Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in 1828 in Brewer, Maine. He was the oldest of three boys. His parents originally named him Lawrence Joshua, but their son decided to reverse the order of the names when he became an adult. Chamberlain's father, Joshua Chamberlain Jr., was a successful farmer who also held several political offices in the community. He wanted Joshua to be a soldier, but his eldest son thought that he might want to be a missionary instead (a missionary is a person who does religious or charitable work in a distant or foreign territory).
"Out of [the] silence [of night] rose new sounds [of wounded soldiers] . . . a smothered moan . . . some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names, as if the dearest were bending over them. . . ."
Joshua L. Chamberlain.
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Chamberlain enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he initially struggled to keep up with his schoolwork. "The first two years in college were on the whole a pretty severe experience," he admitted. "Well remembered are those weary nights when some problem would be given out for the next morning's demonstration over which [I] sat staring at the words until the stars were lost in the flush of dawn." As time passed, however, Chamberlain became a good student.
As Chamberlain continued his studies in theology (the study of religion) and foreign languages, he met two women who had a significant impact on his life. In 1851, he met Fannie Adams, the daughter of a minister, when Chamberlain became the choir director for a local church. They were married on December 7, 1855, and eventually had three children (although their only son died a few hours after he was born).
The second notable woman that Chamberlain met during his studies at Bowdoin College was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896; see entry), a devout abolitionist (person who worked to end slavery in America). In 1851, Chamberlain attended several gatherings at which Stowe read excerpts from a novel that she was in the process of writing. This work, called Uncle Tom's Cabin, was fiercely antislavery in its outlook. Chamberlain was profoundly moved by the passages that Stowe read at the gatherings. The author's words helped him decide that slavery was an awful practice that should not be permitted to continue in the United States. "Slavery and freedom cannot live together," he later said. Uncle Tom's Cabin, meanwhile, became the most famous antislavery book of all time when it was published a year later.
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