Maj. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain is best remembered for his epic stand with the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, during the battle of Gettysburg. But he should be remembered for another act – one of respect.
When Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, the normal surrender terms called for the defeated army – that is, Lee’s troops – to turn in their weapons and battle flags by passing down a corridor of the victorious Union ranks.
The general selected to command the federal troops in this ceremony was Chamberlain. Picked to lead the defeated Confederate troops in this surrender ceremony was the oft-wounded Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. Behind him marched a column of some 25,000 gray-clad veterans preparing to stack arms for the last time.
Chamberlain was not a professional soldier, nor a graduate of West Point. In point of fact, he was a college professor from Bowdin College. Yet he had the soul of a warrior, and had been wounded – twice severely – during the war while leading attacks. He had fought often against the very men moving toward him at that moment. He had seen them fight in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, North Anna and Petersburg. He knew them to be brave and noble adversaries, but their defeat now had taken away their pride.
Something stirred within the warrior’s side of Chamberlain. He respected their valor. But was prohibited by order from a direct show of respect. So as the Confederates approached, he ordered his men to simply “carry arms” – not present arms, which would have been a show of respect. General Gordon, whose head was down in defeat and shame, noticed the Union troops obeying Chamberlain’s order; and took it for what it was – a show of respect.
He turned to his men and spoke a few words, and Lee’s veterans smartened up, closed ranks, held their heads high – even in defeat. Chamberlain’s simple act of soldierly respect was much appreciated, and was a first step in healing the nation’s wounds.