Fanny Chamberlain: Heroine In A General’s Love Story (Part 1)

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, c. 1900.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, c. 1900.

The old man leaned on his cane, ignoring the aching war wound from decades before. It was such a beautiful day, and the walk had been pleasant, except for the last hundred yards. Maybe it’s just something about coming home now, he mused. He pushed open the front door and made his way into the library.

The house was still and quiet. His grandchildren had gone home last week, but he would count the days until they came back to fill the house with laughter. Now, there was no one there to greet him; no one sitting in the parlor waiting for his return. He watched the dust particles drift in the sunlight coming through the window and thought of happier, passionate days.

Easing into a chair, he picked up a pen and let his thoughts wander to the apex of his American life. Three short years that changed him mentally, emotionally, physically. Those three years had been the best of times, the worst of times. He smiled at the reference to literature, then let himself fully enter that dream-like world. Reliving the past, he scribbled remembrances across the pages.

Decades before – 1851, to be exact – twenty-three year old Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a student at Bowdoin College, planning to become a minister. His father had hoped young Lawrence would attend West Point and serve in the army, but, ultimately, the mother’s preferences had greater influence. After teaching himself Greek and bringing other subjects up to college level, he entered the school. Lawrence (as he was called by family and friends) had struggled with speech impediments, but found that singing helped him overcome those difficulties. He sang in the church choir, played the organ for Sunday School, and during music practice found his eyes straying to the young lady playing the organ: Miss Frances Caroline Adams, the minister’s daughter.

Frances Caroline Adams Chamberlain, c. 1856
Frances Caroline Adams Chamberlain, c. 1856

Lawrence began courting Miss Fanny, enthusiastically falling in love. Her feelings seem less certain, as if not willing to give up independence to marry…even for love.[i] Eventually, by autumn 1852, with Lawrence’s Bowdoin College studies completed, the courting couple decided to announce a formal engagement to their families.

The next three years were challenging – Lawrence worked on his master’s degree from Bowdoin and studies at Bangor Theological Seminary. Fanny took a teaching position at a girl’s school in Georgia. The separation both strained and strengthened their relationship. Carrying on conversations by letter, Lawrence and Fanny debated and discussed marriage, romance, and family structure, varying their written tones from teasing, coaxing, commanding, and argumentative. Clearly, these two individuals were both strong willed, overly-sensitive, and passionate. One point that received much discussion was Lawrence’s profession; he considered missionary work in a foreign country or duties of a minister, but Fanny objected and wanted him to be a college professor. He conceded to her wishes.

December 7, 1855: Mr. and Mrs. Joshua L. Chamberlain were married. Privately, some of their extended family felt uneasy about the marriage, but the coupled settled into “housekeeping” and the next years were comparatively free of extensive conflict. After a short disagreement over some discovered letters, Fanny begged forgiveness, admitting, “if you knew the wealth of my soul’s love for you, you would not ask for more.”[ii] Lawrence wrote during one of his wife’s absences, “Perhaps I am too much a lover for a husband, as the world goes.”[iii]

Four children were born between 1856 and 1860, but only two would survive infancy.[iv] Grace Chamberlain (b. October 1856) and Harold Wyllys (b. October 1858) grew up a good-size home, not far from Bowdoin College where their father was a professor.

In 1861, the Civil War began; most thought it would last a few weeks or months. Instead, a year later, there was no end in sight. More and more regiments were being formed. Patriotically, Lawrence wanted to serve, and with some deception, he managed to get a leave from college teaching and wrote a volunteering letter to the governor of Maine. Why the secrecy? That’s puzzled historians for decades, without a clear answer. It’s possible that Lawrence feared the college faculty would prevent his battlefield quest. Or maybe he dreaded Fanny’s reaction.

