The famous Mainer who was the last man to die of Civil War wounds

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Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

A Confederate rifle ball ripped through Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s pelvis at the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia in June 1864. It ruptured his bladder and severed his urethra. The bullet mangled his guts beyond repair — but it took 50 agonizing years before he finally succumbed to his injuries. 

Joshua Chamberlain died on Feb. 24, 1914 in Portland at age 85. He was the last man to die of his Civil War battle wounds and was, at the time of his death, the surveyor of customs in Portland. Maine Memory Network item 5178

Joshua Chamberlain died on Feb. 24, 1914 in Portland at age 85. He was the last man to die of his Civil War battle wounds and was, at the time of his death, the surveyor of customs in Portland. Maine Memory Network item 5178

He spent that half century in constant pain. He endured ceaseless bladder and testicular infections — in an age before antibiotics — and several unsuccessful operations.

He finally passed away from pneumonia and infection on the morning of Feb. 24, 1914 in a small white house at 499 Ocean Ave. in Portland. He was 85 years old.

Despite his ailments, he made good use of his last 50 years.

Chamberlain was promoted to brevet major general, watched Lee surrender at Appomattox, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, commanded the state militia, served four terms as governor of Maine and was president of Bowdoin College for more than a decade.

Of course, before Petersburg, he and his 20th Maine Regiment had already saved the day, and perhaps the whole Union Army, at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863.

Chamberlain moved to Portland after President McKinley appointed him to a largely ceremonial job at the federal customs house on Commercial Street in 1900.

He was lucky to get the job. Entering old age as a partially disabled veteran, his military pension was not enough to support his family and pay his constant medical bills.

Dave and Temma Donhue, along with their children Eamonn, 3, and Joah, 1, hold a bust of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain on their front porch in Portland. They own the house on Ocean Avenue where Chamberlain died. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Dave and Temma Donhue, along with their children Eamonn, 3, and Joah, 1, hold a bust of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain on their front porch in Portland. They own the house on Ocean Avenue where Chamberlain died. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Three days after his death on Ocean Avenue, Chamberlain’s body was escorted by four National Guard companies down Washington Avenue, over Tukey’s Bridge and down Congress Street to Portland’s City Hall. A crowd of thousands, including Governor William T. Haines, followed his flag-draped coffin into Merrill Auditorium for the funeral. An organist played Chopin’s funeral march and a bugler blew taps at the end.

Afterward, the funeral cortege made its way down Congress Street to Union Station where a special train bore him 20 miles north to Brunswick. There, he was laid beside his beloved wife, Fanny, in Pine Grove Cemetery, the last man to die of his Civil War wounds.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

A photo take around 1865 shows Joshua Chamberlain as he looked at the close of the Civil War. He went on to serve as Maine Governor and President of Bowdoin College. Maine Memory Network item 13969

A photo take around 1865 shows Joshua Chamberlain as he looked at the close of the Civil War. He went on to serve as Maine Governor and President of Bowdoin College. Maine Memory Network item 13969

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Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.