19 April 2014

Book Review: Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man

"...is an attempt by the author to dig deeply into Chamberlain’s personal life through records, letters, and other resources, as well as personal accounts written by others who knew Chamberlain."

Published on 7 MAY 2004 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. american civil war, military leadership

Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man

Let's just say, for a moment, that nobody cares about history, or of the people that made great things happen. Let's just suppose that the people in our nation's (or any nation's, for that matter) history were merely Joe and Jane Schmoes who had nothing worthwhile or interesting to add to the annals of history.

Then where would we be today? Would lessons learned of the past be as valuable to us today if those figures lost to the depths of time never existed? Or would history be apt to repeat itself? Without snippy quotes to quote, without legends to follow, and without lessons to record, the human race would be, arguably, a complete waste of time.

Fortunately, history is not like that, nor is suffering the consequences of such thoughts really a valuable investment of time. But I cannot help wondering about how some people, caught up in a vortex of the past and dropped smack into the middle of a nation-shattering moment, might possibly feel at that moment. The problem with these legends, who existed at exactly the right moment in time and made the precisely correct (or at least as far as our perceptions go) decision at exactly the place to do it in, is that they were human beings, too. They had families, jobs, beliefs, dreams, and insecurities, just like everyone else. In spite of that, the reality of their mortality is often overshadowed by these legendary moments and their human side becomes a footnote to the publications that single out the one, or few, moments when these people truly shined.

Most readers already familiar with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain will know him as the Union Colonel who bent his line back on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, repulsing repeated Confederate flanking attacks against the Union left on Little Round Top.  But most importantly, he was remembered for ordering a bayonet charge against an exhausted and depleted Confederate assault group of several regiments, all the while dangerously low on ammunition. That moment, one seen as a defining moment of the Union defense on the second day of the battle, was reported by many to be the turn of the battle to the Union's favor. Of course, as the third day rolled in, Lee ordered the fateful charge of Pickett's division, which failed spectacularly. From then on, Lee and his men were to retreat south of the Potomac River never to trod again on Northern soil.

Not only was this seen as a battle-turning moment, but as has been suggested, a Union-saving one as well. Had that battle been lost, there would be little to keep the victorious Confederates from, if not capturing Washington D.C., gaining recognition from the United Kingdom and France. There are too many variables involved with this part of the story, which lay in the realm of supposition and sometimes alternative historical fiction, and are too numerous to mention here. Regardless, that moment on the far left flank of the Union army was a moment of great victory for the Union at a time when it desperately needed one.

I have not read many autobiographies on Joshua Chamberlain, but I am familiar with his heroics at Gettysburg. Anyone who is not familiar with it would do well to read something about the man, or to at the very least rent the movie Gettysburg, where Jeff Daniels' portrayal of this figure lends a lot to the image of a legend. Or, read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which is what the movie, Gettysburg, is based on. As with any extrapolation of things past, authors tend to take liberties with history by creating details where none exist, or where none are known, in order to keep continuity to the story. So while excellent viewing and reading, these two resources are not the best sources of information to learn more.

When I picked up Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man, I had known for a long time that The Killer Angels/Gettysburg book/movie combination, both of which I have perused countless times, were hardly the best basis of fact to judge a historical figure. Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine performed splendidly that day, of this I have no doubt; but what of Chamberlain himself? This title, The Soldier and the Man, is an attempt by the author to dig deeply into Chamberlain's personal life through records, letters, and other resources, as well as personal accounts written by others who knew Chamberlain. The result is fascinating, but sometimes not in fidelity with the mystique that surrounds this man. Indeed, it is far from flattering at times.

This brings me to an important point: why would anyone want to take a legend, any legend, and 'humanize' them by pointing out their faults? Doing so for any human, even a legend, is not necessarily a news flash nor a big surprise. The author, Edward G. Longacre, has penned many biographies of Civil War generals (including one about General John Buford), so this territory is a well-traveled one for him. And as I read Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man, I couldn't help, at first, to wonder if this was some kind of attack on Chamberlain's image. But what this ultimately came down to was Longacre's ability to turn a very complicated Joshua Chamberlain into a definable, understandable man.

As Longacre's biography unfolds, we learn much of Joshua Chamberlain, from his early days as a child who pushed himself relentlessly through school and dreamed of becoming a priest. Longacre analyzes Chamberlain from numerous letters, speeches, and articles written by the Civil War hero and gives valuable insight into Chamberlain's deep-seeded ambition. His ambition is quite evident as he was clearly one of his own best and most vociferous supporters (he knew many people in office and used his connections frequently for personal gain); he used such connections to gain a lieutenant colonelcy in the Maine Volunteers with the 20th Regiment, which started him on the path to glory.

Longacre doesn't disparage Chamberlain's bravery or dedication, but points out, bluntly at times, that Chamberlain's ambition colors his own interpretation of events.  Some reports Chamberlain wrote shortly after the end of the Civil War, which covered operations on the Quaker and White Oak Roads and at Five Forks, are described as painting a "clear, concise picture of the service rendered by Chamberlain's command, devoid as they are of the hyperbole, purple rhetoric, and egoism found in his earlier reports." Indeed, Chamberlain had a gift for words, and was known for his eloquent (and at times, grandiloquent) writings that always put what he did in a brave, shining light. 

While it is obvious that at times Chamberlain's mastery at oration and the written word tend to turn to self-aggrandizement, his ability to be a driving force in his regiment's performance, and ultimately his own performance as governor of Maine for several terms, give testimony that his ability is not just in generating such words: he was able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, as it were.