PORTLAND, Maine — Monday’s story about renaming currently Confederate-monikered federal military installations after our own Union icon, Joshua Chamberlain, generated a number of passionate reader responses.
Some folks explained thoughtful, well-reasoned suggestions as to which bases should get Chamberlain’s name, while others expressed outrage at the replacement of Confederate names at all.
Many mentioned the fact Maine already has a Fort Chamberlain in Augusta.
But from Maine’s foremost Chamberlain scholar came a surprising take.
Instead of leading the charge in favor of the hero of Little Round Top, Tom Desjardins is urging caution.
Desjardins points out what most people know about Chamberlain is mythologized through books and movies and not necessarily the truth. It’s the same process that created the southern heroes whose names already embellish military bases south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He hopes any name modifications are based on fact, rather than just home team hype — north or south.
“If the Naming Commission simply trades one set of myths for another less offensive set, have we really accomplished anything?” Desjardins said. “Or, do we simply invite a ton of negative scrutiny of Chamberlain from jealous supporters of other heroes?”
Bringing everyone up to speed, this story started when the official federal base Naming Commission was set up last year in a national rethink of Confederate statues and iconography following the 2020 racial justice protests.
The commission was created as part of the United States National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The act requires the Secretary of Defense to “remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America from all assets of the Department of Defense.”
The commission is taking base naming suggestions until the end of November and has three years to get its renaming work done.
With that in mind, Larissa Picard, executive director of the Pejepscot History Center, which runs the Chamberlain House Museum in Brunswick, asked her docent staff for suggestions in renaming an American military base in Chamberlain’s honor.
Several Chamberlain House guides spoke up with suggestions and we asked readers for more of the same.
And if you’re not familiar with Chamberlain, thanks for reading this far. His general story goes like this.
A mild-mannered Maine college professor turned military hero, Chamberlain led a plucky band of Yankee citizen soldiers in a desperate bayonet charge down a rock-strewn slope in July 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg. The colonel, and the 20th Maine Regiment, then swept the 15th Alabama aside, saving the day and helping win the battle — thus preserving the Union.
Chamberlain’s stirring tale has been told and retold in countless history books, novels, movies, plays, songs and television documentaries. Today, Chamberlain — who won the Medal of Honor and was elected governor four times — has a bridge, a beer and a village named after him. His likeness appears in two Maine statues, too.
The only trouble with Chamberlain’s stirring, heroic story, Desjardins said, is that much of it is just not true.
“Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain never rose above command of a division, so he never made an independent battlefield decision. He merely took orders from his corps commander who took them from his army commander,” he said. “He never came close to ‘saving the Union’ or even Little Round Top at Gettysburg, given the more than 12,000 unoccupied Union troops who were within a half mile of the hill when he charged the Alabamians.”
Desjardins knows what he’s talking about.
Born in Lewiston, Desjardins has a Ph.D. in history and has written extensively on the subject. His published books include “Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Concise Biography of the Iconic Hero.”
In his published works and teaching, Desjardins always attempts to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Chamberlain.
But it’s difficult.
Gettysburg mythologizing began almost as soon as the battle was over and Chamberlain added a fair amount to it, himself.
Desjardin’s book “These Honored Dead: How The Story Of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory” is a study of how persistent, heroic myths get told so many times they can take the place of facts.
“Much of my work has been trying to understand and explain that this is how we remember our past, especially in art, song, film, etc.,” he said.
Desjardins was a consultant on “Gettysburg,” the most famous Civil War movie of modern times. He helped actor Jeff Daniels prepare to play Chamberlain in the film.
“For the vast majority of people who have ever heard of Chamberlain, that movie is their sole historical source,” Desjardins said.
The movie is entertaining and beloved by Civil War history buffs, but it’s not accurate. Chamberlain probably never shouted “bayonets” as the actor does in the movie’s climax.
Daniels is nearly a foot taller than Chamberlain. His Maine accent is awful, too.
Plus, on the day of the famous fight, the entire 20th Maine was suffering from intense diarrhea — a detail entirely left out of the film.
“Not exactly the kind of image you want to see across the 20-foot tall movie screen in your local theater,” Desjardins said.
But the myths go both ways. Southern heroics have been played up over the years, too, especially in the years after Reconstruction, when most Confederate monuments and base names originated.
The romanticization of a chivalric, pre-Civil War south and the false notion that the conflict was based on states rights instead of slavery is often refured to as “The Lost Cause.” This kind of mythic storytelling perhaps reached its apex with the novel and film “Gone With the Wind.”
“There has been no stronger myth in U.S. history than the Lost Cause, and its impact has been profound. It has been really interesting to me that what took 150 years to deeply solidify in our national imagination, has come crashing down in about a year and a half,” Desjardins said.
But he hopes the Naming Commission goes further than a simple tit-for-tat game. Just because Confederate names are on the way out, they don’t have to be replaced with corresponding Union labels.
“While I am glad to see that the names of Forts Benning, Hood, Lee, Pickett and the like are likely to be changed next year, I hope the Naming Commission does its homework and thoughtfully examines names of heroes from all American wars,” Desjardins said. “I just don’t think naming the Virginia National Guard HQ after a Maine veteran is the best course of action.”
Over 80 percent of BDN readers answering a poll on Monday thought Chamberlain should get a federal military installation named after him, though.
Reader and veteran Jared Sawyer wrote to suggest Fort Hood in Texas, named for Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, be renamed for Chamberlain.
“Hood was leading confederate forces Chamberlain beat at Gettysburg,” Sawyer said.