“The man who has nothing to boast of but his illustrious ancestry is like the potato–the best part under ground.” – Thomas Overbury
Are you related to someone famous; a hero, perhaps? I am! Well, I’m not certain, to be honest. When I was in high school in the 1970s, my father told me that his dad–my paternal grandfather–once investigated his heritage in hopes to find a courageous soldier in the Civil War. After a lot of digging, he found two relatives who fought in the Confederate Army: one was a deserter, the other was captured by Union forces after falling asleep under a tree. So much for greatness.
When his wife (my paternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Chamberlain) tried her hand at this, she didn’t have to dig very deep. Her family connections in Minnesota told her she was related to the great Joshua Chamberlain! Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (September 8, 1828 – February 24, 1914) was one of the heroes of the Civil War. As a colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, he played a critical part in the Union’s victory at Gettysburg.
His acts of valor at defending Little Round Top have been immortalized in the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning historical fiction The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and in the films Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003). He was a fighting officer with the wounds to prove it, and he had fifteen horses shot out from under him. In other words, he didn’t hang back like most officers during battle. As a general, he was at Appomattox where he was selected to receive the formal surrender of arms and colors of General Rober E. Lee’s army. He was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. After the war, he was a three-term Governor of Maine and the President of Bowden College.
When I first heard this information I was tickled: “I’m related to an American hero!” It never really dawned on me that this revelation didn’t change anything–it didn’t make me and better or worse than I already was. I was too old to use something like this as some kind of bragging cred. “Nana, nana, na-na, I am special. I am related to an American hero, and you are not!” No, the only thing “special” about me at the time was that I was taking a remedial math class with a bunch of Special Education students. Potential-Great, Great, Great Grampy Josh spoke nine languages fluently. I never went beyond introductory Spanish or German.
I read The Killer Angeles, and for a brief time lived vicariously through his ghost. Of course, I could have looked no further than across the dinner table for greatness, but my admiration of my father’s genius came at a price–I knew the man and saw his faults as well as his strengths. Perhaps if Chamberlain were my dad I would have felt the same way, but he’s not, and six generations and admiring historians have created a comfortable, cheap seat to watch his edited story unfold in front of me in books and film.
Over the next ten years or so I lost interest in Joshua Chamberlain, but was reminded of the man’s greatness. Minoring in History at California State University, Sacramento, I ran into the legend a couple of times–once in an Antebellum-era class and again in a History of the U.S. Wars surrounded by uniformed ROTC students. These guys would have appreciated General Horatio G. Sickels quote to my potential kin, “General, you have the soul of a lion and the heart of a woman.” Would these guys ever say something like that to me? No, the closest thing they would say to me is, “Jack you are such a pussy.”
I’d also run into a book or two on him while doing research. One time even having the chance to give an uninspiring paper on the Civil War hero. The irony of receiving a B- on a paper of a possible family member was not lost on me.
After college graduation, I became interested in Chamberlain again, but I wanted to know how did my immediate relatives know I (we) were related to the famous figure. Ken Burns Civil War had come out followed by a resurgence in books and films dealing with Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad. I got that kind of proud feeling again about Chamberlain. Also, I was now a dad, and that added a sense of import. This was bigger than me and my shortcomings.
So, I asked my father how did he know that we were related to Chamberlain. He snapped back that it was looked into, but he didn’t have details, and I wasn’t satisfied. I also could tell I wasn’t going to get any further with him. What compounded this doubt was my lack of gumption when it came to the research required to find the connection between the Chamberlains of Minnesota and Joshua Chamberlain’s Maine family to get that “I’ve found you, Kunte Kinte!” moment, I just didn’t have it. Once again, I quite before ever really starting to look.
Fast forward many years to about a year ago. I was working at my desk doing some horribly boring data verification crap that, thankfully, I can do using precious little brain power. This is my rationalization for donning headphones and listening to music while I work–tuning out my fellow workers and making them and my boss have to tap me on the shoulder to talk to me. I’ve got my folk music channel selected on Pandora when the ghost of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain visits me after such a long hiatus in the song “Dixieland” by some guy named Steve Earle:
I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I fight for Chamberlain
‘Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind
When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg, many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelled just like death
I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I’d march to hell and back again
For Colonel Joshua Chamberlain—we’re all goin’ down to Dixieland
I gave the song a thumbs-up, ensuring I would hear it again. Time passed with many listenings, and I decided to pursue this possible Chamberlain connection one more time. This time I employed my distant cousin Alan who is also a Facebook friend. I’ve meant to ask the ENT doctor from Seattle if he has any magic cures for my chronic Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo or BPPV, but ultimately knew better–we have only met once, and that was many years ago. The uncouth in me thinks I’ll ask him about our possible relative and maybe after he sys something like, “Yes Jack, we are so special to have Chamberlain blood running through our veins,” I would slip in, “Do you think Grampy Josh had BPPV? What would you recommend he do if he asked for help?”
When I finally got around to texting him, he called me back via Facebook video chat. He told me he thinks we are related to Chamberlain. He tracked his/our lineage from Minnesota all the way to the southern parts of Maine. At this point, he ran out of easily-accessible resources. Someone told him he would need to continue his quest in Maine. He decided “a spittin’ distance from Joshua Chamberlain’s place of origin” was “close enough” as far as he was concerned to consider Chamberlain, an ancestor. I’m not knocking him–he did more than I would have done, but a part of me still yearns to know for sure. Right now I lack the funds to pay Ancestry.com or the Mormons to do the footwork for me. Alan said something similar and suggested we make this a joint venture. Money is tight right now. I told him I would get back to him on this.
My next-door neighbor was fortunate in finding the ancestry he was curious about, and he had a much better reason to pursue his and his wife’s heritage than a false sense of pride. Some years back I ran into him at our local post office. He had letters and opened envelopes strewn across a table and was writing detailed notes on a pad when I asked him what he was doing. He told me he was tracking his and his wife’s lineage back to the Holocaust and that he knew for sure that they had lost relatives in the death camps.
Now a retired labor relations representative he spends his days walking his dog and working as a freelance family historian. I told him about this whole Chamberlain thing, and he asked me to let him know if I want to pursue this. He said he might be able to help. Now that is the big question. Do I really want to find my Kunte Kinte?