Lots of people these days think masculinity is bad, because it makes you irrational, ineffective, or just a jerk.
Lots of other people think being a jerk is good, because it makes you masculine.
Where are the people who know that this is a false dilemma? That there is no contradiction between being a real man and being a real human? That in fact every straight adult male should aspire to be both?
There aren’t enough of us who think like this, and we don’t talk enough.
Here I am with my two cents’ worth, one more voice from this perspective.
I will look at a lot of stuff about how men stereotypically behave, how we actually behave, and how we should behave. All three may be different.
Here are the basic principles of the blog:
Masculinity exists. Yes, this is actually controversial.
There exist people who sincerely value masculinity.
Everyone should, to the best of their ability, be mentally healthy, effective, and ethical. This includes ethical treatment of women.
Masculinity can and should be compatible with mental health, effectiveness, and ethics. This too includes ethical treatment of women.
One more thing I’d better point out: this is not a religious site. All the other sites about what it means to be a man seem to be. Not this one.
Please comment! I want to know other people’s opinions. I appreciate all comments but will only approve comments that add something for other readers. That means:
Be on topic.
If you don’t agree with principles 1-3 above, this blog is not for you. You won’t enjoy reading it. You have plenty of other available venues for your own opinions.
You can be unsure about principle 4, but don’t rule it out.
You can agree or disagree with the rest of what I say. In fact I prefer to know if anyone disagrees. It’s useful information for me.
Don’t be obnoxious.
Okay, that’s enough of that. Time for the real posts now.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. His father had always wanted him to join the army, but the younger Chamberlain didn’t want to until the war. He needed a good reason to be a soldier.
When he was a student, he had heard Harriet Beecher Stowe read from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; I don’t think we would know this if he didn’t count it as an important influence. This suggests that he supported the Union cause in order to free slaves, not just to keep the country from splitting up.
He encouraged students to join the Union army, and eventually decided to do so himself. Others on the Bowdoin faculty disapproved. Chamberlain took a leave of absence, which was supposed to be for studying languages in Europe. Instead, he volunteered for the army. I don’t count this deception as a character flaw. He just decided that the war was more important than the opinions of his academic colleagues. If anything, this showed that he refused to give up on doing the right thing.
Commissioned as lieutenant colonel
Chamberlain immediately became a lieutenant colonel. In fact, he was offered the rank of colonel, but declined it. He preferred to start as the executive officer of a unit rather than the commander. He knew he was inexperienced, and he wanted to do a good job. This decision could have been either conscientious or ambitious. Either way, it required good judgment and a certain level of humility about his own abilities.
Starting as a lieutenant colonel sounds ludicrous by modern standards. Nowadays a United States lieutenant colonel should have had a commission for at least 15 years. But during the Civil War, the Union was desperate for officers. Chamberlain would have been a good candidate. He was over 30, so he was likely to be responsible. He had a master’s degree, so he had proved he was intelligent. The degree was in theology, and he had a respectable career, both of which the culture of the time would have considered evidence of good character. I don’t know what training Chamberlain got, but they didn’t give him time for much. Most of what he knew about tactics may have been from reading about history. Just like me. Most of what he knew about leadership may have been from working with students. He turned out to be competent anyway.
Charge at Gettysburg
Chamberlain is most famous for his role in the Battle of Gettysburg. By that time, less than a year after receiving his commission, he was already a full colonel, commanding the 20th Maine Regiment. He had malaria and dysentery at the time, and would later need to leave active duty until he recovered. At Gettysburg, he went into combat with his men anyway.
On the second day of the battle, the 20th Maine was in dire straits. I won’t bore you with a tactical analysis. They needed inspiring leadership in order to keep holding an important position. All of the officers, including Chamberlain, must have been good leaders to make things work that day.
Just when the situation looked worst, the regiment channeled their desperation into a bayonet charge. They not only saved themselves but helped the rest of the Union forces hold the line. The pivotal Union victory the next day would probably not have been possible otherwise. If the 20th Maine had not charged when they did, the Confederacy could have won the entire war.
