As a rule, it takes a lot to excite historians. They tend to be a skeptical lot, and rightly so. They are the guardians of truth and accuracy, and it’s good they do not get excited about every new revelation or historical discovery. Time offers perspective, and historians have nothing but time.
But the history community in Maine got amped up last week when the Brunswick-based Pejepscot Historical Society announced that an anonymous veteran had discovered and donated Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor.
The historical society’s director called it “too good to be true.”
But it is true, even though for years we have rightly assumed that Bowdoin College had Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor in its George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives. And technically, it does. This discovery of a second medal takes nothing away from Bowdoin’s artifact.
It turns out, the U.S. government conferred two medals on Chamberlain, a Civil War hero from Maine.
The first, which came to the historical society last month, was the original, issued to Chamberlain in 1893 for his “distinguished gallantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., July 2, 1863.” The second, housed at Bowdoin, was a replacement, issued in 1904 when Congress authorized a redesign of the medal.
The one that came home to Maine this summer is the one that Chamberlain first held when it was delivered to his home in Brunswick via parcel post. It is the one that he first laid eyes on when he opened the box, and the one that he secured around his neck with a red, white and blue ribbon – still intact, though bolstered with a replacement ribbon in later years.
“To hold something like that, it feels like you are holding a piece of history,” said the society’s director, Jennifer Blanchard. She is one of the few who have actually held the medal, which she described as “not very heavy. But it feels very special.”
The Pejepscot Historical Society owns and operates the Joshua L. Chamberlain museum in Brunswick, where the medal most likely will be displayed beginning next year. This fall, people will have a brief chance to view it down the road at the Pejepscot Museum.
Here’s the story:
In early August, an anonymous donor contacted the historical society to say he was in possession of Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor, and was interested in donating it to the society.
“We had the medal in our hands within days,” Blanchard said. “When we received the medal, it was accompanied with a letter that described the donor himself as being a veteran, and many generations of his family being veterans themselves, he knew the meaning of the medal and felt it should be at Chamberlain’s home.”
She tried not to get too excited.
It may not be fair to say that this is where her skepticism kicked in, but Blanchard knew the story would have to be vetted and researched. She was eager to learn more, but proceeded with a measure of caution.
Medal in hand, Blanchard faced the task of ensuring its authenticity and checking out the donor’s story.
It wasn’t hard to do. Working with her colleagues at the Maine State Museum, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of the Army’s Awards and Decorations Branch, in short order she confirmed the medal’s authenticity.
In a statement, Michael A. Ries, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and assistant chief of the Army’s awards and decorations branch, said, “Based upon the documentation submitted and the historical documentation available to this office, we are able to confirm that (the) Pejepscot Historical Society medallion is the 1862 United States Army Medal of Honor design. … It is an honor to authenticate the Medal of Honor bestowed upon Colonel Chamberlain for his extraordinary heroism on 2 July 1863.”
The hard part was keeping the news under wraps until it could be fully verified. Turns out, the very week that Blanchard received the medal, Brunswick was teeming with Chamberlain buffs in town for the historical society’s annual Chamberlain Days celebration. This being the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and all, it was a particularly busy event.
Blanchard kept her silence until she had full and final confirmation from multiple sources and the confidence to make a public statement.
Tom Desjardin, a Chamberlain expert and Maine Department of Conservation historian, called the discovery “just amazing.” It completes the entire Chamberlain story in Maine, at least as far as his military honors are concerned. Between Bowdoin and the Pejepscot Historical Society, Maine now is home to both of Chamberlain’s Medals of Honor.
It also is home to the two ribbons associated with the medal, which play an important role in the story of the medals themselves.
According to Blanchard, the medal in Pejepscot Historical Society’s collection came to Chamberlain in 1893. In 1896, the design changed, with a new ribbon. Previous recipients received a new ribbon. Chamberlain, apparently, affixed the new ribbon on top of the old ribbon.
“When he got the replacement ribbon, rather than replacing it, he had someone carefully stich the new one on top of the old one,” Desjardin said. “So not only do we have his original medal, we have the second ribbon and the second medal. We have every piece of the puzzle.
“The one at Bowdoin is still great, and it’s probably the one he wore more. He had it longer. This one probably went into a box when the new one came,” Desjardin said. “It’s in great condition. It’s not dinged, bent or frayed.”
The story of how it was found is equally amazing.
Because the donor wishes to remain anonymous, details cannot be confirmed. But the donor told Blanchard that he found it in the back of a book that he bought several years ago at First Parish Church in Duxbury, Mass. Chamberlain’s last surviving descendant, his granddaughter Rosamond Allen, left her estate to the church when she died in 2000.
Allen also left many artifacts to the Pejepscot Historical Society, including his saddle and boots.
How the medal ended up in the book, as well as the title of the book, are mysteries that even the historians might not solve.
“You wonder how many people passed by the book or put it down,” Desjardin said. “And you wonder how much they paid for it. Probably a buck. You also wonder what book it was, just as a trivia question.
“It’s just amazing. The story of how it was found is really truly amazing. It’s always fun. You always sit around with your fingers crossed thinking someday someone’s going to find something. And it happened.”
Maine historian and author Diane Monroe Smith has written several books about Chamberlain, and interviewed Allen before she died. But Allen was elderly, and her memory wasn’t great. So the credibility of her information was suspect.
Nonetheless, Smith regrets not asking Allen about her plans for the estate and, specifically, the books that she left to the church in Duxbury.
“She left bits and pieces to a church there. I don’t know what her motivation was, as far as these books were concerned. There is no information that I have or that I have seen that indicates what the books were. They just ended up in the rummage sale.”
Might they have been books from Chamberlain personal library? Maybe.
But one thing is certain, Smith said. The donor did the right thing. U.S. law prohibits the sale of medals such as this, so the market for such an item would be small and illegitimate. But Smith has no doubt that some people might have exploited that market.
“It’s difficult to talk about something like this having a monetary value, but it’s undeniable that the price tag would be huge. It’s a wonderful thing that whoever had it realized that it should belong to everybody and be seen and admired.”
Blanchard said the long-term plan for showing the medal is still being worked out. But at least in the short term, it will be on view from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 10-12 at the Pejepscot Museum, 159 Park Row, Brunswick.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: