Chamberlain’s Original Medal of Honor Comes Home to Brunswick

PHS Chamberlain Medal of Honor

The original Medal of Honor awarded to Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain was donated to the Pejepscot Historical Society in Brunswick.

The Pejepscot Historical Society (PHS), which owns and operates the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum just across Maine Street from the College, has announced a significant addition to its collection and a major artifact of Maine history: Civil War general Joshua L. Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor, given by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

“Though it seems almost too good to be true, we are confident that we are now in possession of Joshua Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor,” says PHS Director Jennifer Blanchard. “All of the experts we’ve consulted believe it to be authentic, and we are tremendously honored to return the medal to Chamberlain’s home in Brunswick. The timing couldn’t be better, since the medal was awarded for Chamberlain’s distinguished service in the Battle of Gettysburg, whose 150th anniversary we mark in 2013. Our gratitude to the donor who discovered this treasure, and knew its importance to us and to the state of Maine, knows no bounds.”

“The discovery and acquisition of Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor concludes an important chapter in Maine’s Civil War history,” says Associate Professor of History Patrick Rael, a member of PHS Board of Trustees.”

“As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of America’s defining conflict, the medal calls us to honor not simply one of the state’s finest sons, but the sacrifices made by all Mainers who sought to keep the nation united and free. I eagerly await the Society’s public presentation of the medal.”

Joshua Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment at Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, received the Medal of Honor in 1893 for “distinguished gallantry” in that battle. A native of Brewer, Maine, Chamberlain attended Bowdoin  — and was later a professor and then College president — and lived for most of his life in the home at 226 Maine Street, which PHS now maintains as a house museum, open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays.

The updated Medal of Honor given to Joshua Chamberlain, redesigned in 1896, and held by the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at  Bowdoin College

The updated Medal of Honor given to Joshua Chamberlain, redesigned in 1904, and held by the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin College

Chamberlain also served four terms as governor of Maine following the Civil War.

Blanchard worked with experts at the Maine State Museum, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the Department of the Army’s Awards and Decorations Branch to confirm the medal’s authenticity. “Based upon the documentation submitted and the historical documentation available to this office, we are able to confirm that [the] Pejepscot Historical Society medallion is the 1862 United States Army Medal of Honor design,” says Michael A. Ries, lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army, and assistant chief, Awards and Decorations Branch. “It is an honor to authenticate the Medal of Honor bestowed upon Colonel Chamberlain for his extraordinary heroism on 2 July 1863.”

“It’s a tremendous privilege to join with the Pejepscot Historical Society, and indeed, the people of Maine, in welcoming home General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor,” says U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Me.), an expert on Joshua Chamberlain, in a statement.

This special moment undoubtedly captures the hearts and minds of all Mainers, as we continue to proudly recognize the legacy of General Chamberlain’s leadership and heroism, particularly from that fateful July 2nd day in 1863 when he and the 20th Maine valiantly defended Little Round Top and turned the tide of the Civil War. This medal is a symbol of their courage and sacrifice, and I am eternally grateful to the donor whose remarkable generosity will now allow Mainers and visitors alike to appreciate it for generations to come.”

The Army Medal of Honor now in Pejepscot Historical Society’s possession is the medal awarded to Chamberlain in 1893. In 1896, the design of the medal was changed for the first time since it was initially issued in 1862, with a new ribbon design. Previous recipients of the medal received the new ribbon to attach to their medallions. Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor has both the first ribbon, with narrow stripes, and the replacement ribbon, with wider stripes, affixed on top.

In 1904, Congress authorized an entirely new design for the Army Medal of Honor. All previous recipients were told they could hand in their original medals and receive the new, updated version. However, medal recipients were attached to their original medals, and in 1907 Congress agreed they could keep the originals and still receive the updated medal so long as they did not wear both at once. The College owns and displays the updated medal in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives.

“This is a very exciting discovery since it is the nation’s highest military honor and the original version of the medal that Chamberlain received from the government,” says Chamberlain expert and Maine Department of Conservation historian Tom Desjardin. “We can only imagine how he felt when he opened the package to see this honor for the first time.”

The anonymous donor, who gave the medal to PHS “in honor of all veterans,” reports discovering it in the back of a book purchased several years ago at a sale held by First Parish Church of Duxbury, Mass. Joshua Chamberlain’s last surviving descendant, his granddaughter Rosamond Allen, left her estate to that church upon her death in 2000.

PHS  plans to announce opportunities to see the original Chamberlain Medal of Honor.

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