By Brian Swartz
When researching Joshua L. Chamberlain, a Civil War historian need not play a 21st-century Sherlock Holmes sleuthing through dark alleys and microscopic evidence to find those rare clues about the man. Writing copiously during and after the war, he left paper trails leading to many places. While conducting research for ECWS’s new biography, Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War, I went places to which I’d never been —
— and to which Covid-19 made sure I never returned before Savas Beatie released the book.
In a February 22, 2019 email, ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski asked me “if you might be interested in helping Emerging Civil War with a writing project.
“Would you have any interest in doing a bio for us on Chamberlain?” Chris asked.
Yes, I would.
Chris quickly connected me with ECW mapmaker Edward Alexander and with ECW’s Ryan Quint and Ashley Towle, who wrote the insightful appendices. As for on-the-ground document research, the book’s deadline could let me go into spring 2020, as long as I wrote some chapters the previous winter.
But being a newspaper journalist (33-plus years then), I knew better than let a deadline sneak up before starting an assignment. And that’s how I approached researching and writing Passing Through the Fire, as an assignment more challenging (and more fun) than most newspaper assignments I’ve completed over the decades.
Research gave me a reason to explore Maine during that beautiful summer of ’19. I had seldom visited scenic Brunswick, awash in Chamberlain lore. Steven Garrett, who headed the Joshua L. Chamberlain Civil War Round Table, invited me to Brunswick and introduced me to the Pejepscot History Center and its excellent staff and extensive collection of Chamberlain-related documents, files, and images.
In-person document research also took me to the Maine State Archives in Augusta and the Special Collections Department atop the Raymond Fogler Library, University of Maine.
The Internet led me farther afield virtually to “meet” other Chamberlain contemporaries who mentioned him in correspondence, the Official Records, and regimental histories. Relying entirely upon the subject’s own material turns a biography into PR fluff, while drawing upon others’ memoirs helps readers better see the “real” person.
The Internet let me into other places, too, including the Bowdoin College Library, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Onondaga (New York) Historical Association’s website.
Research included finding appropriate photographs and images, such as newspaper-published sketches. I had previously visited and photographed specific battlefields associated with Chamberlain (not because he was there) and had Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Rappahannock Station covered.
If you photograph enough battlefields in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, sooner or later you “shoot” some place affiliated with Chamberlain.
Lacking knowledge and imagery about Chamberlain’s initial Appomattox campaign movements, I contacted Edward Alexander. He took my son, Chris, and me on an in-depth Dinwiddie County tour that resulted in better writing and imagery for the related chapters.
On-site research wound down in late autumn 2019. I concentrated on writing the book that winter as daylight ran short and snow swirled around the house. We’ve got central heating; I shivered when thinking how deep the winter cold penetrated into Chamberlain’s fireplace- and stove-heated homes in Brewer and Brunswick.
Photo-processing took place in winter 2019-2020, too. With me needing a few last exterior photos, Susan and I drove to Brunswick and Portland on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, a sunny day. I got the photos, and we enjoyed supper in South Portland before heading up Interstate 95.
We barely cleared Portland before a top-of-the-hour news announcer reported the World Health Organization’s director had declared Covid-19 a worldwide pandemic.
Every museum, historical society, and government archive shut down immediately, and for all historians there would be no more on-site access to written records for many months.
From 1863 onward, Joshua Chamberlain suffered malaria flare-ups, from mid-June 1864 onward his wound’s debilitating effects. Fortunately Covid-19 did not stop Emerging Civil War Series from publishing his wartime biography, which I hope you will enjoy reading.