Mrs. Chamberlain, c. 1862
Mrs. Chamberlain, c. 1862

Abandoned by her parents as a child and sent to live with relatives, Fanny had struggled with emotions and possibly mental health issues throughout her life. She did not cope well if left alone – unless she was doing something she wanted to do (shopping, for example).[v] With no clear surviving documentation, it is very difficult to guess Fanny’s reaction to her husband’s enlistment and at what point he told her. Fanny Chamberlain’s “war record” leaves much to be desired; it is hard to keep track of her whereabouts between 1862 and 1865, unless she is with her husband.  A guess suggests that she accepted the inevitable of Lawrence’s enlistment and made some effort to join him whenever possible, but, beyond caring for her husband’s safety, wanted absolutely nothing to do with the war.

Despite the speculation about Fanny’s feelings, she did travel to say good-bye to Lawrence at the military camp in Maine. Now, a lieutenant-colonel of the 20th Maine Regiment, Lawrence was beginning the military adventure of his life. On that rainy night before the unit’s departure, husband and wife huddled in a canvas tent, unduly chaperoned by Fanny’s step-father.[vi] The next day the regiment headed south, toward the Virginia Battlefields, and Fanny returned home to her young children, probably feeling heartsick loneliness and fearing what might happen if her Lawrence was killed.

The 20th Maine saw their first battlefield in September 1862: Antietam. They didn’t take part in the fight, but they marched across the slaughter fields. After that shocking experience, the unit settled into camp and training routine. Lawrence alternated his spare time between studying military tactics and writing lengthy letters home. Throughout the war, he was a regular correspondent and many of his missives have survived. Fanny was not so punctual about writing, prompting gently complaints and pleas from her lonely husband.

Just days before Christmas, Lawrence and the regiment were tested in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862). Charging across the already body-strewn plain toward Marye’s Heights, they received a fierce introduction to war. The regiment and officers were pinned down yards away from the Confederate position, spending a frightful night and day lying among the corpses of other fallen soldiers in blue.

Better days in early 1863 helped to mitigate some of the awful memories etched in Lawrence’s mind. Fanny traveled to Washington D.C. and he was able to visit her for a few days.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, c. 1864 or 1865
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, c. 1864 or 1865

Returning to the army, Lawrence took command as colonel of the 20th Maine, but missed the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-4, 1863) due to regimental illness. Faulty small-pox vaccines put the men and officers at risk of contracting (and sharing) the disease; the result was picket duty in a location far from other units and the fighting. Lawrence suggested that if his men were really sick maybe they should fight…and try to share the disease with the enemy. Biological warfare?

The 20th Maine would get its share of marching and fighting in June and July. Trekking along the dusty roads of Virginia and Maryland – moving north toward Pennsylvania – Lawrence collapsed with sunstroke. He was forced to ride in an ambulance for a few days, before returning to command.[vii] The last days of June 1863 were a challenging time for the new colonel. In addition to command duties, he was desperate for news from home. Weeks had passed with no letter from Fanny. Was she home? He knew the children were with his sister.[viii]

On July 2nd, he pushed aside the nagging worries about his wife and children. The Confederates were coming, and his regiment was the end of the Union left flank. Lacking consistent support from his personal homefront, he would have to find his own courage to fight the battle at hand.

To be continued…


[i]Alice Rains Trulock, In The Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War, (1992), Pages 43-52.

[ii] Ibid, Page 55.

[iii] Ibid, Pages 55-56.

[iv] William M. Wallace, Soul of the Lion, (1960), Page 31.

[v] Ibid, Pages 25-26.

[vi] Alice Rains Trulock, In The Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War, (1992), Page 20.

[vii] Ibid, Page 120-121.

[viii] Ibid, Page119-120.

2 Responses to Fanny Chamberlain: Heroine In A General’s Love Story (Part 1)

  1. This was a great story and fun to read, well crafted and written. It had to be hard to leave family and home. I look forward to part 2. This is the type of story that will attract more people to study the Civil War. It reads like a novel with great human interest, but then Sarah explains the background and the history, wonderful. I believe that the challenge is to advertise this kind of story to attract people to study the Civil War. I believe it would help if the story of one the ECW authors could be somehow placed in one of the popular national magazines or a TV interview. We must, somehow, get the word out.

  2. Sarah Kay brings a woman’s perspective to her writing which is most welcome. Her historical figures become so human and relational under her pen.

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