One of the most celebrated figures of the battle of Gettysburg is the colonel of the 20th Maine regiment, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Anyone who watched Ken Burns’ masterpiece documentary The Civil War knows that Chamberlain won the battle of Gettysburg single-handedly. At least that is what fans of the documentary and casual historians will tell you.
There is no disputing that the former professor and future four-term Governor of Maine acted decisively, heroically and even creatively on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. His courageous leadership allowed the Union army to hold on to the key position on the Union left flank against overwhelming odds.
But why do Chamberlain’s actions now stand above countless other acts of valor on the battlefield that day?
The truth is, until the publishing of a Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Killer Angels and subsequent movie ‘Gettysburg’ – his actions weren’t remembered very much more than many other soldiers and commanders who did and didn’t survive the battle. In fact, not only was he not looked upon as the central hero of Gettysburg – he may not have even been known as the hero of Little Round Top. Well into the 20th Century, that honor may have fallen on General Gouverneur K. Warren.
So, what etched Chamberlain’s actions in the memory of the battle with such detail and clarity? The answer is simple. Chamberlain was one of the greatest practitioners of self publicity and personal branding of the 19th Century.
After the war, Chamberlain wrote volumes about his exploits during the Civil War – and especially those late afternoon hours on the southern slope of Little Round Top. Those writings proved all too tempting for Michael Shaara, author of The Killer Angels. The book captured the remarkable character and personality of Chamberlain – bringing him to life once again for new generations to observe. It was this character – based on reality – but created by Shaara that Ken Burns personified in his documentary.
Purists of the battle push back on this portrayal, sometimes with great indignation. But don’t blame Chamberlain for exercising a skill he was blessed with; Storytelling. Even the greatest modern-day PR mogul would marvel at the way Chamberlain was able to place the reader into the time and space he is describing.
After the war, Chamberlain wrote no fewer than 30 books. He spoke at public events and used the pulpit as the Governor of Maine to provide vivid first-hand accounts of his battlefield exploits. More than 150 years later, historians are still able to extract dramatic content for their own interpretations of Chamberlain’s deeds.
In addition, Chamberlain was an extraordinary writer of prose. Here is an example of how he described the Gettysburg battlefield while addressing a gathering of veterans there in 1888:
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
I have seen this passage quoted on numerous websites, shirts, coffee mugs and literature. It is an early example of content going viral!
Chamberlain later became president of Bowdoin College in Maine. Today the campus contains his grave site as well as a prominent statue in his honor. There is also a popular watering hole that bears his name.
His legacy lives on today because of his ability to promote his personal brand. As a brand strategist for businesses, I only hope to provide the same sort of powerful messaging to my clients. There is even a remarkable brand association with one of Chamberlain’s boyhood experiences. As a young boy growing up on a farm, he was plowing a field when he was stalled by a series of large boulders strewn throughout. When he asked his father how he was supposed to complete his task – his father simply said “Do it! That’s how. Just Do It!”
Those words helped a famous athleticwear company become a massive global brand!
Chamberlain was deeply respected during and after his service. But the greatest measure of his skills as a marketer is the prominent role he plays in the modern-day narrative of the battle. In the marketing business, we describe such campaign longevity as having legs. The legs of Chamberlain’s Gettysburg legacy are still running at full speed with no sign of tiring anytime soon.
To comment on this or learn more about inspiring examples of leadership at Gettysburg, contact Battle Ready Leadership.
Jack Carroll is Founder and lead presenter at Battle Ready Leadership – a firm dedicated to leadership training, strategic planning and brand development for organizations of all sizes with a focus on inspirational storytelling on the Gettysburg battlefield.