Monday, February 1, 2010

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty - A Notre Dame Medal of Honor Recipient!

One of the more notable Notre Dame student-soldiers that I will feature in Notre Dame in the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010) is Orville T. Chamberlain.

Orville Tryon Chamberlain was born at Leesburg, Indiana, September 1, 1841, The family moved to Elkhart, IN, when he was two years old. He attended local schools and as a teen he clerked in his father's drug store, learned the printer's trade, and taught school for three winters at the Bunker Hill school house, near Elkhart. Orville entered Notre Dame University in 1860, attaended until 1862, and graduated from the Commercial Department as "Master of Accounts."

On August 6, 1862, he became a private in Company G, 74th Regiment, Indiana Volunteer Infantry; henwas made orderly sergeant and afterwards successively promoted to 2d Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant and then Captain of his company.

Chamberlain earned the Medal of Honor (March 11, 1896) for his actions at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. His official citation reads:

"While exposed to a galling fire, went in search of another regiment, found its location, procured ammunition from the men thereof, and returned with the ammunition to his own company."

As with many such citations, the simplicity of the wording belies the heroism exhibited in the actual event. The Wright-Chamberlain Genealogy (1914) gives a much more detailed (and exciting!) version of the circumstances. I'm also trying to get the papers associated with his Medal of Honor file at the National Archives.

After the war, he intended to make a career as a soldier and secured a commission as an officer in th eregular army; however, the very day he received the commission, his father passed away and Orville returned home to Elkhart, where he became a distinguished attorney.

To learn more about Chamberlain, we fortunately have access to a wonderful set of Chamberlain Family Papers at the Indiana Historical Society (IHS). By using the excellent finding aid, I was able to obtain copies of Orville's wartime correspondence. It includes a wonderful letter written from Notre Dame on the day of Lincoln's inaugaration and ends with an equally wonderful letter four years later upon the surrender of Confederate forces to Sherman. Indeed, the IHS has made that final letter available here.

I have also received some excellent assistance from Dave Powell, an expert on the Battle of Chickamauga, and author of the recent (and excellent!) The Maps of Chickamauga. Dave kindly provided copies of correspondence between Chamberlain and battlefield monument authorities on the actions of the 74th Indiana during the battle. (Thanks, Dave!)

As it turns out, Orville also had some Notre Dame classmates in the 74th Indiana! Chamberlain is only one of many student-soldiers at Notre Dame who did their duty, but his is a well-documented case and will be a highlight of the book!


  1. What a great find at the IHS. Was Chamberlain thought highly of at the time or why was the Medal of Honor so late in being awarded?

    Every post reassures me this is going to be an excellent book.

  2. Robert - Thanks so much for the kind message and support! I'm not sure of the exact circumstances, but it I think you'll see that many Civil War-related MOHs were awarded well after the war. I'm really hoping I can secure copies of his MOH file at NARA...would be great to see any nominating letters or documentation! I'll keep you posted! Jim