22 Feb

Hence, the molding of the 20th century as we know it…

doug smith

FSP regular contributor, author and historian Doug Smith

main seal gov seal new jersey

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a professor of logic and natural theology at Bowdoin College in Maine. Chamberlain taught himself the Greek required to attend Bowdoin, and was proficient in Latin, Greek, German, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. He felt very deeply that slavery was wrong, and that good men needed to stand against the secession of the southern states as it would perpetuate the institution of slavery and weaken the Union.

Granted a 2 year sabbatical with pay by the college to travel in Europe, he instead joined the Maine militia. He was offered a Colonelcy by the Governor, but asked to be given a lower rank instead, since he “had much to learn.” He was commissioned as a LTC under Col Adalbert Ames, in the 20th Maine Regiment.


By the time of Gettysburg, Chamberlain was a full Colonel, and CO of the 20th. Assigned the extreme left flank of the Union line at Little Round Top, he led his men to a stubborn victory over the Alabamians attacking, charging with bayonets after his regiment, reduced in size by casualties and out of ammunition, was again attacked. His actions turned the tide of battle for Gettysburg, and the Civil War. Lee never again mounted offensive actions after those 3 bloody days in July.

For his actions at Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor, and was promoted to Major General. Wounded 6 times in the course of the war, once so badly that his obituary was prepared, Maj-Gen Joshua L Chamberlain was the officer selected by Lt-Gen U.S Grant to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern VA.  As the Confederates passed and surrendered their weapons he ordered Federal troops to salute their defeated enemy.


Returning to Bowdoin after the war, he was elected Governor of Maine 4 times. Declining to live in the state capitol, he commuted the 36 miles to Augusta and lived in his home across from Bowdoin College. After 4 terms as Governor, he was appointed President of Bowdoin College, and taught nearly every course the college offered at one time or another.

He spent his final years writing about his memories of the Civil War. In 1914, 50 years after the wounds at Petersburg that nearly killed him, he finally died of complications from his war injuries.

As Governor Chamberlain died, another Governor was busily promising and assuring Americans that they would not become involved in the Great War in Europe, which would come to be called World War 1.


Woodrow Wilson lectured for a year at Cornell, then taught Greek and Roman history at Bryn Mawr. In 1887, he signed a 3 year contract to remain at Bryn Mawr, but in 1888, broke his contract to move to Wesleyan. Later elected as President of Princeton, he was a lecturer in Constitutional Law who was openly contemptuous of the Constitution and advocated for a parliamentary system with greater power vested in the President.

New Jersey Democrat party bosses pushed Wilson’s candidacy in 1910 for Governor. His candidacy was opposed by many who felt that he was an inexperienced newcomer and not ready to be Governor. Events would bolster their argument. Elected in 1910, he served 2 years before seeking the Presidency. When the GOP split the vote between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Wilson a neophyte with only 2 years in office, won with only 41% of the vote.


Wilson’s 1st term was noted for regulation of business, increased racial segregation of government, the establishment of the income tax, and of the Federal Reserve. Toward the end of his term, WW1 broke out in Europe. Wilson tried to broker a peace in 1916, but neither side was interested and the effort failed. He went on to run for reelection on the platform “He kept us out of the war”, promising the American public “It is a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us.”

Yet, mere months after his reelection, Wilson went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war on Germany, against overwhelming popular opposition to American involvement. Despite his attempts to broker peace, he seemed unaware that the war had ground down to a bitter draw, with neither side gaining ground, and both sides, while rejecting his plan, ready to call an end to the war.  The entrance of America on the side of the English and French stiffened their resolve to continue, and extended the war by years.

WW 2

Furthermore, Wilson bent to the British requests to pour American troops in as cannon fodder, causing millions of deaths.  Wilson’s bumbling diplomatic efforts also led him to press Russia to remain in a war which was enormously costly and unpopular there. The direct result of his actions was the Communist revolution and the rise to power of Lenin.  Once the war was won, at the cost of millions of lives, the Allies, emboldened by the addition of America to their side, insisted on the punitive treaty of Versailles, which led in a few decades to the rise of Hitler and another world war for America.

WW 3

Two Governors. Two Professors.

One an intelligent, brave, but humble man who accomplished much, without fanfare, or hubris, fought in a war for oppressed people and left a hero’s legacy.

The other a proud man convinced he was right, who discouraged blacks from applying while President of Princeton, was an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan, and naively led the nation into world war and tumultuous foreign relations.

What, I wonder, would be the shape of the 20th century had the humble Governor of Maine lived another few years, and given his final service to his country as its President?

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