Joshua Chamberlain was a war hero and public servant whose resume puts him among the most accomplished Mainers. But he couldn’t see the future.

As the Brewer native stood at the Appomattox Court House 154 years ago Friday, ready to formally accept on behalf of the United States the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, he thought he was presiding over the end of something.

The blood of the prior four years had solved the question of slavery — of whether the South could continue to exist as a place of white supremacy, and of the dehumanization of an entire people. Now it was time to move on together as one — as Americans.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the guns fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric and modern languages at Bowdoin College. A believer in the cause, he volunteered for duty, and was made a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine regiment.

Less than a year after getting his uniform, he was perhaps the most important American on the one of the most consequential days in U.S. history — July 2, 1863, when the 20th Maine held the flank at Gettysburg, and saved the Union.

Chamberlain also played an important role in later campaigns, and was wounded a total of seven times, once so severely it was thought imminently fatal; those wounds eventually caused his death in 1914.

Whatever horrors the Civil War had unleashed, Chamberlain had witnessed and endured them. So when he looked across the field at the Confederate army on April 12, 1865, with the question of victory safely answered, he saw not a defeated enemy that had fought for slavery, but soldiers much like himself who had given up so much for what they believed in.

He treated the soon-to-be-former Confederates as such, ordering his men to salute them respectfully. He knew it would draw criticism, but like many leaders of the time, his focus was bending toward reconciliation.

Chamberlain wrote in his memoirs, “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; — was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

Chamberlain was putting the dignity of the Confederates ahead of that of the freed men and women who they had so recently brutalized, and who they still viewed as lesser.

He wasn’t alone. Even after taking up arms against their own country, Confederate leaders were welcomed back into positions of power.

General John B. Gordon, the commander who surrendered to Chamberlain at Appomattox, fought Reconstruction following the war, and was elected as governor of Georgia and to the U.S. Senate.

He also was a high-ranking leader in the Ku Klux Klan, which after the war executed an extended and unprecedented terror campaign across the South to rob African Americans of the rights won in the Civil War.

Chamberlain, and many other American at the time, wanted the country’s problems with race and power to be in the past, wiped clean by the blood of the Civil War.

Many Americans today, too, want to wish those problems gone, solved after the violence of the post-Reconstruction era, or the achievements of the Civil Rights era, or the election of a black president.

But a century and a half after Appomattox, they’re still here. They are woven deep into our DNA, and won’t be ignored away.


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