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

Chamberlain circa 1871

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

In early 1880, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain faced a political crisis in his home state of Maine, where a disputed election threatened to throw the state into turmoil. An executive order authorized Chamberlain, as the state’s premier war hero and a former governor himself, to come out of retirement and preside until the political situation resolved itself–except tensions only mounted.

The rebellion peaked on Wednesday, January 14, which was “another Round Top, although few knew of it,” Chamberlain told his wife, Fanny.

“There were threats all morning of overpowering the police & throwing me out of the window, & the ugly looking crowd seemed like men who could be brought to do it (or to try it),” he reported.

Angry men threatened “fire & blood” or cajoled Chamberlain “to call out the militia at once. But I stood it firmly through, feeling sure of my arrangements & of my command of the situation.”

That afternoon he learned that subversives planned “to arrest me for treason” and toss him “in prison while they inaugurated a reign of terror & blood.” Perhaps Chamberlain saw through the smokescreen and called the bluff, because “they foamed & fumed … all that evening,” but “that plan failed.”

Wartime memories eerily flickered that night. “At about 11 p.m.” a man informed Chamberlain “I was to be kidnapped — overpowered & carried away & detained” in parts unknown, “so that the rebels could carry on their work.

“I had the strange sense again — of sleeping inside a picket line,” he commented.

Later that night (perhaps early Friday), two Maine Civil War heroes brought reinforcements to Augusta. From Bath came Thomas Hyde (7th Maine Infantry) “with 30 men.” From Waterville came Francis Heath (19th Maine Infantry) “with 50 men: sent for by Republicans[,] I suppose,” Chamberlain observed. “Greatly annoying to me & embarrassing[,] too.”

Worried about Fanny, he urged that she, “if … afraid,” contact the Brunswick selectmen “to have the police keep an eye on you & the house.”

Blaine advised “ordering out the Militia.” Chamberlain demurred. Citing “the storm … raging around me here in the State House” and “the wicked men inside this building as well as outside,” he mentioned to Blaine “the dispositions I have made” so “that the position shall be held.

“Neither force [nor] treachery nor trick” would overwhelm the State House defenders, Chamberlain assured Blaine.

And Chamberlain had quietly established an intelligence system, apparently based on loyal Mainers and the telegraph. “I have means of knowing all that is going on all over the State, & shall be ahead if force is resorted to,” he informed Blaine.

In a lengthy ruling issued on January 16 in Bangor and sent to Augusta the next day, the justices rebuffed Garcelon and the Fusionists by stressing that “the Governor and Council” had no constitutional right to seat a legislative candidate who “was not voted for” or “was defeated” in an election.

Individuals seated this way “would be intruders without right into a legislative body,” the justices wrote. Candidates “rightfully elected as shown by the official returns” must be seated. Then, referring to specific municipalities, the court tossed out losing Fusionist candidates who had been appointed to the legislature and installed winning Republican candidates who were denied their seats.

The unanimous decision overruled Garcelon’s scheme and restored the actual election results, which kept the legislature Republican-controlled. Davis would replace Garcelon.

Maine dailies applauded or booed the decision in their January 17 editions. All the inky protests to the contrary, “the bogus Fusion Legislature” adjourned Saturday morning and, in “the second act of the drama being … being played in the State House,” legally elected legislators took their seats at 2 p.m.

“Crowds of people” jammed the building, the House galleries, and the House floor; “the rotunda … was a perfect jam,” but “the best of order prevailed inside and outside the building,” a newspaper commented.

The Maine House immediately forwarded two gubernatorial candidates (Davis and Bion Bradbury) from the September 1879 ballot to the senate for consideration. A newspaper reporter noted, “The Senate promptly made choice of Mr. Davis for governor.”

Wildly cheering “the little Corporal” (as Davis was dubbed for his height and military rank in the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment), spectators cheered by name Blaine, Chamberlain, Nash, and others involved in seeing justice done. Davis took his oath of office, gave a short message, and “repaired to the Council Chamber.”

He almost did not get into it. Chamberlain discovered that final Fusion skulduggery had left the Executive Council Chamber’s door locked and its keys missing. He asked Nash, “who represents the civil authorities,” to get the door open; someone found a key and unlocked the door.

Accessed from the chamber, the governor’s office “was still locked and no key to it could be found,” a reporter wrote. Nash summoned a locksmith who picked the lock and found a key inserted into it from inside the office.

Now possessing keys to both rooms, Chamberlain ordered the doors locked while eyeing the legislative proceedings. Now sworn in, Davis finished his speech and, with his chosen Executive Council members, headed for the council’s chamber.

Chamberlain ordered the doors unlocked, and Maine’s election crisis peacefully ended.

In his first official letter to Governor Davis, Chamberlain wrote that with “the legality of your election … I consider my trust, under Special Order No. 45, as at an end.”

To Maine militia officers he issued General Order No. 4, which indicated Davis was now “Commander-in-Chief.” Chamberlain thanked his aides, two particular militia officers, and Mayor Nash for the key roles they played in averting bloodshed at the State House.

“The General also thanks the citizens of Maine” for patiently enduring the political crisis to its peaceful conclusion, Chamberlain closed General Order No. 4, then he went home to Fanny.



  1. Portland Daily Press, Thursday, December 25, 1879
  2. Portland Daily Press, Saturday, January 3, 1880;
  3. Portland Daily Press, Wednesday, January 7, 1880
  4. Portland Daily Press, Saturday, January 10, 1880
  5. Alice Rains Trulock, In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & the American Civil War, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1992, pp. 356-357
  6. Jeremiah L. Goulka, editor, The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1865-1914, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2004, pp. 96-97
  7. Joshua L. Chamberlain letter to James G. Blaine, January 16, 1880, Pejepscot History Center
  8. Portland Daily Press, Saturday, January 17, 1880
  9. Portland Daily Press, Monday, January 19, 1880
  10. Joshua L. Chamberlain letter to Daniel F. Davis, January 17, 1880, Maine Historical Society
  11. Joshua L. Chamberlain, General Order No. 4, January 17, 1880, Maine State Archives

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