Sources agree that the charge was important. Chamberlain’s contribution is controversial. Chamberlain later said that the regiment charged because he ordered them to use their bayonets. Captain Ellis Spear claimed that First Lieutenant Holman Melcher was the one who initiated the charge. Melcher himself did not publicly make this claim. The main source for crediting Melcher was apparently an account written by a private who was in the hospital at the time of the battle. Many historians side with Chamberlain on this point. I won’t call him dishonest for taking the credit.
During the charge, he personally captured a Confederate officer, Lieutenant Robert Wicker. Chamberlain didn’t always just tell others to fight: he did at least a little fighting himself. Granted, in this case it was necessary for his own safety: Wicker had just narrowly missed Chamberlain with a revolver. Granted, he didn’t do it all by himself: he said Wicker would have killed him instead of surrendering if he hadn’t seen Melcher approaching to help Chamberlain. But this shows that Chamberlain was decently competent in combat and that he didn’t panic.
Perhaps rumors about Melcher saving Chamberlain’s life mutated to credit Melcher for the entire charge. That would be my opinion if I were qualified to have an opinion here.
For his leadership and his own courage that day, Chamberlain earned the nickname “Lion of the Round Top.” (The hill they were defending is called Little Round Top.) Years later, he received the Medal of Honor for his deeds at Gettysburg.
At the Second Battle of Petersburg, Chamberlain was shot in the hip. The bullet nicked his bladder and broke his pelvis. Morale was wavering already. If the men saw their colonel fall to the ground, they might run away. It was very important that Chamberlain remain standing as long as he could. He supported himself with his sword until he lost consciousness from blood loss. This was not just to show off being tough. It was the right thing to do, to be the best leader he could be.
The surgeon expected Chamberlain to die of his wound. General Grant gave him an emergency promotion to brigadier general. Here is an excerpt from his letter to his wife Fanny when he thought he was dying:
God bless & keep & comfort you, precious one. You have been a precious wife to me. To know & love you makes life & death beautiful. Cherish the darlings & give my love to all the dear ones.
Wow. I’m in favor of men learning to talk about emotions, and I couldn’t say that. Then again, I’m not wounded and Gina and I aren’t married, so who knows. Anyhow, I gather that in the 19th century it was perfectly normal for men to write even more sentimentally than that if they chose. No one would have called it inconsistent with being a tough soldier. In fact, in this letter, Chamberlain showed his courage in yet another way. He wasn’t thinking about his own pain, but about his love for Fanny.
He survived after all, although he never completely recovered. Fanny tried to convince him to leave the army. No one could have faulted him if he had taken medical retirement. If he had been trying to prove himself, if he had been trying to advance to a high rank, he had already done both. His military career was not self-aggrandizement but humanitarian service. His country still needed him as much as it ever had. He would continue to fight as long as he was physically capable of getting to the front. He returned to active duty before he could even ride again.
The Confederacy surrenders
At the end of the war, Chamberlain was chosen to accept the ceremonial surrender of Confederate weapons. As the Confederate column approached, Chamberlain ordered his men to come to attention and carry arms, saluting the defeated enemy. The Confederate general John Gordon stopped looking depressed and ordered his own men to return the Union’s carry-arms. In his memoir, Gordon called Chamberlain “one of the knightliest soldiers of the federal army.”
Chamberlain’s courtesy to Gordon was unpopular in the north. Others thought the Confederate soldiers should have been further humiliated rather than respected. Chamberlain didn’t care what they thought.
He respected the humanity of the enslaved, but he also respected the humanity of those who supported slavery. He knew it was right to be courteous to everyone, even enemies.
That was a rare attitude in those days, and it’s still rare today.
After the war
Chamberlain left the army soon after the war. At various times he was governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin, commander of the Maine militia, a government marine surveyor, a lawyer, a sometimes unsuccessful entrepreneur, and a member of the board of directors of the Maine Institution for the Blind. He was active in the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, giving speeches at many soldiers’ reunions.
While he was commander of the militia, there was an armed dispute over the results of the election for governor. Chamberlain kept order at the State House, once again facing men who intended to kill him.
At age 70, he volunteered for the Spanish-American War but was rejected. He called the rejection one of the major disappointments of his life. He must have expected it was possible for him to serve in the army again.
