A born leader, this statement had been used time and time again to describe people who wear leadership as though they were” born” to do so. The debate over whether a leader is naturally born or created over time still wages among educated philosophers, psychologist, and historians. I do not profess to hold any of these titles, and as such my opinion would hold little value to most. Regardless of the debate concerning how a person arrives to wear the title of leader, on one fact we all agree – there are those among us (past & present) that have shaped history through their actions as leaders.
I would like to take a moment to shine the spotlight on one such leader. He was an ordinary individual who changed history through the actions taken during a single event, a moment in time.
Born Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on September 8, 1828, he was the firstborn of Joshua and Sarah Chamberlain. His entire life was riddled with events of perseverance, what he would later describe as stubbornness. He taught himself Greek in order to attend Bowdoin College in 1848. Later, to return as a professor for the same institution where he was said to have taught nearly every subject that the college offered.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Chamberlain requested a leave of absence in order to enlist as his forefathers had done during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. His request fell upon deaf ears, administrators at Bowdoin claiming he was too valuable to lose. In 1862, Chamberlain one again requested a leave of absence to study languages abroad in Europe, on this occasion the school granted his appeal. Chamberlain quickly volunteered his services to the mounting war effort, and served under Colonel Adelbert Ames of the 20th Maine Infantry. He would not step foot in Europe, rather served his country during a divided time in history.
All of this was a precursor to one fateful decision made during an important moment in the war, remembered as the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863 Chamberlain entered a fight for his life. A fight that would, according to historians, decide the war and ultimately the fate of the United States. On that day eighty thousand men strung out in a line across fields and hills winding their way to the town of Gettysburg. It was on the far left flank of this line that Chamberlain and the men of the 20th were admonished by Colonel Vincent to hold the line at all costs, “Whatever you do, you can’t let them come through here.” Chamberlain was up against the 15th and 47th regiments of the confederate army. Both sides knew the importance of owning this piece of ground. Even though Chamberlains men were protected behind a wall of rocks, of their own making, on high ground, they were drastically outnumbered.
The rebels charged once, twice, and even a third time only to be pushed back down the hill by the group led by Chamberlain. After being knocked to the ground by a bullet, deflected by his belt buckle, Chamberlain rose to a fourth victory in an onslaught of small battles. Out of ammunition, and with the realization that the rebels had just been reinforced by another regiment from Texas, Chamberlain felt a level of pity for his men. Chamberlain would later recall, “Their leader had no real knowledge of warfare or tactics. I was only a stubborn man and that was my greatest advantage in this fight. I had, deep within me, the inability to do nothing. I knew I may die, but I also knew that I would not die with a bullet in my back.”
Following the fifth confrontation, and with the Alabama Rebels now reinforced with a Texas regiment, Chamberlain received the word that no reinforcements would come. Just six months prior he had commanded a thousand soldiers. The day dawned with three hundred men by his side. Now, he barely held on with eighty soldiers, battle worn and out of ammunition.
The word came from the twelve-year-old scout high in the trees, “They’re forming up again, Colonel!” Adding to the fog of war news came by way of messenger that the line was folding as Colonel upon Colonel was falling. Dead, they were all dead as were more than half of his men. Surrounded by his Sergeants, to include his brother Tom, Chamberlain was faced with a decision. Sergeant Spear offered that perhaps they should think about pulling out, retreating… “We will not be pulling out, sergeant. Carry out my orders please.”
Sergeant Tozier spoke firmly, “We won’t hold them again, sir. You know we won’t!” Chamberlains brother shouted, “Here they come! Here they come!” Stepping to the top of the wall, in full view, with his arms crossed as he looked down on the advancing enemy, Chamberlain stood deep in thought. His men looked up at him from behind the wall, awaiting his order… any order… something, say something…
Knowing that retreat was not an option, Chamberlain thought to himself when faced with the choice of doing nothing or doing something, I must choose to act. He turned to his men, “Fix your bayonets now!” He then commanded them to execute a great right wheel of the entire regiment. Confused one of his Lieutenants asked, “What is a great right wheel?” His question answered by Sergeant Tozier, “He means to charge, son. A great right wheel is an all-out charge.” Running on adrenaline and faith in a courageous leader, the men rose and charged.
Moments later Chamberlain accepted the surrender of a Confederate Captain. Confused by the actions of a beaten band of soldiers, the Captain had mistaken the courageous charge toward them to mean that reinforcements had arrived. Surely this group of men charging downhill towards the Confederates was not the same as those cowering moments before behind the false protection of a rock wall. Chamberlain and his eighty men had defeated over four-hundred soldiers.
Chamberlain’s heroic defense of the hill earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. In May of 1864 he was promoted to brigade command and during the attack on Petersburg, he was shot through the right hip and groin. Thought to be a life ending wound, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant promoted Chamberlain to Brigadier General. It was a final act to honor the 35 year old schoolteacher, whom considered himself in the beginning to be simply uneducated to the way of war and unfit to be a leader in command.
Chamberlain went on to live a full life, despite the injuries he suffered during the Civil War. On February 24, 1914, the “Lion of Little Round Top” died at the age of 85.
The courageous actions of this Leader shaped the history of the United States. Historians agree that if the Union had lost Gettysburg on that day in 1863, the United States would have fallen. We would be a fragment of what we are today. A group of smaller, divided states much like the countries of Europe. Our role in WWI and WWII would have been non-existent. The Cuban missile crisis would not have seen the crippling power of the United States Navy, perhaps ending in a much different manner. The freedoms we have today are owed in part to leaders like Chamberlain.
Side Note – historians to this day argue the details of this battle. Some would say that Chamberlain was far too sick to be portrayed as a fearless commander leading a charge. Others contest the numbers of soldiers which battled on either side. My point in sharing the story of Joshua Chamberlain, as delivered in the book The Butterfly Effect, How Your Life Matters by Andy Andrews, is to portray the type of leadership often displayed by humble men throughout the course of the Civil War.
A moment in time, directed by the right leadership, can change history. Become the leader that you would follow yourself, and you will have become a leader that men will follow.