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Courage and Self-Sacrifice (Part 1)

Reading: “Chamberlain” By Michael Shaara

Introduction

How To Use This Discussion Guide

Materials Included | Begin by reading Michael Shaara’s “Chamberlain” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Eliot A. Cohen (Johns Hopkins SAIS) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Learning Objectives | Students will be able to:

  • Explore the virtue of courage and how it can be cultivated, especially among self-interested citizens oriented toward the pursuit of their own happiness;
  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it;
  • Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text;
  • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development
  • Summarize the key supporting details and ideas;
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text;
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone;
  • Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to one another and the whole; and
  • Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Common Core State Standards Addressed | Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • RH.9-10.1, RH.9-10.2, RH.9-10.6, RH.11-12.1, RH.11-12.2, RH.11-12.4, RH.11-12.6, RH.11-12.8, RH.11-12.9

English Language Arts: 

  • RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.4, RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.3, RL.11-12.4

Writing Prompts | Based on Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies:

  • The bulk of our attention is directed at Chamberlain’s speech to the men. But Shaara also lets us watch his actions toward and before them from the time they arrive; his manner, tone, and gestures; and the order in which he proceeds. Look carefully at all aspects of his conduct. How do they strike you as a reader? How might they have moved you were you among the mutineers? After reading “Chamberlain,” write a narrative from the perspective of the mutineers. How would you respond to Chamberlain if you were one of the mutineers? (Narrative/Description; Task 27)
  • How do you encourage men and women to be courageous? After reading “Chamberlain” and Patton’s “Speech to the Third Army,” write an essay that compares Chamberlain’s and Patton’s understanding of courage and leadership and argues for one mode of leadership over the other. Be sure to support your position with evidence from the texts. (Argumentation/Comparison; Task 4)
  • Is there a difference between fighting for your honor and manhood—to avoid being a coward—and fighting for a cause or country? After reading “Chamberlain” and Patton’s “Speech to the Third Army,” write an essay that compares the two different reasons for fighting and argues for one reason over the other. Be sure to support your position with evidence from the texts.(Argumentation/Comparison; Task 4)

About the Author

“Chamberlain” is a chapter from The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg by Michael Shaara (1928-88). Previously a prolific writer of science fiction and sports stories, Shaara was inspired to write the novel after discovering letters written by his great-grandfather, who had been injured at Gettysburg as a member of the Fourth Georgia Infantry, and after personally visiting the battlefield. Shaara’s narrative is organized into four days—June 30, 1863, the day on which Union and Confederate armies move into Gettysburg; and July 1, 2, and 3, the days of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War—and each day’s events are told from the perspective of one of the commanders of the competing armies. Shaara’s chapter “Chamberlain” focuses on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914), commanding officer of the Twentieth Maine, and his efforts (on June 30) to encourage mutineers to re-join the battle. As Shaara will recount in a later chapter, Chamberlain, his regiment out of ammunition, would lead a bayonet charge against the enemy, enabling the Union army to hold Little Round Top and ultimately to win the battle. Not reported by Shaara are the various honors Chamberlain received: For his leadership at Gettysburg and elsewhere, he was, during the war itself, sequentially promoted, eventually achieving the rank of brigadier general. For his heroism at Little Round Top, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And, at the very end of the war, he was given the honor of receiving, at Appomattox, the surrender of the Confederate infantry. After the Civil War, Chamberlain was elected to four terms as governor of Maine, following which he returned to his alma mater, Bowdoin College, as its president. He died of the unhealed wounds he incurred during his war years.

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text

Summary

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commanding officer of the Twentieth Maine, is abruptly awakened early in the morning by his aide, Buster Kilrain, who tells him that he is about to receive as prisoners 120 battle-weary veterans from the old Second Maine, recently disbanded, who refuse to fight. The advance message indicates that the men are to do their duty, and, if they don’t, Chamberlain is authorized to shoot them.

