Chamberlain and Gender

Story posted December 07, 2001

July 2, 1863: A young college professor from Maine became a national hero -Patrick Rael

So began Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's journey to near mythological status. In a recent faculty seminar, Associate Professor Patrick Rael, gave a new perspective of the transformation from teacher into war hero.

Chamberlain led the charge that saved the day at the Battle of Gettysburg, and he was brought to the attention of many Americans through Michael Shaara's book Killer Angels and Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War. Since that time he has become a popular figure.

"The story remains interesting because it and the life of its subject raise a host of interesting questions, both about its subject and about the past," Rael said.

Rael contends that we can only understand what wartime service meant to Chamberlain by looking through the lens of gender, something not often discussed in the context of this story.

There were two primary ideals of Victorian manhood - that of the "masculine achiever" and that of the "Christian gentleman." The masculine achiever model saw a connection between masculinity and sexual vigor, and the model of the Christian gentleman valued self-control and restraint. Chamberlain struggled with his passionate impulses and his desire to uphold the value of the Christian gentleman.

In matters of marriage and children, he bowed to the wishes of his wife, Fanny, saying "your will shall be my law." But his letters to her betray his lust, Rael said. Chamberlain projected sexual meanings onto the most innocent of casual remarks, in a manner we are more accustomed to seeing in adolescent boys.

Though Fanny at one time stated that she wished their marriage to be platonic, she yielded her position and she and Chamberlain had two children. Marriage solved some of Chamberlain's problems (self control was no longer such an issue). But with marriage and children came the responsibility for providing for his family, and Chamberlain found his job as a professor at Bowdoin and domestic life in Brunswick unfulfilling.

The Civil War changed his life. "It was in the army that Chamberlain found his calling," Rael said. He proved himself in the army and rapidly ascended in the ranks. When he retired, at only 36, he was a general and a hero.

"Few men's youthful dreams of future glory result in such concrete rewards," Rael said.

In the army, Chamberlain found a man's world. The "military masculinity" in many ways combined the ideals of manhood mentioned earlier. He was able to act out his passions through military service and display the restraint and stature of an officer.

"Most importantly, I think, the army was everything domestic life was not," Rael said. "In the army, Chamberlain found a welcome relief from career and home."

He relished the male camaraderie, as well as the idea that he was living out a fate not meant for women. In letters to Fanny he spoke of the rigors and sacrifices of army life, saying that women would never be able to endure the conditions under which he and his men lived.

Much has been made of Chamberlain's later humility, but Rael sees evidence that this humility was a result of Chamberlain trying to live out the humble behavior of the Christian gentleman. (All the while relishing the triumphs and glory he'd known that fulfilled the ideal of the masculine achiever.) While he was humble in public, there is evidence that Chamberlain was much more boastful in private, and that he was, in fact, proud of his public humility.

In a letter to Fanny, he wrote, "I am receiving all sorts of praise, but bear it meekly." Letters to the governor, written when Chamberlain was determining he path he would follow after the war, also display a concern for personal glory. He found some success - becoming president of Bowdoin and governor of Maine. But his time as president of Bowdoin was marked by a student revolt over an imposed military drill and failure to institute educational reforms he sought, and his tenure as governor was plagued by partisan politics and controversy over his views on temperance and capital punishment. He was unsuccessful in his bids for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

"Just as his star truly began to fade, he found a new opportunity for recharging its luster," Rael said. The opportunity again came, partly, through embrace of a masculine ideal. A new interest in the war developed several decades after it was fought. Its brand of masculinity seemed to appeal to those who found the climate of "modern" America to be a "feminizing" force.

Chamberlain began organizing veterans reunions and speaking publicly about the war, calling it a "trial of manhood." By embracing the war as force that forged the character of the men who fought it - strong fighters on all sides- these men were able to recall the Civil War in a way that didn't perpetuate the divisions that caused it. The south became a "noble enemy" and manhood became a unifying force, Rael said.

What is troubling about this aspect of Chamberlain's character and history, is that it enabled him to embrace a form of reconstruction that was indifferent or even hostile to black rights and that ultimately led this country into decades more or racial inequality.

"None of Chamberlain's views place him outside the mainstream of his day," Rael said. "Neither can we excuse him simply by saying he is a man of his times....The point is that Chamberlain hagiographers invite questions."

Because Chamberlain was important and his ideas were important it's necessary to look at him realistically, and that, Rael said separating myth from man and looking at history from different perspectives is the role of the historian.

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