He did all this despite pain and frequent infections from his bladder wound. When his health forced him to resign as governor, he did other things. He refused to use the permanent wound as an excuse for inaction. Nor did he decide he had already accomplished enough in his life. If something was worth doing, he kept doing it as long as he could.
In addition to contesting Chamberlain’s credit for the famous charge, Spear complained of other exaggerations and lies in two magazine articles Chamberlain wrote about the war. In fact, Chamberlain did not write the articles as they appeared in print. The editors had heavily rewritten them in ways Chamberlain himself called untruthful. The manuscripts no longer exist. We can’t know whether the original versions were true. But the published articles do not constitute evidence that Chamberlain lied: no specific part of them is known to have been written by Chamberlain. Once again, I’m giving his honesty the benefit of the doubt.
Chamberlain has been called the last casualty of the Civil War. He died in 1914, from complications of the combat wound that almost killed him in 1864.
So far, Chamberlain sounds like a most excellent man. I used to think so. While refreshing my memory for this article, I learned something else.
Joshua Chamberlain clearly loved Fanny. But he was not such a good husband, especially after the war. He was probably downright abusive. This is not presented as a verified historical fact, but maybe only because people are reluctant to believe accusations of domestic violence.
In any case, Fanny considered divorce. The couple lived in separate houses for almost a year. Then they reconciled.
Did Joshua mend his ways or was Fanny codependent? I doubt even historians can answer that question for sure.
If you want to get a good sense of a historical figure’s character, make sure to look up their spouse too.
What to make of all this
I thought of scrapping this whole post.
I never expected Chamberlain to be perfect. But this new information looked like a deal-breaker. The whole point of this blog is that manly men don’t need to have the bad qualities usually associated with manliness. Treating women decently is and must be the most important part of that. How can I hold someone up as an example of my principles when he fails the most important one? How can I look Gina in the eye and call myself an ally of women, when I still admire someone who turns out to have been an abusive husband? Oops….
Then I realized that this bad thing about Chamberlain does not nullify the good things about him. Even if it’s a very important bad thing. He still has something to teach us about being a man. Taking the bad along with the good, the picture we get is:
He was mainly motivated by ethics and courtesy, even if he didn’t always get it right.
He was a successful high-ranking leader.
His courage was exemplary. No one could dispute that he was a real man. Anything he did, other guys can do it and still be real men.
He was capable of expressing love uninhibitedly. At least when he thought it was his last chance.
Conscience and power, toughness and tenderness, were not opposites that Chamberlain had to compromise within himself. They were all part of one thing. Being a man.
I’m sure he would have agreed with me that the manliest men are those with the most strength to make the world better.
References: my only source at the moment is Wikipedia, alas. Chamberlain’s memoir and biography are on my ever-expanding list of To Read At Some Point, and no, that is not a solicitation of birthday presents. When I get around to reading them, I will consider rewriting this post and improving those mediocre Wikipedia articles.
Some years ago, I was having a few drinks with a friend who is female-to-male transsexual. Some of you might know this guy but not know that about him, so he shall remain unnamed.
I forget how it came up, but he said, “Dave, can you even imagine what it was like for me growing up? Where everything I thought, everything I was, was somehow incorrect and inappropriate, just because I was really a boy all along?”
I blurted out, “Actually, that sounds exactly like me.”
There was an awkward silence. It gradually dawned on me that I’d said the wrong thing.
“Well, not exactly exactly,” I amended. “I know you had it seriously fucking worse. People in your situation sometimes even get murdered, don’t they? But I got sort of the same thing you described. Slightly.”
Did I say a few drinks? Okay, make that a lot of drinks?
Oddly enough, my buddy wasn’t offended. “Interesting. Yeah, that makes sense. That totally makes sense. I guess depending on your subculture, sometimes guys aren’t supposed to really be guys even if it says ‘male’ on their birth certificate.”
Since then I’ve thought a lot about that conversation. Some of those thoughts are now turning into this blog.
Is it just me or have other men who were born male had that experience? Have you gotten the sense that being male was discouraged in your social group? Other comments are cool too.