Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters – Book Review
Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters. Edited by Thomas Desjardin. Osprey Publishing, 2012. 312 pages, 16 pages of illustrations, index. Hardback #29.95
It would be difficult indeed to find a reader of Armchair General who was not aware of Joshua L. Chamberlain’s exploits on the extreme left flank of the Union’s Army of the Potomac on July 2, 1863. His defense of Little Round Top against the Army of Northern Virginia’s 15th Alabama arguably saved the Army of the Potomac on that hot summer day and earned laurels for him and the 20th Maine. Quite well known in his day, Chamberlain lay mostly forgotten until his battlefield performance came to the notice of modern readers through the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Killer Angels (1974), and then to TV (Ken Burns’ The Civil War, 1990) and movie audiences (Ronald Maxwell’s adaptation of The Killer Angels, the movie Gettysburg 1993).
Chamberlain’s wartime accomplishments were legion: Medal of Honor winner, wounded six times (and promoted to brigadier general when he was believed to be on his deathbed), brevetted major general, and receiver of the official surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. Now Dr. Thomas Desjardin, former adjunct professor of History, University of Maine at Augusta, Gettysburg and Department of Conservation Bureau of Parks and Lands historian, collects Chamberlain’s life outside of the army in Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters. Published in coordination with The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, A Life presents almost 300 never-before-published documents and letters relating to Chamberlain’s life, beginning in 1849 and ending with his death in 1914 at age 85. A Life in Letters is an impressive collection and The National Civil War Museum deserves praise for placing them in print.
Unfortunately, for the historian, or casual reader for that matter, there is little in the letters that is truly interesting. The majority of the letters concern the mundane and routine: college essays, travel plans, money issues, family news, etc., with many, in the beginning at least, not from Joshua at all. In fact, after starting out with four college essays, most of the letters are from his wife, Fannie, to him or other family members. Only four letters in the first 74 pages are from him.
Once we enter the war years, Chamberlain’s letters become more interesting in that he begins to write Fannie about his experiences and his enjoyment of military life. Here, Joshua’s training in rhetoric—the 19th-century version, not the empty talk we get from today’s politicians—comes to life. Writing to Fannie in late November 1862, Joshua tells her:
“…the Rebels think they are fighting for all that men hold dear, as I suppose many of them really think they are, we are fighting for more, we fight for all the guarantees of what men should love, for the protection and permanence and peace of what is most dear and sacred to every true heart.”
Sentiments common to many a soldier of many a war to be sure, but the fact that he was writing a private letter, not something for public disclosure, makes it sound heartfelt.
As mentioned earlier, the wartime letters are the most interesting, and Chamberlain’s descriptions of what he observed and felt at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg are made all the more vivid by his rhetorical training—but there are too few letters of this type. Indeed, his Civil War letters only span 69 of the book’s 314 pages.
The last chapter is the most disappointing. After the war, Chamberlain served four terms as governor of Maine, yet only four pages of letters apparently survived this period. After the governorship, Chamberlain found himself on the national stage again during the “Count-out Crisis” of 1880. During this crisis, Chamberlain, as commander of the state militia, became the de facto military governor of the state due a vote-counting scandal and the subsequent Republican/Democratic political shenanigans. By all accounts, Chamberlain acted fairly against formidable political pressure and gained nationwide respect for his actions, a fact borne out by the 63 pages of letters—fan letters, really—written by admirers to him during the crisis. If Chamberlain wrote anything during the crisis, it apparently did not survive; unfortunately, these fan letters do not provide any insight regarding the crisis, Chamberlain’s role, or his thinking during it.
As an editor, Dr. Desjardin provides the reader some basic help. Unfamiliar names are footnoted with a description of who they were and if they were related to the Chamberlains, but otherwise there is little help in understanding why a certain letter was included. Indeed, many of the letters seemed to be included simply because they existed.
Here lies my disappointment with Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters. It is not a biography; it is simply a collection of letters: no explanation to why a certain letter was included or how some minor event, act, or person was important to the Chamberlains’ lives. A Life in Letters may be a "must buy" for true Chamberlain fans or romantics who relish 19th-century love letters (there is no doubt here of Joshua and Fannie’s affections for each other) but Civil War historians and buffs will, in too many cases, be left asking, “So what?” Dr. Desjardin is reportedly working on a true biography of Chamberlain that is due in 2013; this reviewer recommends waiting for that book. In the meantime, pick up A Passing of Armies, Chamberlain’s own account of the Appomattox Campaign.
Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years, way too many cats, and a miniature pincher named “Blitz,” who lives up to his name. Neal volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield, conducting tours and historic weapons demonstrations. He has a BA in American Military History and expects conferment of a Master’s Degree in Military History, Civil War Concentration, in November 2012. He is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com.