Book Review: On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. By Ronald C. White. New York: Random House, 2023. 445 pp. Hardcover, $35.00.

Reviewed by Brian Swartz

Resurrected from historical obscurity by Ken Burns and then the movie Gettysburg, Joshua L. Chamberlain seemingly dominates the Gettysburg battlefield (at least its southern heights). He apparently stands atop a Civil War pedestal, placed there by some 19th-century Union veterans and modern Americans who venerate him for his military accomplishments, particularly Little Round Top, and for his post-war writings.

Ironically his detractors—beginning with some 20th Maine Infantry comrades in the latter 19th century—criticize Chamberlain on those same points. He has allegedly embellished his wartime record, especially in his memoirs, and the general deserves not the acclaim received since Jeff Daniels shouted, “Bayonets!”

But an altogether different Chamberlain emerges in On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The latest biography by author and historian Ronald C. White (American Ulysses and A. Lincoln) draws from diverse sources dating from the early 1800s to the 21st century to investigate the life “of this courageous and controversial man” (xix).

Consigning Chamberlain’s war to six chapters, White delves deeply into the general’s pre- and post-war civilian decades. Claiming the “early years are the formative period of a person’s life” (xviii), the author examines various characteristics (including a Christian faith, a love of music, and a desire to learn) that developed by adolescence and strongly influenced Chamberlain all his adulthood.

White fills in a chronological gap overlooked by many biographers by detailing his subject’s student years at Bowdoin College and at Bangor Theological Seminary. Bowdoin employment receives similar attention.

One surprising aspect of On Great Fields is the author’s willingness to disagree with traditional Chamberlain lore and to explain why. Alice Rains Trulock (In the Hands of Providence) claimed, based on a 1976 newspaper article, that Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain opposed her husband’s enlistment. Citing the lack of direct quotes by either spouse on the topic, White states that “it is long past time to question the credibility of this [Fanny’s] objection” (116).

He pays close, sometimes sympathetic, attention to Fanny and utilizes her letters, Joshua’s and others’ correspondence, and such sources as Diane Monroe Smith’s Fanny & Joshua to present a three-dimensional woman. Fanny is likable, but not always, and neither is her husband, as White notes. Joshua Chamberlain had his flaws and quirks, as the reader will learn.

In the war chapters, White lays out the who, what, where, and when involving Chamberlain. Excellent maps here and elsewhere, plus copious illustrations throughout the book, tie together dates, place names, personalities, and events.

White’s greatest contribution to Chamberlain historiography lies in the post-war chapters. Biographers often see Chamberlain the governor, Bowdoin College president, and Civil War lecturer; White expands these roles and details Chamberlain the “entrepreneur” (342), venturing into New York business and Florida railroad-and land development.

Ironically, the concept of a heroic Chamberlain emerges best later in his life. Summoned to Augusta as Maine’s militia commander, he strove to prevent fratricidal violence from erupting during the state’s January 1880 gubernatorial crisis. Detailing that event, White believes those “days in Augusta may have been Chamberlain’s finest hour—even greater than Little Round Top” (319).

White examines how the Petersburg wound impacted Chamberlain’s remaining decades and lays out the reasons why the general spoke and wrote so much post-war. His wound possibly played a role, the author argues.

The author also addresses various Chamberlain-related controversies, including the 1st Division salute rendered Confederate infantry surrendering after Appomattox and the criticism that Ellis Spear initiated with his letter published in 1913. The book touches only ever so lightly upon Little Round Top-related disputes.

Compellingly written in a story-telling manner, On Great Fields reveals Chamberlain as a living human, not a sculpted statue. With the background information woven so deftly into the book, the reader finds not a colossus Joshua L. Chamberlain striding through American history, but an ordinary man living his life as that history unfolds.

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