chamberlain, December 5, 1891). Bangor Whig and Courier, August 13, 1896 (Obituary). Bangor City Directory for 1890 and 1893. In 1890 Tom's business address was given as 4 Exchange Block, and in 1893 "Chamberlain & Chapman" were at 13 Hammond Street where they remained in 1896. Sadly, neither of these buildings has survived, and nor has his last domestic residence at the corner of York and Adams Streets, from whence his funeral cortege left on August 14. Number 7 Elm Street, which was Tom's address in 1890 according to an affidavit in his pension records, has suffered a similar fate.
21. Loski, The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.87 (Sae [Chamberlain] Farrington to Lawrence, July 30, 1896).
22. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives).
23. Bangor Whig and Courier, August 13, 1896 (Obituary).
24. Tom Chamberlain's Pension Records (National Archives). Bangor Evening Commercial, July 25, 1923, p.4 (Mrs. Delia F. Chamberlain Obituary); and August 1, 1923, p.5 ("Brewer Library Also Remembered in Will of Mrs. Delia F. Chamberlain"). Delia died at 208 Essex Street, Bangor, and is buried at Castine, next to Tom.
25. Tally of Tom's battles from the Annual Reports of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, vol.1, 1864-65 (Augusta 1865-66), p.337. Desjardin, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, p.125.
26. Thomas A. Desjardin, These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory (Da Capo Press, 2003), p.181.
27. Faith Chamberlain, letter in "Defense of Thomas Chamberlain", Civil War News, May 2003, quoting an interview from the Battlefield Journal in Buckeystown, Maryland.
28. See The Chamberlains of Brewer, p.109, for Diane Loski's thoughts on Tom's supposed extramarital fatherhood. She points out that "there are numerous Thomas Chamberlains from Maine and elsewhere"; for example, Thomas Chamberlin of the 150th Pennsylvania (who also fought at Gettysburg and whose name was often misspelled as Chamberlain). Perhaps, she hypothesises, one of these was the father of the modern claimants. On the "drunkard" accusation, in all honesty, I can't deny the possibility that earlier versions of this present biography, in dwelling on Tom's subsequent failures, may have contributed to an unbalanced impression.

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Copyright (c) 1998, 2004 Rosemary Pardoe