Chamberlain Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Maine Civil War of 1880

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
J. L. Chamberlain, in 1881

It was known as The Twelve Days, early in January, 1880, when the State House in Augusta, Maine, was under siege by a rebellious force of some 2000 armed men. Inside, Maj Gen Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain stood almost alone, trying to keep the peace between the besiegers and a private army of hired thugs raised by Gov. Alonzo Garcelon.

The issue was the recent contested election. Garcelon, a Democrat, had held the Executive Office for the past year; while the Legislature maintained a clear Republican majority. In the 1879 election, however, the Democrats had been joined by the Greenback Party (together they were known as Fusionists) to challenge Republican dominance. The published results gave the Republicans a very small Legislative majority. But, as none of the three gubernatorial candidates received a majority of the popular vote, it would be up to the Legislature to choose the next Governor. Predictably, they chose Republican Daniel Davis over Garcelon and Greenback candidate Joseph Smith.

No sooner was this announced that the Democrats and Greenbackers began challenging the results of the legislative election: charging fraud and bribery on the part of the Republicans. Garcelon and the Governor’s Council did their own investigation of election returns, and their recount gave the Fusionists control of the Legislature. The Republicans countered by charging the Governor and his Council of tampering with the returns, and fraud of their own.

It was Senator James G. Blaine, who lit the fuse. Determined to “save” Maine for the Republicans, he began to gather a private army. He set up a military camp on the grounds of his home, near the State House, and soon a crowds of armed men were hovering about the state capitol. Gov. Garcelon responded by hiring his own force of mercenaries to defend it. He also cabled Gen. Chamberlain, as commander of the State Militia, to mobilize his troops, and come to Augusta immediately. Blaine had done likewise, sure that a sound Republican like Chamberlain would “do the right thing” and throw Garcelon out.

Looking over the situation, Chamberlain concluded that a massive display of military force would only make matters worse. "I am determined that Maine should not become a South American state!" He ordered selected officers to mobilize their commands and stand ready if needed, but not to come near Augusta without his direct order. He arrived in Augusta alone, where Blaine’s men outside at first cheered him -- but, when they learned that he wasn’t taking sides in the dispute, they turned sour and threatening. He was reviled in Republican newspapers as "The Serpent of Brunswick", and "The Most Dangerous Man in Maine;" while Democrats were still calling him “The Tool of Blaine." Soon there were death threats, from both sides.

He convinced the Mayor of Augusta to let him use city police to protect the State House, while persuading Gov. Garcelon to dismiss his mercenaries. He wrote to Senator Blaine, politely taking him to task for complicating matters. “I can guarantee peace with the dispositions I have made, … But do be assured that the position shall be held & that all rights & privileges shall be yet fairly and lawfully vindicated. Neither force nor trick shall get the mastery of the situation out of my hands.” The situation remained tense.

“My Dear Fanny 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 being 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 people’s 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 don’t believe anybody will think of troubling you.

"Somebody else beside Annie ought to be in the house with you. Don’t worry about me.

"Yours aff. J.L.C."

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 lynch him. Chamberlain went out alone. Descending 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!”

With those words, Chamberlain flung open his coat in a dramatic gesture, daring the mob to kill him. It became very quiet, and a lone voice of an old veteran was heard to call out:

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

The situation changed quickly, as the mob dispersed. The next day a plot was uncovered to assassinate Blaine -- who suddenly decided to dismiss his followers and let the General calm things down, he now encouraged the Republicans to let the Supreme Court settle the matter, as Garcelon had been urging the Fusionists. The Court soon decided that the Republicans had, indeed, maintained control of the Legislature. Garcelon was satisfied that the crisis was over, but Greenback Party candidate for Governor refused to accept the decision. Joseph Smith declared himself Governor, dismissed Chamberlain from command of the Militia, and ordered his arrest. Chamberlain ignored him -- and so did just about everybody else. The Legislature once again chose Daniel Davis to be Governor.

The crisis was over, and Chamberlain went back to Brunswick, and resumed his Presidency of Bowdoin College. But, he had earned a lot of political enemies in Maine, who would make a lot of serious trouble for him during his future political career.

[Quotes are from J. E. Goulka, ed., The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, (20o5)]

Last edited by a moderator:

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
What a crazy piece of Maine history. Gives you a very good idea how cluttered up History can be, agenda fuzzing Truth's edges until it all looks like a watercolor painting. Chamberlain as a lightening rod, we still see it, sounds like there are some very deep roots there. Interesting! Please no one take that as an invitation to begin an anti Chamberlain argument. This is an amazing story- Maine needed someone to step up. Bet we'd be remembering some kind of bizarre, bloody, " Battle of Augusta " if he had not.
Oct 3, 2005
I think Chamberlain would have had to admit that he probably enjoyed the situation a great deal. He had offered his service to the King of Prussia and like so many veterans, missed the military a lot.
Here he had the chance to once more show courage and "stand firm".

Great story, @John Hartwell , thanks for sharing!
I agree with you, 100%.
Dec 9, 2016
The event, known as the "Count Out, is, for the most part, described accurately. There are a few errors. The all powerful Sen. Blaine, soon to be Sect. of State and future presidential candidate, was Chamberlain's nemesis. It hadn't taken Blaine long to realize that when Chamberlain was elected to four one year terms as Maine's Republican governor, JLC would not do as he was told,... would not toe the party line as it was defined and laid down by Blaine. After serving as governor, Chamberlain would have liked to have served as Maine's senator, but at that time, the senator was chosen by the State Legislature, and since the Legislature was controlled by Blaine, that wasn't going to happen. JLC told a friend privately that, Blaine had offered him his pathway to be senator during the Count Out, if JLC would throw his influence and authority as head of the militia behind the Republican candidate in the disputed election, but Chamberlain insisted that the final decision be made by the state's Supreme Court. There's a certain irony that many of Chamberlain's opponents on the battlefield, Confederates like William C. Oates and John B. Gordon would be representing their readmitted states in Washington, while Chamberlain never would be a senator. I can assure people that JLC did not "enjoy" the count out. His life was threatened, he feared enemies would retaliate against his wife and home in Brunswick, his state was on the brink of armed insurrection, and Chamberlain's standing up to Blaine brought any hope of JLC's having any further political career to a very definite end.


Sergeant Major
May 25, 2013
I have quite a bit on that, and one thing possibly written by Chamberlain that I have not posted as I would have to destroy an original document to do so. Here is the rest.

I discovered a series of never before seen interviews with Chamberlain as it was going on. Previous authors did not come across it not thinking to check New York newspapers for first hand accounts. I put in my notes for each page where to find them if you would rather just skip to them.


Sergeant Major
May 25, 2013
January is correct, my mistake. Guess the Press "scooped" the Herald on getting it into print. The two merged at some point, and now it's the Portland Press Herald.
Its possible I got carried away and did not record it was the next day while clipping papers, or they printed it again. Different library holdings might be calling the same paper differnt things.