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in political action and taking keen interest in the leaders and the triumphs of the political parties called Free-Soil and Republican.
At New Haven, in 1860, he cast his first vote for Abraham Lincoln; and on the breaking out of the Rebellion he was on the point of quitting college and entering the army, but was dissuaded by friends whose judgment he was bound to regard, and who urged that he could not afford to sacrifice his collegiate course. Upon the completion of his college course he entered the Harvard Law School, where he remained but little more than a year, until the fall of 1863, when he could no longer resist the call to duty.
Accordingly, obtaining the loan of $250 for that purpose from his instructor and friend, the late Professor Emory Washburn, he insured his life, and by the interest of the same good friend he received a lieutenant's commission in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry, a regiment of colored volunteers, then forming under the command of Colonel Henry S. Russell, of Boston, and under the special patronage of Governor John A. Andrew. He left for the seat of war in Virginia in the spring of 1864. His army life, until the end of hostilities, was spent at Point Lookout, Maryland, and in the Army of the James, at City Point, and before Petersburg. On the early morning of April 3, 1865, he entered Richmond with his regiment, then under command of Colonel Charles Francis Adams, Jr., now President of this Society. He passed the remainder of the year on the Rio Grande, with Weitzel's Corps, and in December, 1865, was mustered out at Boston.
Early in January, 1866, he went to Charleston, South Carolina, to settle the affairs of a classmate, James Pierpont Blake, of New Haven, drowned at Edisto Island, While so engaged, he visited the Sea Islands near Charleston, wbere he was led to engage in cotton planting, in the hope of being enabled in this way to pay his college debts ; but the two years he spent in this occupation proved pecuniarily unsuccessful. In the fall of 1867 he was chosen a member of the Constitutional Convention called under the reconstruction acts, and took his seat in that body in January, 1868. He was a member of its Judiciary Committee, and was influential in all its deliberations. He so acquitted himself that all the friends of the new Constitution desired him to be one of the State officers
to establish in practical operation the new organization of government. The office of Attorney-General, being in the line of his chosen profession, was the only one he would consent to take ; and to this he was chosen, and held it for four years continuously. This Attorney-General, whose law studies had been prematurely broken off, who had never had a day's practice in the courts, almost immediately found himself pitted against some of the foremost lawyers of a community always distinguished for the learning and ability of its Bar, in the trial of causes of great moment, involving the highest constitutional and legal questions, a strenuous endeavor being made to secure fulfilment of the prediction that the new State could not live. It was soon discovered by them that their inexperienced opponent was a man in whom it was not wise to presume any weakness that could be overcome by tireless industry and sound thinking.
Attorney-General Chamberlain soon became the candidate of the Republican party for Governor; and, elected in 1874, he held office until April 11, 1877. Those interested in the events of his troubled career as chief executive will find the story fully told in the narrative of his classmate and life-long friend Walter Allen, entitled “Governor Chamberlain's Administration in South Carolina.” The dramatic struggle of the closing days of his administration has become history, and is recounted in detail by Mr. Rhodes in the forty-fourth chapter of his History, as also in a paper read by Mr. Adams at the May meeting (1907) of the Society.1
After Governor Chamberlain's public life in South Carolina had come to its close, he entered a prominent law firm in New York City. He was engaged in conspicuous cases in the State courts and before the Supreme Court; but he had permanently sapped his physical health in anxious public life, and illness with temporary disability came upon him. Obliged to give up, he travelled for a while for his health in Europe. He afterward accepted easier terms of professional work by taking the office of the receiver of the South Carolina railroad in behalf of the bondholders, and in that capacity he made his home temporarily in Charleston. He had very many devoted friends in South Carolina, not a few of them among those who had been his political opponents. But, the result of his over
1 See ante, pp. 77–93.
strenuous life showing itself further, he was peremptorily ordered by his physician to lead an easier existence.
Returning to the home of his boyhood in West Brookfield, he settled upon the site of his birthplace, where he interested himself in his farming operations as well as in local affairs and history. Becoming one of the best informed antiquarians of his neighborhood and President of the Quaboag Historical Society, he continued his interest in such matters and in public affairs, writing much upon all these topics, until ill health drove him to less rigorous climates. He passed away at Charlottesville, Virginia, April 13, 1907. Governor Chamberlain married, about the period of his public life in South Carolina, Miss Alice Cornelia Ingersoll, of Bangor, Maine, who died during the time of his New York practice. They had six sons, of whom two survive.
The foregoing sketch forms the outline of the career of a man of singular brilliancy of mind and earnestness of character, who took a most prominent place in the trying times of reconstruction, and by common acknowledgment of friend and foe, never swerved from the path of duty and his idea of right. His whole history was marked by untiring industry, thoroughness, and brilliancy, from his school days to his death.
In the Worcester High School he, with his friend Walter Allen, later of the" Boston Daily Advertiser" and of the “ Boston Herald," founded a literary society, " The Eucleia," which still remains; and a classmate of his in that school, James Green, says of him, “ Old High School scholars will remember that for a year or more Chamberlain was actually teaching in the school while he was reciting in the upper classes."
In Yale he not only took high rank in scholarship, fourth in a class of one hundred and ten, but at the same time took the DeForest medal, the great prize of the course for English composition and oratory, and he was elected the orator of his class at graduation, a very unusual combination of honors to be united in one individual. A Yale professor of that period declared that Chamberlain and John C. Calhoun had the most brilliant minds of all who had come under his notice. A classmate has said of him, “ He was easily the most influential leader of his class.”
Secretary Fairchild, a contemporary of Mr. Chamberlain in
the Harvard Law School, has said he remembers him as the “ablest man in that school of his time"; but his career there was but brief. The following letter, written to a college friend, gives the reasons for his premature withdrawal from the institution:
I am going to the war within the next two months. January, 1864, shall see me
“enlisted for the war." I have no plans beyond that; do not know how or where I shall
I ought to have gone in '61, but the real reason I did n't was that I was then, as I now, in debt for my college expenses to those who cannot possibly afford to lose what I have borrowed from them. I am told that it is foolish for me to go; that I can do no more in the army than the less educated. I know all that, but years hence I shall be ashamed to have it known that for any reason I did not bear a hand in this life or death struggle for the Union and for Freedom. I find I can insure my life for enough to cover the $2000 I owe, and nothing shall hinder me longer than is necessary to get the money to do this.
He was greatly interested in the Abolition movement, and took every opportunity to hear the great speakers, such as Wendell Phillips and Garrison, - in fact he himself has said he must have heard Phillips speak in public more than fifty times; and it was this intense interest in the cause of freedom and strong sense of duty and self-respect, as evidenced by the letter above, that drove him to seek a commission as lieutenant in the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry in the way already described.
The great and notable service of Governor Chamberlain's life, however, must be adjudged his administration of the offices of Attorney-General and Governor of the State of South Carolina from 1868 to 1877, with an interim when he was out of office from 1872 to 1874.
It is not the purpose of this memoir to call in review his individual acts during that period, or to discuss the merits or demerits of the reconstruction policy under which he carried on his administration ; but it is certain that amidst the unfortunate and disgraceful events of that unhappy time, which were afterward so thoroughly opened to the light of day, no taint of dishonor or suspicion of peculation, or of what we have come to know as graft,” ever attached to him.
The late Judge P. Emory Aldrich said of him, “In these trying [reconstruction] tiines Chamberlain's conduct has been as heroic as anything we have had in the war."