Hold the Line for Freedom
“Hold this ground at all hazards.”
Those were the orders Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment received on day two of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perched upon Little Round Top at the far left flank of the Union Army, ammunition running low and the rebels threatening to overwhelm the Union army, Joshua Chamberlain was an unlikely hero who rose to the occasion in defense of liberty.
A Union defeat in Pennsylvania might have changed the entire outcome of the Civil War.
As the long, hot, bloody day drew to a close, Chamberlain gave the order, “fix bayonets,” and the brave volunteers of the 20th charged down the hill in a last desperate gasp to hold the line, repel the Rebels onslaught, and snatch victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat.
A professor of philology at Bowdoin College in Maine, Joshua Chamberlain, with no military experience, volunteered for the Union Cause and became second-in-command of the newly-formed 20th Maine. Like any good teacher preparing for a new class, Chamberlain engaged in a crash course on military tactics – from books, from his commander, and from his own men.
He found ways to inspire those men, even the group of mutineers, newly assigned to him at Little Round Top. Ordered to shoot them if they refused duty, instead Chamberlain named one of them to the most important post in a Civil War army, color sergeant, creating a new esprit de corps among the mutineers.
Later, when he learned the Rebels were trying to flank his men, he ordered a right-angle formation to defend their position further to the east. It was something he had read in one of his many books. And finally, when they had almost nothing left to give, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets, signaling this was the last great effort to stop the Rebs and save the Union army.
Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for his battlefield command on Little Round Top, as did Sergeant Tozier, the new color sergeant, for his bravery. Gettysburg would not be the end of Joshua Chamberlain’s heroics during the Civil War.
On April 12, 1865, Lee’s army of Northern Virginia surrendered their arms and battle flags to now Brevet Major General Joshua Chamberlain and the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Courthouse. In that moment, Chamberlain ordered his men to salute the Confederate soldiers.
“At such a time,” he would write in his memoir The Passing of the Armies, “and under such conditions, I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of ‘salute’ in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us.”
In recognizing his fellow Americans in this way, it was the first step toward reconciliation for the nation. Chamberlain would return to Maine – to become governor – and to Bowdoin – where he served as president. His was a life of service, and Chamberlain was a civic hero whose defense of the Constitution and our national experiment in self-government should be a model for us all.
As we approach the 235th anniversary of the US Constitution, the document that birthed our republic, establishing a “government of the people, for the people, and by the people,” those 4,400 words remain as important today as ever. The Constitution is the framework that created the aspirational promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for millions of Americans.
Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge wants every young American to appreciate the freedoms they enjoy today and to understand how essential the Constitution continues to be in securing the blessings of liberty. The continued prosperity of our nation requires that every new generation knows its God-given rights and embraces the concomitant responsibilities that come with them.
Our partners in this endeavor, since our education programs began nearly 60 years ago, have always been teachers. Like Joshua Chamberlain, teachers provide a tremendous service to the nation. By passing on to the next generation our shared American values, they ‘hold the line’ against those who would abandon the Constitution and the first principles of freedom established by the Founders. And by teaching young people to respect the rights and beliefs of others, they help our youngest citizens to recognize that which unites all Americans instead of what divides them. Much as Joshua Chamberlain did at Appomattox Courthouse.
Freedoms Foundation has impacted the teaching of more than 14,000 educators over the decades – providing historical content and analysis from historians like Allen Guelzo, Amity Shlaes, and David Eisenhower – while allowing them to walk in the footsteps of history at some of our nation’s most sacred sites like Independence Hall and Valley Forge or Fort Ticonderoga and Lexington & Concord.
This summer, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge welcomed 200 more teachers to campus to participate in five different seminars and workshops. Two were focused firmly on the Constitution – one on the First Amendment and the second on the Constitutional Convention. Also featured were seminars from our Medal of Honor Legacy series on the Global War on Terror and World War II. Finally, nearly 50 teachers joined the American Revolution North history workshop, visiting historical sites from New York to Boston.
Your generous donation to our annual appeal makes it possible for Freedoms Foundation to reach more teachers, recruit important historians and scholars, provide solid academic content for classroom lessons, and pass on to today’s young people the American values we hold so dear.
Nothing makes me prouder than knowing that, as a high school teacher, I played some small role in helping to educate and encourage students who are now productive members of society – be they doctors or pharmacists, union electricians or equity traders, teachers or police officers – raising their own families and teaching their kids to appreciate the freedoms they enjoy as Americans.
And the truth is, I was a better teacher because of my summer professional development experiences. My students were the direct beneficiaries of every program I attended, and the same is true for the thousands of teachers who have received a scholarship to attend a Freedoms Foundation teacher program. Together, we have impacted the lives and civic education of over 14 million young Americans.
In 2018, we established the Joshua Chamberlain League (JCL) – our Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge teacher alumni network – as a way for them to help sustain the programs they love. On the last night of every summer program, participating teachers are invited to join the Joshua Chamberlain League by donating some or all of their refundable deposit. Since its inception, 983 teachers have joined JCL, donating $89,452 toward the graduate teacher program directly. This summer alone, 90% of the participating teachers joined.
JCL members are some of our most important ambassadors, and their endorsement of our programs speaks directly to the value of Freedoms Foundation’s mission to educate students and teachers about the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship, inspiring them to preserve and advance our freedoms.
“The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future,” wrote Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in one of his letters. That is exactly what good teachers do.
On August 8, 2022, just days after the last summer teacher seminar ended, the team here met to start planning for summer 2023. I am looking forward to the 59th year of graduate seminars and workshops for teachers at Freedoms Foundation’s gorgeous Valley Forge campus, now under the leadership of our new Vice President of Education, Dr. Jeff Scott. We want to reach more teachers, and thereby more students, than ever before.
Will you join our Joshua Chamberlain League members and help make this possible? Your donation to this year’s annual appeal will provide the necessary resources to plan and prepare for the hundreds of teachers who will hold the line for the next generation.
Jason L. S. Raia
Chief Operating Officer
PS – Thank you to all those teachers who pour their energy, creativity, and skill into inspiring young Americans.