Portrait of Governor Joshua L. Chamberlain,

State Capitol Building, Augusta, ME.

Photo by Cheryl Pula.

Cheryl and I found this wonderful portrait of Chamberlain in the "Governor's Gallery" at the State Capitol building in Augusta. I believe it was painted after Chamberlain left office, but I still think it looks very striking.

While Chamberlain was still Bowdoin's president, he became embroiled in a very serious political crisis in Maine--one which came very close to plunging the state into civil war. It became known as the "Twelve Days".

In the fall 1879 election, none of the candidates running for Governor won a majority of the popular vote, which meant that the Legislature would elect the new Governor. The Republicans had just won the majority of seats in both the House and state Senate, so their candidate, Daniel Davis, was favored to win over Greenback candidate Joseph Smith, and Democratic candidate (and current Governor) Dr. Alonzo Garcelon. But before it came to a vote, Greenbackers and Democrats began to accuse Republican legislators of using bribery and fraud to win their positions--which became front page news. Governor Garcelon and his Council conducted an investigation into the election returns--and the power shifted. Now the Republicans were in the minority, and they began to cry foul! They claimed the returns had been tampered with by the Governor and his Council, and that the constitutional rights of those newly-elected legislators, whose seats were lost in the recount, had been violated. Former Maine Governor and Senator Lot M. Morrill urged Governor Garcelon to let the State Supreme Court decide who was right in these conflicting claims. The whole problem might have been solved peacefully, but for one man: a very influential Republican senator named James G. Blaine.

Determined to "rescue" his party, Blaine set up an armed camp of Republicans at his home, next to the Capitol building. Answering show of force by show of force, Governor Garcelon placed nearly 100 hired men in and around the Capitol, armed to the teeth. Democrats and Greenbackers joined forces and raised their own army in turn, with headquarters in a downtown Augusta hotel.

In late 1897, Chamberlain wrote this impassioned letter to Blaine, virtually begging him to not aggravate the situation any further than it already was:

"Brunswick Dec. 29, 1897

Hon. James G. Blaine

"My dear Sir--

"I telegraphed Governor Garcelon the day Governor Morrill's letter appeared, urging him as earnestly as I could to submit the disputed questions to the Court. I afterwards wrote him a letter to the same effect.

"As to the indignation meeting proposed here, it was my opinion that demonstrations of that sort had already been sufficient to impress upon the Governor the state of public feeling, and that what we now need to do is not to add to popular excitement which is likely to result in disorder and violence, but to aid in keeping the peace by inducing our friends to speak and act as sober and law abiding citizens.

"In my opinion there is danger that our friends may take some step which would put them in the wrong. That would be very bad. If wrong is to be done, let the responsibility of it rest with those who do it, and do not let those who are aggrieved seek redress in a way to shift upon themselves the burden of wrongdoing.

"I deprecate all suggestions of bloodshed in the settlement of the question. Not only would that result be deplorable, but the suggestion of it is demoralizing. I cannot bear to think of our fair and orderly State plunged into the horrors of a civil war.

"I hope you can do all you can to stop the incendiary talk which proposes violent measures, and is doing great harm to our people. I cannot believe that you sympathize with this, and I am sure your great influence can be made to avail much now to preserve peace and respect for the law.

"Pardon me for this, but I think the circumstances demand of me to make these suggestions.

Very respectfully yours,

Joshua L. Chamberlain" (10A)

State civil war loomed: Maine men descended on Augusta, ready to battle for their parties. Newspapers took sides, fueling emotions. Blaine's men aimed their rifles at Governor Garcelon's men at the Capitol, and Augusta became a powder keg ready to go off. At last, Garcelon realized he was in over his head, and called out the State Militia on January 5, 1880. As Major General of the militia, it was now up to Chamberlain to keep some semblance of order, until the State Supreme Court could decide the election.

As he looked over the situation, Chamberlain realized a show of military force would only make things worse. He ordered his militia commanders to mobilize their men, but not to come to Augusta unless he gave the order. Augusta was swarming with riflemen, but Chamberlain was the only man in a military uniform--and he chose to come unarmed. He received permission from Augusta Mayor Charles Nash to use the city police force to maintain law and order--and he managed to persuade Governor Garcelon to replace his hired guns with city police. He also placed state documents in the Treasury vaults for safekeeping, and kept entrances to all executive chambers under guard.

During this tense time, Chamberlain managed to find time to write to Fannie, who was home in Brunswick:

"Jan. 9, 1880

"My dear Fan[n]y:

"There is such confusion here -- no Governor & no legislature -- that to prevent possible anarchy & mob-law I have been obliged to assume the defence & protection of the Institutions of the State as you will see by my proclamation to the people which you perceive bears a very quiet & unasumming mien.

"I do not dare to leave for a moment. There would most assuredly be a coup d'etat, ending in violence & bloodshed.

"I am determined that Maine should not become a South American state.

"I wish you were here to see & hear. But there is not a great crowd of ladies here I assure you.

"I wish Carrie {Pennell, a member of Chamberlain's household staff} would give me a little more of an outfit. I came off in a great hurry. No one knows what will come next, & I cant tell when I can get home. For the last two days & nights I have scarcely slept.

"It is a critical time & things are greatly missed. But I know my duty thoroughly.

"Thanks to a good Providence my health is quite good.

"Hoping that you are all well & happy & not worried about me I remain yours most affectionately, J.L.C." (10B)

A closer view of the Maine State Capitol building, Augusta, ME.

Photo by David Lepkowski.

Do not use without his express written permission.

