Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor is home
After being discovered in the back of a book in Duxbury, Mass., the original Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Col. Joshua Chamberlain has taken a long and circuitous route back to Brunswick.
In July, shortly before the town’s annual Chamberlain Days celebration, the Pejepscot Historical Society received a small package from a donor who said he wished to remain anonymous.
Inside the envelope was the medal, with the donor’s wish that it be returned to Brunswick and authenticated “in honor of all veterans.”
Pejepcot Historical Society Director Jennifer Blanchard was skeptical.
After all, she knew that Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor — redesigned in 1904 and re-issued to Chamberlain in 1907 — was safely displayed just up the hill in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives at Bowdoin College.
However, after weeks of scrutiny by state and federal historians, the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and U.S. Army, the anonymous medal has proven to be the real deal.
“All of the experts we’ve consulted believe it to be authentic, and we are tremendously honored to return the medal to Chamberlain’s home in Brunswick,” Blanchard said.
According to display etiquette proscribed by the Medal of Honor Society, when the medal was redesigned, its recipients had the option of returning the original in exchange or keeping both — original and redesigned.
The stipulation is that only one could be worn on display at a time, never both.
Chamberlain apparently kept his original medal, bestowed Aug. 11, 1893, by U.S. President Grover Cleveland, in recognition for heroism at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg 30 years earlier.
After Chamberlain’s death in 1914, the medal found its way through generations to his last living descendant, granddaughter Rosamond Allen.
Upon her death in 2000, the contents of her estate were donated to the First Parish Church of Duxbury. Later, the medal’s anonymous benefactor bought several books during a church fundraising sale and later discovered the medal inside the pages.
The donor actually tried to send it to Pejepscot twice — the first attempt was misaddressed and returned by the postal service.
Chamberlain, the former college president, professor, soldier and state governor, took great pride in the medal, Blanchard said.
“There is photographic evidence that Chamberlain was very proud of the medal, that he wore it quite often,” she said, gesturing at the 120- year-old accolade perched on the corner of her desk.
Pejepscot Historical Society now has ownership of — and display responsibilities for — the medal.
Made of brass, the medal is dulled by time and wear, and its suspension ribbons — both the 1893 original and the 1896 replacement that covers it — are slightly ragged. But the thought of such history on the corner of her desk awed Blanchard.
“I’m just thrilled that it is what it appeared to be,” she said.
The hardest part was keeping her secret while 150 years’ worth of Chamberlain revelry swirled around her this summer, she said.
“Of course, we had to withhold the announcement until we could finish the authentication process,” she said.
Congress redesigned the medal in 1904, and Prof. Chamberlain received his in fall 1907. That medal currently resides in the campus library’s Special Collections, where it can be seen Monday through Friday, said curator Richard Lindemann.
Chamberlain was recommended for the medal by 1857 Bowdoin graduate Thomas H. Hubbard, and for whom the school’s Hubbard Hall is named.
Hubbard petitioned Congress on Chamberlain’s behalf.
“Chronologically, Hubbard would have been a student of Chamberlain’s,” said Lindemann, although he added that no records exist to confirm the tutelage.
Hubbard also served as a member of college overseers and trustees, and donated the plaque in Memorial Hall that lists the names of Bowdoin men who served in the Civil War.
“Our gratitude to the donor who discovered this treasure and knew of its importance to us and to the state of Maine knows no bounds,” Blanchard said.