Maine’s native son Joshua Chamberlain is hands-down our state’s best known Veteran. However, the reason why I remember him on this Memorial Day isn’t for his impressive record of military achievements.
Most know him for his leadership of the 20th Maine atop Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. The defense of the Union’s left flank is legendary. For his part Chamberlain would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Students of Civil War history also know that he presided over the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. The simple honor he extended the defeated ranks of Southern troops have been cited by some as the first step in the healing of a divided nation.
His post-war service as an educator and as Maine’s governor further built upon his stature. My personal favorite story is of an honorable man facing down an armed mob in Augusta during a contentious post-election dispute. The “Lion of the Round Top” was not intimidated by a mob nor influenced by offered bribes from the competing sides.
I don’t remember Chamberlain for any of these things on Memorial Day. I remember him for being the last casualty of the Civil War.
Nine months after his heroics in Gettysburg, Chamberlain was shot through both hips and his groin while in a lesser known battle. It was one of six wounds he would receive during the war. Battlefield surgeons pronounced the wounds as fatal, but he surprised everyone and survived the trauma.
Despite his recovery, Chamberlain spent the remainder of his life in pain and plagued by complications. When he passed away in 1914 at the age of 85, his death was attributed to that single wound in a mostly unforgettable battle.
I remember him, because there is a lesson there about the long-term health affects of war.
Other Veterans of the Civil War would later succumb to “Soldier’s Heart,” a vague reference to high blood pressure and an abnormally high pulse rate.
Vietnam Veterans are all too familiar with the long-term affects of Agent Orange. There is no accurate count of how many deaths have resulted from contact with defoliants.
After Desert Storm there was the debate over Gulf War Syndrome, which still lingers to this day.
Out of the Global War on Terror we have Traumatic Brain Injury and the burn pit registry.
I don’t know who the last Veteran is to die from any of our other conflicts. I’m not sure if I really believe that Joshua Chamberlain was really the last Civil War soldier to die from his wounds. However, I do believe that the true casualty count from our nation’s wars is higher than the official totals. Some Veterans are just too stubborn to die before victory is declared.
War is the sadistic gift that just keeps on giving.