Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Valentine Burt Chamberlain, whose long career as a judge, as well as prominence as a legal advisor and practitioner, well entitles his name to remembrance here, was born in Colebrook, Litchfield County, on the 13th day of April, 1833, being descended on both sides from sturdy colonial stock. His preparatory studies were pursued at the Connecticut Literary Institution in Suffield, and he was graduated from Williams College in 1857. Studying law with Seth E. Case, Esq., of New Britain, he was admitted to the bar in 1859, and began the practice of the law in that town. In 1861 he was elected clerk of the House of Representatives, Hon. Augustus Brandegee being speaker.
The war of rebellion breaking out in 1861, he enlisted in the 7th regiment under Gen. Hawley. He was with his regiment at the brilliant siege of Fort Pulaski, and in September, 1862, was promoted to the captaincy of his company in which he had enlisted as second lieutenant. He was selected to command the right of the picked battalion of the 7th regiment which made the brave but deadly assault at Fort Wagner in July, 1863, and was one of a handful of men who scaled the rebel parapet and were captured within the fort. From the time of his capture until March 1, 1865, he was in rebel prisons in South Carolina. It was during that time that he made the thrilling escape from Columbus Prison in the fall of 1863 with Maj. Henry W. Camp, of which so graphic an account is given in Trumbull's "Knightly Soldier." Paroled at last after nearly two years of loathsome captivity in rebel prisons, he rejoined his regiment just in time to witness the closing scenes of the war.
Few soldiers of Connecticut left a more brilliant, and none a more patriotic record; but there was a cruel irony in the fate which consigned a splendid soldier to long captivity, and prevented him from fully displaying the qualifications for command and achievement, which all who knew him recognized, and which significantly manifested as long as he was in the field.
Taking up residence again in New Britain, after a short sojourn in Florida, from which state he was a delegate to the convention which first nominated Gen. Grant, he devoted himself to his profession, and was soon after elected judge of the city and criminal courts, to both of which he was almost continuously re-elected from 1868 to the time of his death on the 25th of June, 1893. He was also elected Judge of Probate for the Berlin District, which included New Britain, in 1880 and was re-elected for several terms.
As would naturally be expected, his judicial functions largely absorbed the legal activities of Judge Chamberlain, but at the same time, they afforded him opportunity for the discharge of other duties calling for the sound judgment of the trained lawyer, and strict integrity and decision of character which were his natural endowment. Accordingly, he was elected state treasurer in 1884, when Henry B. Harrison was elected governor. He was assistant pension agent until the Connecticut District was merged in that of Massachusetts; and at his death he was president of the Mechanics National Bank, treasurer of the Burritt Saving Bank, and director in several of the great manufacturing corporations of New Britain, which, by reason of control of such men as he, have always and everywhere have celebrated for intelligence and integrity of management.
As a lawyer, Judge Chamberlain's qualities were sound judgment, firm grasp of leading principles and an all dominating common sense. These qualities were especially noticeable in the skill and tact with which he administered the criminal law. Mercy with him was a part of justice, when mercy would have an educational and reformatory effect, but the right of society to be rid of old offenders was always vindicated. The enthusiastic admirer who declared that he made of his court a pulpit, did not intend to imply that there was anything weak in his administration of law and justice, and there was not.
As a practitioner, his mind had in it no tendency to circumlocutory approach. He achieved his victories by direct attack. Such a thing as a vicious blow was absolutely foreign to his nature. He would win fairly or fail in the fight. As a speaker, he was both intellectual and emotional. He always impressed the hearer as having something to say, of the right and justice of which he was profoundly convinced, and he therefore succeeded in convincing others. He had the soul of an orator; he felt that first which he would have his hearer feel. There was a rich vein, too, of imagination in his mental equipment, and, though he worked it seldom, it yielded then rich treasures of true oratory. He was always in demand as a speaker at the meetings of the Army and Navy Club, and whenever patriotic solders and citizens were drawn together by memories of the war or devotion to its principles. Nothing stirred him like his country's flag. To him it was more than an emblem. It was instinct with life; it was his country itself, - the country for which he fought and to which, in the principles underlying its prosperity and guaranteeing its perpetuity, he could no more be recreant in maturer years than in his youth he could have faltered on the field of battle.
Indeed, every good cause found Judge Chamberlain ready with weapons in hand for battle. If his warm championship sometimes made enemies for the time, they did not remain enemies. There was no malice in his strong and even rugged nature, and all who dealt with him came to admire him first and to love him afterwards.
In politics. Judge Chamberlain was a strong and prominent Republican. Twice he was a member of conventions for the nominations of candidates for the presidency; of the first we have already spoken; the second was the convention in Chicago in 1884. In a commendable sense, he was a partisan, and yet it was a political opponent who penned the following tribute, with which this sketch must close: - "We knew him as an adviser, we knew him on the streets, we knew him on the bench, we knew him in town meeting and in places of public trust, and we always had confidence in him as a man whose acts were actuated by principle and who believed what he said. Tender hearted as a woman, full of human compassion, he combined a strong will with a gentle poetic nature, and he was in truth a manly man. Tears came to many eyes to-day when the sad news of his death went from mouth to mouth. They are the best and truest `In Memoriam' inasmuch as they were heartfelt evidence of the affection and respect in which he was held. Visibly he has gone, but the flavor of his life and the moral of his existence will live long as a text and inspiration for all of us."
To what has been so well said about him here and elsewhere, I wish to add the tribute of a comrade, to the memory of comrade Valentine B. Chamberlain. I was not in the regiment or command with him, nor did I know him during the war. That made no difference. Every Connecticut soldier in the great struggle for the Union was his comrade and his friend. He loved them all; and surely they all loved him. May I not say they love him still.
He delighted in the gatherings of veterans. He was there in his element, and at his best, if there be indeed a best to one who was always good, and kind, and pure, and noble. But he had won his spurs and been knighted, upon the field of battle, and he remembered the obligations of nobility. If clouds ever came into the atmosphere in which he lived, he never brought them upon his face to the company of his fellows. It was eternal sunshine where he stood, and his cordial hand grasp, as Shakespeare said of Mercy, was twice blessed; - to him who gave, and him who took.
Then, too, how eloquent he was, with that sweetness of speech which flows through the lips, but springs from the heart. He was unrivaled in this state as a Memorial Day speaker, as many a great audience, elevated to the loftiest heights of patriotism by his glowing utterance, will hear witness. And he was especially happy in that typical union of the soldiers and sailors of this state. The Army and Navy Club, to whose meetings he was life, and inspiration, and cheer. "Comrades," he said, "we want a good time, and we must have it. We wish to get in all that we can in the little time which is given us." And we did, when he was present, all the more truly because nothing in that presence might be done, or said, or thought, that could bring a blush to the face of a woman, or pang to the heart of a saint.
On the Friday evening next before the Sunday on which he died, at the annual banquet of the association to which I have just referred, I sat at table four precious hours by his side. It was indeed a feast of reason and of the soul. His hand clasped mine in parting, just as our watches told the hour of midnight, and he turned away to live his last full day on earth. I did not then imagine that parting was forever. Nor do I think so now. The midnight ushers in the morn, and it is darkest just before the dawn begins. It must be daylight soon. Until that time shall come, his own words uttered two years ago, when, as toast master of our club, he set a star at the name of each deceased comrade, shall be our word to him, and them: "Comrades here, greetings to comrades there. If it be so that the veil, so dark to us, is luminous to you, then see us as we pledge anew our fraternal love, and hear us as we say, until the morning breaks, Good Night."[footer.htm]