Chamberlain faces a dilemma: he lacks the manpower to guard and care for the mutineers, but he knows that, since the mutineers are, like himself, Maine men, shooting them would make it impossible for him to go home. The mutineers arrive shuffling, dusty, dirty, ragged, heads and faces down, clearly weary, hungry, and exhausted. They look, as they have been treated, like men in bondage. Chamberlain is immediately aware of the irony of his situation: “How do you force a man to fight—for freedom?” How, then, to persuade them to do so?

Chamberlain first invites the hungry men to eat. As they do so, he listens to their spokesman, Joseph Bucklin, who presents their grievances: They had signed up to fight with the Second Maine and only the Second Maine; they are war-weary and had already done their share (eleven engagements worth); they have been treated like cows and dogs or worse; and (last but not least), because of the “lame-brained officers from West Point,” they are convinced that the Union cannot win the war. They are therefore more than ready to give up the fighting and go home. As Chamberlain listens, a courier arrives to announce that the Twentieth Maine must ready itself to move out immediately—toward Gettysburg. Now urgently needing a solution for his dilemma, Chamberlain goes directly to speak to the mutineers.

Proceeding slowly, quietly, deliberately, and personally, he addresses the mutineers as the free men he knows them to be, enabling them to think anew about why they—and other civilian volunteers in the Union army—had come to fight, and making it clear to them that whether they fight again is up to them. All but six “reenlist” with his regiment. In the end, we subsequently learn, only three held out.

(View Jeff Daniels’ performance of the speech from the 1993 film adaptation, Gettysburg.)


Section Overview

The historical Chamberlain was, as noted above, a hero at Gettysburg. But in Shaara’s rendering of him, he seems more like a mild-mannered professor than a steely warrior and appears to be more sympathetic toward the mutineers than a man in his position is likely to have been. Yet his speech to the mutineers is wonderfully successful, far more than he had reason to hope. Thinking carefully about the text may help us understand why.


A. Shaara’s Chamberlain
  1. Consider Shaara’s description of Chamberlain’s looks: “He had a grave, boyish dignity, that clean-eyed, scrubbed-brain, naïve look of the happy professor” (4). What does this mean? Imagine yourself as a war-weary veteran before an officer with such a look. Would you be inclined to take him seriously?
  2. Does Chamberlain behave like a professor? Is he more a man of thought or a man of action?
  3. Shaara tells us that Chamberlain “had a gift for [making speeches] . . . when he spoke most men stopped to listen. Fanny [his wife] said that it was something in his voice” (14). What does this mean? Can you recognize it in what he says to the mutineers and how he says it?
  4. Look carefully at the scene between Chamberlain and the captain who delivers the prisoners (5–6). How would you characterize the differences between the two men? What do we learn about Chamberlain from that encounter? From his refusal even to consider shooting the mutineers?
  5. Look carefully at the scene between Chamberlain and Bucklin (11–12). What do we learn about Chamberlain from that encounter?
  6. Later, as Chamberlain walks to speak to the mutineers, Shaara remarks: “He had a complicated brain and there were things going on back there from time to time that he only dimly understood, so he relied on his instincts, but he was learning all the time” (12). What does this mean? How is it displayed in the Chamberlain you watch and hear as you read?
  7. Just before Chamberlain addresses the men, Shaara describes Chamberlain’s “faith” and his reasons for fighting (12). What does this tell you about the man? Why can he not rely on these reasons or faith in speaking to the men?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What kind of person is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain?

B. The Mutineers
  1. What are the condition, mood, and attitude of the mutineers as they march into Chamberlain’s camp?
  2. What are the basic grievances of the mutineers? Do you sympathize with them? Should we?
  3. Why do you think Bucklin has such anger at “these goddamned gentlemen, these officers” (9)?
  4. Imagine yourself as one of the mutineers. What would it take to overcome your refusal to fight? What would it take for you to overcome your anger at “these officers”?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What are the mutineers’ grievances?

