Is Chamberlain’s Famous War Horse Secretly Buried on This Tiny Maine Island?

A persistent local legend surrounds Harpswell's Crow Island, favorite son Joshua Chamberlain, and the horse he rode in on.

joshua chamberlain on a horse
Courtesy of the Pejepscot History Center
By Mary Pols
From our June 2023 Island Issue

Crow Island is a scrap of an island, three acres tucked into the farthest reaches of Middle Bay, not a half mile off the Brunswick peninsula called Simpson’s Point. To the swimmers who gather at the point at high tide, it is simply “the island,” and the more intrepid among us will swim out to it.

If there were ever structures on Crow Island, no sign of them remains. What it does have is a handful of 100-year-old oaks, many smaller evergreens, and, in season, a mighty patch of lady slippers. Also, it has a legend: that General Joshua L. Chamberlain’s favorite horse is buried there.

Charlemagne wasn’t just some pet horse. The Civil War hero’s beloved mount was a chestnut Morgan that Chamberlain credited with saving his life in multiple battles. The steed was shot more than once. Chamberlain rode him during the Confederates’ formal surrender at Appomattox, in 1865, and afterwards, he arranged for the equine hero to be brought home to Maine, where Chamberlain was summarily elected governor.

For years, I swam close to shore at Simpson’s Point, working up the courage to swim out to Crow. I learned about Charlemagne’s rumored grave while scanning the website of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, which acquired the island in 2002. Crow Island once belonged to Chamberlain, it explains, and “is said by some to be the final resting place of his favorite horse . . . a mighty undertaking indeed, if true.” 

crow island in harpswell
Crow Island, center, at sunrise. Visitation is discouraged during bird-nesting season, from mid-April through July. Photo by Rich Knox. Above: Chamberlain atop a steed in front of Casco Bay, circa 1900. Alas, there exist no known photos of Charlemagne (though Chamberlain may have given later horses the name).

The story intrigued me enough that I contacted Rich Knox, who knows Crow Island as well as anyone. As a longtime volunteer steward for the trust, he visits in every season to keep the island free of trash and floating jetsam and maintain a small campsite. One morning last fall, he and I launched a canoe at Simpson’s Point and paddled across the glassy water. Knox knew the legend and had, at least, a theory about how it originated.

We pulled ashore at a small, pebbly beach on the island’s north side. The tide had just turned, and we picked our way along the algae-slickened stones, Knox keeping his eyes peeled for garbage. Crow is fairly pristine, but the campsite is popular, clammers work the flats, and in the fall, hunters come for the sea ducks that raft on Middle Bay. Knox found a crushed beer can and tucked it into his pocket. 

We’d nearly encircled the island when we arrived at the hole. “There you go,” Knox said, gesturing at a depression that looked like a tiny dried-up pond, maybe two feet deep in the clay soil. It was just big enough around to fit a horse, especially a smallish Morgan like Charlemagne. “It’s not big enough for a home foundation,” Knox said. “Why is that there? That was dug.” 

Nearby was a rocky outcrop, the island’s highest point, and Knox and I looked from it across the water at Simpson’s Point, where Chamberlain’s summer retreat, Domhegan, once stood. Atop the outcrop was a slab with an almost equine shape, like a horse resting its head on the rock below, looking out towards Domhegan. Right then, I wanted to believe in the romantic prospect of Chamberlain, sitting on his porch or aboard his black schooner, Pinafore, gazing at the island grave of his trusty companion. 

But the vision proves hard to substantiate. I asked a few Chamberlain experts, but none had heard of Charlemagne’s island grave. Chamberlain bought the island in 1901, at which time Charlemagne, if still upright, would have to have been extraordinarily long lived. The Pejepscot Historical Society, which runs Brunswick’s Joshua Chamberlain Museum, has long operated on the understanding, based on published accounts, that Charlemagne was interred somewhere at Domhegan. According to a 1907 Lewiston Journal article, the horse was given a “Christian burial” there, on the mainland, and the paper, though it gives no year of death, describes an inscription on a rock above his grave. 

joshua chamberlain's domhegan estate
An undated photo of Chamberlain’s Domhegan home, which overlooked Crow Island. Courtesy of the Pejepscot History Center. 

But in 1995, then-curator Julia Colvin, author of a history of Domhegan, led a group around the former Domhegan site (the home caught fire in 1940 and was razed thereafter), looking for rocks with inscriptions or other markers, and they found no trace anywhere on the five-acre property. Still, she told me, she’d never heard of Charlemagne being buried on Crow Island, and it struck her as “pretty implausible.” After all, how to get a 1,000-pound body out there? 

A third possible location for Charlemagne’s grave comes from the late writer Catherine T. Smith, who was Chamberlain’s last personal secretary. In 1977, when she was 86, Smith wrote a lengthy recollection of Chamberlain for Brunswick’s Times Record. In it, she claimed that Chamberlain had three different war horses named Charlemagne. The last of them, Smith said, was a family saddle horse in Brunswick for “nearly 18 years” before being put out to pasture. She was insistent, if vague, on the location of his grave. “A large, hilly pasture overlooking the Bay is his final resting place,” she wrote, and not “at Simpson Point, as legend has it.” According to Smith, a horse buried at Simpson’s was one purchased later, for the Chamberlain grandchildren. Maybe it too was named Charlemagne.

Joshua Chamberlain portrait
Photo courtesy of the Leon B. Strout Photograph Collection, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

During 23 years working for the Chamberlain Museum, site manager Troy Ancona has fielded plenty of questions about Charlemagne. He too has searched the Domhegan site for a grave, to no avail, but his gut tells him the horse is buried nearby — say, on a neighboring farmer’s land. “I can’t picture him sending Charlemagne too far away,” he told me. 

Ancona has also been out to Crow Island, on a beautiful June day a few years back, in a kayak with his wife. “I had to laugh when we got to that sink hole,” he said. “It is weird. It is a pretty big hole. I’m not a land expert, but to me, it looked like it collapsed.” He’s toyed with the idea of bringing a metal detector out to Crow, seeking horseshoes. 

What Ancona is very sure of, though, is that Joshua Chamberlain was devoted to a horse named Charlemagne. In the historical society’s archives, he found a short biography of the horse, written by the general. It’s on stationery from the U.S. Custom House in Portland, where Chamberlain was surveyor from 1900 until his death in 1914. In it, the former governor recalls buying Charlemagne in 1863. The horse, then about four, had been captured from the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley and bore scars from the war. But he was “of perfect symmetry of body and limb,” Chamberlain wrote. His mane and tail caught “sunlight with wonderful effect of light and shade.” Chamberlain paid $150 for him (he later paid $100 for Crow Island).

Charlemagne greeted Chamberlain at his tent door and rubbed noses with him. The horse, his master wrote, seemed to delight in leading a charge, “sometimes taking me into situations which were not perfectly conformable to my own will and judgment; and so conferring on me credit really due him.” In dreary bivouacs or on lonely midnight marches, Chamberlain “would whisper confidences to him shared by no other.” The general went on: “It will not be surprising that this attachment on my part came to be almost mystical.” The last two words had been crossed out, Ancona says, but were still legible. 

Maybe the story of Charlemagne on Crow emerged because islands, their own tiny worlds, are themselves almost mystical. Or maybe someone who knew Chamberlain well enough to know his romantic tendencies was out on Crow Island a century ago, hunting birds. Maybe they noticed a round depression and a rock shaped like a horse’s head. Maybe they speculated to a companion, who took it as truth. Maybe, in this case, all there is to know about the unprovable is that it could be truth. Because the love, after all, was real. 

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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