Joshua Chamberlain stares down the 1880 Maine rebellion (part one of two)

Joshua Chamberlain was the first four-term governor of Maine. (msa)

Emerging Civil War is pleased to feature the work of our friend, Maine at War author Brian Swartz. Part one of two.

When a political crisis roiled Maine in early 1880, Joshua L. Chamberlain answered the call to duty and averted a potential civil war.

During the 12 days he wore his army uniform, Fusionists and Republicans alike curried his favor — and when such smooching failed, some men plotted to kill him.

The crisis began with the September 8, 1879 election featuring four gubernatorial candidates: Democrat (and current governor) Alonzo Garcelon, Republican Daniel F. Davis, Joseph L. Smith, and perennial election loser Bion Bradbury. Davis got the most votes, but not the needed majority to clinch the win.

The term “Fusionist” collectively referred to “Democrats and Greenbackers voting together,” explained Chamberlain biographer Alice Rains Trulock. Ironically, the Republican candidate had finished first in the 1878 gubernatorial election, and Democrat candidate Garcelon had come in third behind the Greenback Party candidate.

With no candidate winning a majority, the decision fell to the incoming legislature in January 1879. Much dickering led to the Republicans and Fusionists declaring Garcelon the governor.

But now the September 1879 election also gave Republicans legislative control and the right to select a Republican governor. Garcelon and his hand-picked Executive Council members meticulously reviewed the election results. Citing specific issues such as allegedly forged signatures and questionable name spellings, Garcelon overthrew “the plainly declared will of the people,” as Winthrop voters fumed in a detailed resolution sent to Augusta.

The governor and his Executive Council minions declared 37 elected Republican candidates (eight senators and 29 representatives) to be losers and 25 losing Fusionist candidates (eight senators and 17 representatives) to be winners.

The electoral revisionism action gave legislative control to the Fusionists.

Maine exploded politically. Across the state, voters packed public halls and protested in thundering diatribes and petitions. The state’s highly influential press split along party lines, Democratic papers like the Bangor Commercial and Eastern Argus praising Garcelon and Republican papers like the Portland Daily Press and Daily Whig & Courier excoriating him.

Regional and national newspapers railed for or against Garcelon, too, the Boston Globe supporting him and the Chicago Tribune and New York Tribune condemning his actions.

Passions built in Maine, where U.S. Senator James G. Blaine harnessed Republican anger. Garcelon’s opponents hoped the Maine Supreme Judicial Court would review the disputed election results. The court ruled that sloppy handwriting and misspelled names, “if understood,” did not disqualify disputed votes.

“The Prevailing Feeling [is] One of Resistance,” a newspaper sub-headline growled. Armed men went to Augusta, and when Garcelon garrisoned the State House with a “military force” at night, a Republican editor labeled the building “Fort Garcelon.”

The Fusionist legislature convened in early January. When five Republican legislators asked Garcelon to remove “the armed force” and its “paraphernalia” from the State House, he replied he would think about it.

With his term expiring at midnight, January 9, Garcelon knew his departure would leave the state government rudderless. His Special Order No. 45 of January 5 announced that Major General Joshua L Chamberlain was “authorized and directed to protect the public property and institutions of the State until my successor is duly qualified.”

Garcelon’s adjutant general, S.D. Leavitt, promptly organized Maine’s “several counties … into the first militia division” and appointed “Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain” its commander. Telegraphed in Brunswick, Chamberlain promptly acknowledged the order.

A Portland newspaper stated the obvious: “Gen. Chamberlain is now the only lawful State authority … until a Governor is chosen and qualified.” The war hero was “the sole possessor of executive power.

“He will see that the peace is kept and that law and order prevail,” the newspaper stated.

Republican legislators posed 27 questions to the state’s supreme court and, along with Chamberlain and countless other Mainers, awaited the official decision. Rather than convene at Augusta amidst its turmoil, the justices met in Bangor, 75 miles away by train.

As Chamberlain reached Augusta and settled into an obscure State House office, a newspaper reported that “all his movements are carefully observed.” By Friday, January 9, he had arranged with Augusta police to place officers in the State House and to arrest “all parties … breaking the peace.”

Discovering “unauthorized persons” in the Executive Council chamber, Chamberlain ordered them out, locked the door, and pocketed the key. Thronged by “citizens … asking and urging all manner of things,” he set a police guard outside his office door.

He summoned to Augusta a few trusted friends, all veteran officers like himself, and made them his aides. Chamberlain sent packing “the bummer guard” allegedly protecting the State House. Wiring militia officers not to organize their units unless directed by him, he worked with Augusta Mayor Charles A. Nash to keep sufficient city police on hand.

Because Chamberlain had served four terms as a Republican governor, Grand Old Party interests in the Pine Tree State figured they owned him. Realizing that Chamberlain, was only one man, Fusionists tried to intimidate him.

Both parties underestimated the man.

Wanting the crisis revolved in Republican favor, Blaine even dangled a juicy political bribe. He would resign the Senate and support Chamberlain as his replacement if the general supported the Republicans. The bribe failed.

Violent threats circulated in Augusta and elsewhere. The Bangor Commercial delivered a “bitter attack … calling me a traitor, & calling on the people to send me speedily to a traitor’s doom,” which meant execution, Chamberlain informed his wife, Fanny.

The rebellion peaked on Wednesday, January 14, which was “another Round Top, although few knew of it,” he told her.

(To be continued…)

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1 Response to Joshua Chamberlain stares down the 1880 Maine rebellion (part one of two)

  1. John Pryor says:

    So let me get this straight: Maine’s civil authorities basically threw up their collective hands and put the State Militia in charge? Bizarre.

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