C. Chamberlain and the Mutineers
  1. The bulk of our attention is directed at Chamberlain’s speech to the men. But Shaara also lets us watch his actions toward and before them from the time they arrive; his manner, tone, and gestures; and the order in which he proceeds. Look carefully at all aspects of his conduct. How do they strike you, as a reader? How might they have moved you were you among the mutineers?
  2. Chamberlain deliberately speaks quietly and slowly, without foul language. Why does he choose this strategy? What is its effect on his audience?
  3. Chamberlain’s speech divides itself into five distinguishable parts (in 10 separated passages of direct quotation, beginning with “I’ve been talking with Bucklin . . .” [13] and ending with “. . . We have to move out” [16]). Pausing after each part, consider the following: Why does Chamberlain say what he says?  What does he mean? Why does he take up the subjects in the order in which he does? And, finally, imagining yourself as a mutineer, at each turn, ask yourself how you would react.
    1. Addresses their “problem.” Promises to do what he can.
    2. Outlines his orders: he won’t shoot them, though he is authorized to do so.
    3. Describes the situation, and their freedom to choose whether to fight.
    4. Explains things they should know if they choose to fight (including the regiment’s history, the reasons they volunteered, and the reasons they fight).
    5. Concludes (including again their freedom to choose, the importance of the battle, and a personal appeal).
  4. Chamberlain appeals to a variety of causes. What is the highest or most fundamental appeal he makes? Is it persuasive to you?
  5. In general, why do you think Chamberlain’s speech was so successful with the men? Would you have been persuaded by it to choose to fight—and very likely die?
  6. Do you think that Chamberlain’s speech would be as effective today? Why or why not?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: How does Chamberlain respond to the mutineers?
Video Excerpt 4
WATCH: What case does Chamberlain make to the mutineers?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

Shaara’s “Chamberlain” invites questions about the importance of courage and public-spiritedness, as well as the difficulty in obtaining them. It also raises interesting questions about leadership and about the military in American society.


A. Encouraging Courage and Public-Spiritedness
  1. What is courage? What makes it so difficult?
  2. Winston Churchill called courage “the first of human qualities . . . the quality which guarantees all others.” Do you agree with this statement? In what sense might it be true?
  3. How can one get ordinary citizens—especially in a republic dedicated to safeguarding their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to risk their lives in the service of the nation?
  4. How does one encourage public-spiritedness (a devotion to the general welfare or common good) and sacrifice? How effective can speech be toward this goal? What sorts of speech? By whom? When?
  5. How important—and effective—are national ideals for inspiring men to fight? Is there a difference between fighting for your fatherland—for blood and soil (what Chamberlain calls “dirt”)—and fighting for a cause? Does it depend on the cause?
  6. Is patriotism—love of country—necessary for the common defense? How can it be encouraged and instilled in ordinary citizens? 
  7. Should military service—or some other form of national service—be a civic duty? Why or why not?
  8. What is the difference between military courage (and military service) and other sorts of courage (and public service)? Which do you regard as most important? Why?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: What is courage? What makes it so difficult?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What motivates people to fight in service to their nation? What motivates Chamberlain?

B. Leadership and the Military

  1. What are the virtues necessary for leaders in a democratic republic? Are the virtues needed for military leaders different from those of civilian leaders?
  2. On the one hand, most Americans want excellent leaders, people whom we can admire and follow. On the other hand, most Americans do not wish to be led, and many do not believe that some people are really better than others. What does this tension imply for leadership in America?
  3. Among American leaders, Abraham Lincoln is unsurpassed in inspirational speech that succeeded in blurring the (in this case, enormous) difference between the leader and those he leads. During the Civil War, on the evening of August 22, 1864, he delivered an address from the White House balcony to the men of the 166th Ohio regiment. He began by thanking them for their service to the Union, then continued as follows:

    I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright. . . . The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.

    Compare Lincoln’s appeal with that of Chamberlain. What generalizations can you offer regarding successful leadership and the encouragement of courage and public spirit in America?
  4. The United States maintains civil control of the military. It also has a volunteer army, comprising mainly citizens who serve only for a short time, who are not and will not become professional soldiers. These citizen-soldiers are, however, ruled by a cadre of professional soldiers whose entire career is spent in uniform. What special challenges of leadership do these arrangements produce?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

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