Home Maine The Joshua Chamberlain House: Home of Maine’s Greatest Hero

The Joshua Chamberlain House: Home of Maine’s Greatest Hero

There's a college there, too

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Ask any Mainer what historical figure they most admire, and odds are good the answer will be “Joshua Chamberlain.” He’s as close to a state hero as Nathan Hale in Connecticut, Ethan Allen in Vermont or Nathaniel Greene in Rhode Island. The Joshua Chamberlain House in Brunswick is worth a pilgrimage for both Chamberlain fans and Civil War buffs.

military-heroes-chamberlain

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, by Matthew Brady

Chamberlain served as governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College, but he is best remembered for his heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg. A college professor who earned a commission as a colonel, he led the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, afterward known as the hardest fighters ever.

Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg

The 20th Maine was defending Little Round Top on the second day of the battle. Had the Confederate Army taken the hill, it would have then broken through and vanquished the Army of the Potomac.

Late in the afternoon, the badly outnumbered 20th Maine had held off three fierce Confederate charges when it ran low on ammunition. Chamberlain had two choices: hold the hill, which meant certain destruction of his regiment, or retreat, which meant the Confederates would overrun and destroy the Union army.

Instead, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge down the hill. His men fixed bayonets and charged down the hill. The shocked rebels broke and ran. The 20th Maine captured about 100 prisoners.

Gettysburg

Governor of Maine

Chamberlain was wounded six times during the Civil War, but he survived. He returned to Maine an immensely popular war hero. Voters elected him to four consecutive one-year terms as governor.

In 1866, he set the record for the most and the highest percentage of votes for any Maine governor until then. He broke his own record the next year.

He left government in 1870 to serve as president of Bowdoin College. But he was called back to duty in 1880, when he had to quell the Maine Capitol Riot.

As president of Bowdoin College, Chamberlain hosted visitors in his parlor

Maine was on the verge of its own civil war, with a hundred armed and angry men inside the Statehouse facing off against an armed and angry mob outside the building. Each side believed the other had stolen the election for governor.

The governor resigned, leaving Maine with no government. Then each faction formed its own government as they airmed firearms at each other. Joshua Chamberlain was the one man who could resolve the crisis. He took charge as acting governor. Chamberlain kept the peace for 12 days while the courts decided on the victor. During that time, he survived several attempts to kidnap him and he faced down would-be assassins.

In the end, he returned to Bowdoin and continued as president for another three years. His battle wounds caused him pain throughout the rest of his life. He had been shot in the groin and used a primitive catheter, which caused infection and fever. Chamberlain died in 1914, the last Civil War soldier to die from wounds suffered in battle.

His house now serves as the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum.

Joshua Chamberlain House

The house was originally a single-story dwelling built in the 1820s. Chamberlain rented it with his new wife, Fanny, in 1856. Another Bowdoin College professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, had rented rooms in the house previously.

The Chamberlains bought the house in 1859. When Chamberlain became college president, he realized he needed more room for visitors and receptions. He had the house moved 300 feet, jacked it up and added a new story under what used to be the first floor.  Some of his visitors included Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and George McClellan.

Joshua Chamberlain’s dining room

After Chamberlain and his wife died, the house went to their daughter Grace. She turned it back into an apartment building. By the 1980s the house was a wreck and slated for demolition.  In 1983, the Pejepscot Historical Society bought it and began restoring it. Today, the renamed Pejepscot History Center offers guided tours from Memorial Day weekend through October, and private tours year round.

You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to enjoy a tour of the Joshua Chamberlain House, but it helps. The house itself will transport you to the 1860s.

Five Things You’ll Remember About the Joshua Chamberlain House

Civil War Artifacts

Easily the most memorable items in the house are Chamberlain’s Civil War artifacts. They include the boots he wore at Gettysburg, his sword, his saddle, the minie ball he lived with for the rest of his life and his Medal of Honor.

Those aren’t the only Chamberlain artifacts, however. Bowdoin College maintains an artifact display at the Campus Library on the third floor.

Chamberlain’s Civil War memorabilia

The Second Floor

Visitors marvel at the second floor, originally the first. What used to be the front door now opens onto a balcony.

The Chimney

When the Chamberlains remodeled the house, they added red Maltese Crosses, including one on the chimney. They honor the 5th Corps, to which Chamberlain belonged.

A reunion of the 5th Corps veterans. Note the Maltese Cross.

Family Photos

Chamberlain and his wife, Fanny, lived in the house for 50 years. They had five children, but only two, Harold and Grace, survived to adulthood. The museum includes photos of the Chamberlain family over the years.

Governors Chair

Elaborate carved furniture was the height of Victorian fashion, and the Chamberlains succumbed to it. Chamberlain’s study has the desk he used as governor and his chair, which has a carved war eagle and a raised star at the top.

The Neighborhood

Brunswick has the youthful liveliness of a college town, along with a number of restaurants and shops. Four blocks of the town’s very walkable Maine Street comprise the Brunswick Commercial Historic District.

Across from the Joshua Chamberlain House you’ll find the First Parish Church, where the Chamberlains worshipped. Pine Grove Cemetery, where they lie buried, is nearby. Down the street from the museum itself you’ll find the Joshua Chamberlain Statue.

Bowdoin Campus

Bowdoin itself has a lovely campus, at least in warm weather. It has several museums, including the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum, the Bowdoin Museum of Art and the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library. Bowdoin also owns a house that Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in while she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A room in the building, called Harriet’s Writing Room, is open to the public. The house was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Across the river towers the Cabot Mill, in which children once made textiles. Now it serves as an antique mall.

If you visit:

You can only visit the house on a guided tour. They’re held Memorial Day through the end of October, Tuesday through Saturday at 10 a.m, 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Check the website before going.

For a private tour in the winter months, allow four business days to arrange. There’s a form on the website: https://pejepscothistorical.org/visit/the-joshua-l-chamberlain-museum/A combination ticket allows a tour the Skolfield Wilkins house.

The house has staircases difficult for people with mobility problems to navigate. It has a small gift area.

Dining room: By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105477568; parlor By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105477567; memorabilia By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105477576.

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