For twelve days, Chamberlain worked in a small office in the Capitol, using Mayor Nash's aid and the city police force to keep a lid on things. Each opposing camp tried to win Chamberlain's favor, asking him to recognize their candidate as Governor. Chamberlain refused; he said it was up to the Legislature, and those who made up that body had to be decided by the State Supreme Court. It would not be decided by a military commander. Even pleas from his own Republican party fell on deaf ears--his role was that of a military officer only; he would remain neutral. Chamberlain soon became the focus of many people's anger; newspapers began calling him "The Tool of Blaine", "The Serpent of Brunswick", and "The Most Dangerous Man in Maine". Chamberlain would not be bullied, so his enemies decided to try and eliminate him; Mayor Nash discovered an assassination plot against Chamberlain,and sent a police squad with him whenever he left the Capitol. Chamberlain also made it a point never to sleep two nights in the same place.

In this letter, Chamberlain describes the rising tension of the crisis to Fannie--who had to be very anxious for the fate of her husband:

"15 Jan 1880

"Yesterday was another Round Top; although few knew of it. The bitter attack on me in the Bangor Commercial calling me a traitor, & calling on the people to send me to a traitor's doom, created a great excitement.

"There were threats all the morning of overpowering the police & throwing me out of the window, & the ugly looking crowd seemed like men who could be brought to do it (or to try it). Excited men were calling on me -- some threatening fire & blood & some begging me to call out the militia at once. But I stood it firmly through, feeling sure of my arrangements & of my command of the situation.

"In the afternoon the tune changed. The plan was to arrest me for treason, which not bei[n]g a [jailable offence, I should be kept in prison while they inaugurated a reign of terror & blood. They foamed & fumed away at that all the evening. Mr. Lamson kindly came to me & said he would be the one to sue out a writ of habeas corpus & have me set at liberty again.

"That plan failed.

"At about 11 P.m. one of the citizens came & told me I was to be kidnapped -- overpowered & carried away & detained out of peoples knowledge, so that the rebels could carry on their work. I had the strange sense again -- of sleeping inside a picket guard.

"In the night Gen'l Hyde of Bath came up with 30 men & Col. Heath of Waterville with 50 men: sent by Republicans I suppose & greatly annoying to me & embarrassing too.

"I wish Mr. Blaine & others would have more confidence in my military ability. There are too many men here afraid [for] their precious little pink skins.

"I shall have to protect them of course: but my main object is to keep the peace & to give opportunity for the laws to be fairly executed.

"Do not worry about my safety. Make yourself as comfortable as you can at home.

"If you are afraid, send word to the Selectmen, or Mr. Thos. K. Eaton to have the police keep an eye on you & the house.

"But I dont believe any body will think of troubling you.

"Somebody else beside Annie ought to be in the house with you. Dont worry about me.

"Yours aff. J.L.C. (10C)"

State Capitol Building, Augusta, ME.

The day Cheryl and I visited, we went out on the front steps, overlooking the wide and sweeping grounds. I stood on the top step and surveyed the scene, trying to imagine Chamberlain dealing with this crisis.

As the crisis neared its climax, an aide ran into Chamberlain's office, warning that a crowd of angry men had gathered outside, wanting to kill him. Chamberlain went outside the building, alone. Descending the first two steps, he confronted the mob, saying:

"Men, you wish to kill me, I hear. Killing is no new thing to me. I have offered myself to be killed many times, when I no more deserved it than I do now. Some of you, I think, have been with me in those days. You understand what you want, do you? I am here to preserve the peace and honor of this state, until the rightful government is seated---whichever it may be, it is not for me to say. But it is for me to see that the laws of this state are put into effect, without fraud, without force, but with calm thought and purpose. I am here for that, and I shall do it. If anyone wants to kill me for it, here I am. LET HIM KILL! (11)

With those words, Chamberlain flung open his coat in a dramatic gesture, daring the mob to kill him. His courage caught the mob off guard, and the words caused some to remember his leadership in the Civil War. One veteran was heard to yell:

"By God, old General, the first man that dares to lay a hand on you, I'll kill him on the spot!"(12)

The crowd dispersed, and Chamberlain was unharmed. But the crisis was not yet over: both Chamberlain and Mayor Nash uncovered a plot to assassinate Senator Blaine, and warned him of it. Suddenly Blaine's view of the situation began to change; instead of using force, he urged the Republican party to let the Court decide the matter. But the Greenbacker Joseph Smith refused, declaring himself Governor, and revoked Governor Garcelon's order that had ordered Chamberlain to duty. Chamberlain wouldn't recognize Smith as the new Governor; neither would he relinquish the duty he'd been given to carry out. When Smith sent a police officer to arrest Chamberlain, And Chamberlain refused to be arrested!

That very same day, the State Supreme Court finally made its ruling: the Republicans would retain the majority of seats in both the House and state Senate. The next day, new Governor Daniel Davis relieved Chamberlain of his duty. The crisis was over. Now, instead of being "The Most Dangerous Man in Maine", Chamberlain was hailed as the "Champion of Liberty in Maine". He received numerous letters of support from people in and out of the state, but he was especially grateful for those who stood by him when he was considered "The Serpent of Brunswick": people like Mayor Nash, and the veteran who came forward in the Capitol mob. Unfortunately, the "Twelve Days" also made Chamberlain a host of political enemies who could do great harm to Bowdoin, as long as he was its president.

It also ruined his chances to hold a major political office, such as U.S. Senator from Maine, or even a diplomatic post abroad--which he would have been greatly suited for, given his fluency in such languages as French, Italian, Spanish, and German. He was also too independent for the political bosses of the Republican party, but this very quality was something that appealed to many individuals throughout Maine.

So the crisis of the "Twelve Days" finally ended, and Chamberlain returned to Brunswick--to Bowdoin College, and to his family.

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