Somewhere in the world today a Christopher Weigl has passed away. My condolences of course go out to the family, but for those inquiring into my own demise: the news of my death has been vastly overrated and I must say over-reported. Someone on my Twitter feed broke the news to me today. That’s an interesting way to learn of your demise. But a loyal Twitter follower duly pointed out to me the news to me today that I had in fact died. I must admit that my first reaction wasn’t the casual: “well that was weird” response but a rather surprised: “who cares?” Seriously, what have I done over the course of my life that would warrant an obituary? I can’t think of anything.
Perhaps, as one friend kindly remarked: “you judge yourself too cruely” or perhaps the rest of the world doesn’t judge me in a manner that is cruel enough. Life is about action. We’re remembered for what we’ve done. I simply haven’t done anything that is worthy of an obituary column. It’s not that I’ve lead some horrific life or anything, I haven’t. It’s just that I’m 28 years old and I haven’t done a whole lot, I certainly haven’t done anything that someone else should write about. I’m not chastising myself nor am I attacking myself with undue scorn. I genuinely believe that my accomplishments could be listed on a small slip of paper and numbered maybe 1-5 though I’d hate to be the person to have to fill in those spaces.
All of this of course brings up the idea of what life is ultimately about. Reading an obituary that has your name on it is an interesting experience because it makes you think about what you’d like to be remembered for. I think many of us don’t live our lives with the goal of being remembered and I’d argue that that’s a good thing. Some do live to be remembered, but only by their family and other close confidants and there’s nothing wrong with that either. The question that I would pose is: what does who you want to be say about you and what does it say that you are not yet the person you want to be? That question may sound annoyingly complex, but I think it’s a question worth asking yourself and it’s certainly something to think about. Why haven’t you done what you want to do? Why haven’t you achieved the kind of success that you want to achieve? What kinds of excuses have you made to the previous two questions? These are important things to think about and I worry that many people in my generation don’t spend enough time thinking these questions through.
All of this reminds me of a story that I am quite fond of and since I have your attention I think I’ll tell it to you. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Professor at a university in Maine at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Chamberlain won acclaim and eventually the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg where, after his troops had nearly run out of ammunition, ordered a bayonet charge down Little Round Top. It’s one of the great stories in American military history. One man with a small regiment of men atop a little hill in southern Pennsylvania was able to hold off the onslaught of an entire brigade of Confederate troops. It’s inspiring. But that’s not what makes Chamberlain interesting to me and that’s not the story that I like to tell about him. Most people know the story of Little Round Top (or they should) so I prefer to tell the story of what happened to Chamberlain at the Siege of Petersburg.
In June of 1864 the tactical decision was made to try and outflank the Army of Northern Virginia by moving an incredible amount of men and material to the James River and building a bridge over a mile long in length to transport the Union Army to the other side of the river. The goal of the Union Army was to capture Petersburg and the valuable rail lines that it housed. The early months of 1864 had been spent trying to outmaneuver Lee around Fredericksburg in an area known as the Wilderness. Some of the worst losses that Grant received were at a battle called Cold Harbor. Bearing in mind that his troops had made little progress fighting Lee around the periphery Grant made the decision to try and cut off Lee’s supply lines. The Union Army sent in a corps under General Benjamin Butler to take the batteries outside Petersburg. In this task he failed spectacularly. Butler was not a particularly good commander. He had spent much of the war as the military governor of New Orleans and had enacted some pretty crazy laws including one banning spoons.
Union forces were forced to go in and fight the entrenched Confederate forces in Petersburg because each Union commander had failed to push Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard from the field. Because of this, forces from the V Corps under the command of Gouvernour Morris had to fight along the edges of Beauregard’s entrenchments. One of the men fighting at Battery 27 was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment. Chamberlain was shot through the hip during the battle and took out his sword to steady himself and also to dissuade soldiers from retreating en-masse, something that was a difficult act to prevent at this juncture. A certain amount of credit should go to General Beauregard however as he put into place defenses that would hold up through nearly a year of bombardment by some of the most sophisticated siege equipment devised up to this point in history. Chamberlain was not expected to live by his doctors and was made a Brevet Brigadier General by Grant on the spot. Later the next day Chamberlain opened up a newspaper with his obituary in it, it wasn’t the first time he had been written off for dead. Ultimately Chamberlain presided over General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and returned to Maine where he served four terms as Governor.