Michael Shaara and Ken Burns have made Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain into a Civil War rock star. The publication of 300 never-before-seen letters and other related documents by The National Civil War Museum should please his legion of loyal acolytes.
Readers familiar with the Victorian art of letter writing may find the early letters between Chamberlain and his wife, Frances (Fanny) Caroline Adams, contain little more than overheated professions of romantic love and mundane recitations of day-to-day family activities and responsibilities.If they contain deeper character revelations, they lie hidden between the lines of 19th century rhetoric.
Not until Chapter Four do Chamberlain's Civil War letters appear.Written by the colonel of the 20th Maine and hero of Little Round Top, an officer six times wounded, and commander of Union troops that received the formal surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, they are more revealing of the soldier behind the fawning husband, doting father, and studious professor.
An 1862 letter from Warrenton, VA, contains a clear statement of what Chamberlain believes he's fighting for.His notes about Fredericksburg written right after the battle, paint a vivid word picture of his first experience of “seeing the elephant.”But a hint of his lust for glory emerges when he uncharacteristically writes “one of the most thrilling sights to me on going into the fight” was “the parks of ambulances by the hundreds—all of them so orderly in line...ready to go on...when our mangled bodies lay writhing in the field.”
Chamberlain had a big ego and a burning desire for recognition.Failing to be promoted to brigadier general after his exploits at Gettysburg, he lamented “I have won it in the field and if Napoleon had seen it he would have made me a Genl. on the spot...Promotions, however, are managed strangely in Washington.”Even during his 1864 convalescence from an attack of malaria, he confides to Fanny that he told Maine Senator William Pitt Fessenden, “I wished very much that before any promotion was recommended the authorities would just look at my record at the military history of my last year.”Chamberlain consoled himself by concluding “Men may not do right towards me, but Providence will.”
After the war, Chamberlain achieved political and professional prominence.But his wartime experiences revealed the true measure of the man.
Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (cwrtdc.org). His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.