September 15, 2013

Another medal for our hero Joshua Chamberlain

Maine's history community gets excited about news of the discovery of Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

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.

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Joshua Chamberlain in the uniform of the Union Army.

Photo courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society

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Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor was donated anonymously.

Photo courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society

Additional Photos Below

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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This 1893 letter from the War Department informed Chamberlain of his honor, “for distinguished gallantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., July 2, 1863.”

Image courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society

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Joshua Chamberlain in later years

Image courtesy of Pejepscot Historical Society


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