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Keeping Silent Watch | Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | September 2019 | www.scene4.com

Keeping Silent Watch

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
 in Brunswick

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

In the summer, the small New England college town of Brunswick, Maine, (population 20,000+) is bustling with visitors who have come to see Broadway-caliber theatre at Maine State Music Theatre or world class classical music at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, or sample the delights of the Bowdoin College Art Museum or indulge culinary tastes in one of the town’s dozens of acclaimed eateries.  No matter where they are headed, at some point in their travels, their footsteps lead them past a busy intersection in the heart of downtown at the confluence of the house where he lived, the entrance to Bowdoin College, the historic First Parish Church and the Brunswick Hotel stand.  There it is impossible to avoid the glance emanating from an imposing bronze statue flanking the campus gates. For almost one hundred years this likeness of Brunswick’s first citizen stands like a silent sentinel guarding the beloved places where he served as, soldier, scholar, Maine’s governor, and Bowdoin’s president.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born in Brewer, ME (near Bangor) in 1828.  He entered Bowdoin College in 1848, studying languages and the classics, and in those turbulent years he met Brunswick notables like Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher and Calvin Stowe, and other prime movers who would shape the course of mid-19th century American history.  He also met and fell in love with the Fannie Adams, the adopted daughter of the pastor of First Parish Church; after a long courtship, he eventually married her in 1855 and together they had five children, two of whom survived to adulthood. But first, he was graduated from Bowdoin, attended Bangor Theological Seminary for three years, and returned to Brunswick to teach literature, rhetoric, and languages.

With the Civil War brewing, Chamberlain volunteered for military service and became Lieutenant Colonel (and rose to ranks of General) of Maine’s 20th Volunteer Infantry; he led this company of men bravely into history at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, when he held the Union line under fierce rebel attack, and later at Appomattox, where he presided over the surrender of Confederate arms and soldiers, insisting that chivalrous respect and dignity be shown to the vanquished.

After the War, he served four terms as Maine’s Republican governor, helped establish what would become the University of Maine at Orono, and became President of Bowdoin College, though his attempts to modernize the curriculum with science and engineering and to introduce military drills for students eventually lost him support and led to his resignation. He spent his final decades teaching, lecturing, serving in informal ambassadorial posts abroad, and acting  as Surveyor of the Port of Portland.  His health deteriorated, largely due to complications from his many war wounds, and he died in 1914 at the age of eighty-five.

Though Chamberlain spent time in other Maine towns, it is in Brunswick where his spirit dwells most vibrantly to this day.  Across the street from the campus entrance stands the Joshua Chamberlain House, his and Fannie’s long time residence – even in his gubernatorial years when, at Fannie’s insistence, he continued to live in Brunswick, only traveling to Augusta for business.  Now a museum, the sepia toned, imposing structure presents a lovely time capsule of the Civil War era.  

Originally located down Potter Street rather than on Maine, the one-story structure had been used as rental property. Chamberlain, one of the tenants - (another earlier tenant had been Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow when he was a professor at Bowdoin) - purchased the house in 1859. When he returned from the Civil War in 1867, he and Fannie moved the house to its present, centrally situated lot and made some alterations to the façade in the form of the decorative Maltese Crosses, the badge of Chamberlain’s regiment, on the chimneys. In 1871, however, in order to accommodate then-Bowdoin President Chamberlain’s need for a larger house, they undertook a major renovation. They raised the original building eleven feet in the air and built a new first floor beneath it. This is the elegantly appointed structure that is preserved today by the Pejebscot Historical Society which owns it, having purchased the property in 1983.

Significant restoration work has taken place in the last three plus decades, and there is still a great deal to be done.  After structural repairs had been made, focus shifted to decorative elements.  The original wallpapers were replicated; the trompe d’oeil painted ceiling and plaster medallions in the parlor were restored; the two-toned inlaid hardwood floors were refurbished; the now second floor rooms used by Longfellow and his first wife were restored to their original look; and the cast iron exterior fence was repaired and replicated.

A stroll through the rooms captures not only the period, but also a powerful sense of the man’s presence, especially at his desk with artifacts from his career. And the parlor and dining room with Fannie’s piano - (sometimes used today for Bowdoin International Music Festival small recitals) – recall the domestic life and the strong and tempestuous love story that underpinned Chamberlain’s public persona.

That story was recently immortalized in a new musical work by Steven M. Alper and Sarah Knapp commissioned by Maine State Music Theatre, entitled Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance, which received a lavish new production at the Pickard Theater in Brunswick in 2013. Produced by MSMT Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark, and directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, it starred James Patterson as Chamberlain and Kathy Votyko as Fannie.  The production traced the passionate, often argumentative relationship between two strong personalities swept up in a cataclysm of historical events, struggling to live in the moment and to find the eternity of their love.

If one leaves the Chamberlain house and crosses the street, passing between the gates of the college, one can walk a while longer in the illustrious man’s footsteps.  Along the granite paths of the leafy quad, one comes upon the red brick, Federal style Massachusetts Hall, the oldest building on campus, which housed Chamberlain’s office when he served as President, and right next door Memorial Hall, which Chamberlain used for his student military drills in those Post Civil War years.  Ambling down the long walk toward the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Library, one passes the residences where Chamberlain spent his own student years at Bowdoin: Maine Hall where he occupied rooms 21 and 32 in his sophomore, junior, and senior years, and Appleton Hall where he spent his freshman year in room 19 on the first floor facing the Chapel.

Leaving the campus, the pilgrim’s path leads to First Parish Congregational Church, the imposing slate grey-green structure that dates from 1845.  Designed by architect Richard Upjohn, the church boasts a magnificent organ, lovely stained glass windows, and the original pews.  Among these are number 64, the Chamberlain Family pew and number 23, where Harriet Beecher Stowe sat and reportedly conceived the idea for her seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Exiting the church, it is a short walk on a densely shaded road that passes through a copse of 100-foot ancient pine trees used in the 18th century Tory mast trade, known as “The Bowdoin Pines.”  Emerging into the sunlight one finds the entrance to Pine Grove Cemetery, deeded by Bowdoin College in 1794 to First Parish Church. Some 2500 souls – many notables in New England history - rest here under eloquent monuments that tell stories of their lives as sea captains, farmers, inventors, educators, ministers, and politicians.  Just four lots off the road within the first gate is the Chamberlain Family gravesite, marked by a red granite slab.    There is rarely a time of year when the visitor will not find wreaths and flowers, flags and other tributes.

In the quiet of a late summer morning, the air already turning slightly chill in anticipation of an early fall, these flags flutter softly in the breeze.  If one stands quietly and closes the eyes, one can imagine the sounds of musket fire or bugle call.  But these quickly seem to fade away as another, gentler music can be heard in the head and heart.  It is the sound of the First Parish bells calling to worship and the pealing of the organ played by Fannie Chamberlain’s deft hands, and the clarion call of those Abolitionist voices rising from the pulpit.  And then opening one’s eyes, there is a wash of silence…still, pregnant.  As the graveside visitor stays in homage, so steps away, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s spirit seems to keep silent watch over his beloved Brunswick.

The Joshua Chamberlain House and Museum, owned by the Pejebscot Historical Society, is located at 226 Maine, Street Brunswick.  For visiting information: www.pejebscothistorical.org  |  207-729-6958


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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is Senior Writer for Scene 4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2019 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
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