Thursday, May 24, 2018
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On the meaning of Gettysburg

There is a popular bar and student hangout in Brunswick, Maine, called Joshua’s Tavern. The beer is cold, and they serve a terrific clam chowder in a state where that claim is often made but less often backed up.

If after your meal you chance to walk up Maine Street from Joshua’s toward the Bowdoin College campus, you will come to the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum, in what was Mr. Chamberlain’s home until his death in 1914 from wounds he suffered in the Civil War.

RELATED CONTENT: Read more about 150th Anniversary of The Battle at Gettysburg 

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If you are still feeling energetic, you might stroll across one of the prettiest college quads in America, find the cozy haven of Pine Grove Cemetery, and pay your respects to this citizen-intellectual who turned the tide 150 years ago on the southern slope of an equally pretty rise called Little Round Top.

It is a matter of simple emotional survival to rationalize battles and wars, especially one pivotal three-day fight that resulted in at least 46,000 casualties, including the loss of 8,000 American lives.

How fortunate, then, that Gettysburg College graduate David Wills thought to invite President Abraham Lincoln to the November, 1863, dedication in Mr. Wills’ hometown to offer “a few appropriate remarks.”

The humility, melancholy, and hope articulated in the address, in which Mr. Lincoln established forever the transcendence of the Battle of Gettysburg, strive to make meaning for the defeated as well as for the victors. The brooding and gentle lyricism of Mr. Lincoln’s second inaugural, building on the tone and content of the address, illustrates the “better angel” of his nature, poignantly completing his arduous pilgrimage to presiding, so briefly, over a reunified nation of both victors and vanquished.

The story line of Joshua Chamberlain — a local boy who taught himself Ancient Greek to pass the Bowdoin College entrance exam, knew Harriet Beecher Stowe, returned to his alma mater to teach rhetoric, was fluent in 10 languages, eventually taught every subject in that college’s curriculum, served as its president, served four terms as governor of Maine, and who was also a war hero — certainly gives meaning to the climactic battle in Gettysburg in 1863.

Private education in particular quite rightly demands of its students, and faculty, that they “give back” to their communities as a quid pro quo for the privilege they have enjoyed. Many Gettysburg College students interrupted their schooling and enrolled in the Union army.

In Saving Private Ryan, a movie replete with compelling subplots, Tom Hanks plays a character whose prewar vocation thoroughly, and therapeutically, preoccupies his men. We discover late in the movie that he was a high school English teacher, fond of the essays of the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Not all teachers make such sacrifices. Kantorek, the fanatical teacher in Eric Maria Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, speaking passionately from the insular safety of his classroom, sends his students off to war and death or maiming with heads full of romanticized jingoism.

Joshua Chamberlain, colonel of the 20th Maine Regiment, had no formal military training. He was a college professor who asked for and was granted a leave of absence and who then enlisted in the army without telling his employer or his family.

We can only imagine what sense of duty, of “giving back,” animated this decision. In the months leading up to July, 1863, Colonel Chamberlain learned much, and quickly, and on that second day when he was ordered to hold the Union position on Little Round Top he already ached from the physical and psychic wounds of an experienced soldier.

At Little Round Top, Colonel Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine appeared doomed as they struggled to carry out their desperate orders. It should not surprise us that this intellectual man returned to whatever tactics he had picked up in books or in his brief military experience, ordering an outdated and brazen flanking maneuver that took his enemy completely by surprise and very possibly assured the defeat of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Fittingly, at Appomattox Court House, Colonel Chamberlain ordered members of his victorious regiment to come to attention as their starving, defeated countrymen made their way to the place where they would surrender before returning to what was left of their own lives in the now-defunct Confederacy.

Men like Joshua Chamberlain — “citizen soldiers” — march from a safe, quiet, contemplative world of thought to a world of wretched action, voluntarily leaving behind the order of academia for the terrifying chaos of war. To imagine a placid evening at, say, Joshua’s Tavern — with Bowdoin President Chamberlain, or Governor Chamberlain, reflecting on his wondrous life and career — is an intriguing exercise leading only to regret that it cannot happen.

Men like Mr. Chamberlain leave to the politicians and historians that weary and uncertain stumbling slog back from carnage to clarity, from action to thought, from chaos to order.

Both tasks are equally important.

Thomas Trethaway is co-head of the humanities and social sciences department at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. and holds the endowed Huber G. Buehler Chair for Teaching. He teaches Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history, U.S. history, and American Studies.

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