DESJARDIN (ed.): Joshua L. Chamberlain: The Life in Letters (2012)

Joshua L. Chamberlain: The Life in Letters of a Great Leader of the American Civil War edited by Thomas Desjardin. Osprey Publishing, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 1849085595. $25.95.

This collection of documents relating to the life and career of famed Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is both richly rewarding as well as enormously disappointing. First, the deep problems of this book. They begin with the subtitle: “The Previously Unpublished Letters of a Great Leader of the Civil War.” This description of the book’s contents is misleading. While it’s true that the documents—almost all of them archived in the National Civil War Museum—are published here for the first time, it’s not true that these are all Chamberlain’s letters. Instead, a substantial majority of these letters were written by others over the course of his remarkable life. They do not, however, add a great deal to our understanding of that life.

To be specific: There are 306 pages of text in the book, including an introduction by museum director Janice Mullin, a dramatis personae, a timeline, and brief chapter introductions by the book’s editor, Thomas Desjardin. (I’m leaving to the side James McPherson’s foreword, which does a wonderful job of locating Chamberlain in public memory in the aftermath of The Killer Angels and Ken Burns’ documentary.) Subtracting these sections leaves 291 pages of material. Of these, only 111 pages are letters and other documents written by Chamberlain himself (including a few college essays, which strike me as unimportant). The remaining 180 pages contain mostly letters written to or about Chamberlain by, among others, family members—particularly his beloved wife Fannie (or Fanny, as Chamberlain used both spellings), fellow Civil War officers, or his political supporters following the war. In a few letters, moreover, Chamberlain is neither the author nor recipient, or even discussed in them.

There’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with publishing such writings. Letters with even a fairly remote connection to a historical figure can be revealing and informative. But many documents included in this book have a historical or biographical significance that simply escapes me. An 1848 letter from Chamberlain’s future sister in law to Fanny (he wouldn’t marry her for seven more years) describes at length her Christmas celebrations and gossips about other family members (23-6). A short, confusing note from Chamberlain’s brother Horace accompanies $7.00 sent from Bangor in 1853 (87). A boarding house bill (111), a chatty letter from a cousin in which she trots out some German she’d been studying (119), and brief notes of appreciation after the war from former soldiers and citizens Chamberlain apparently didn’t personally know (246, 264-65) are additional examples of documents that don’t seem to shed much light on unexplored aspects of Chamberlain’s life. This book makes available previously unseen material, which might be an intrinsic merit, but I wonder what other benefits accrue.

The case is very different, though, when it comes to the letters Chamberlain wrote during the war. Even those already thoroughly familiar with his life will find them fascinating and compelling. One reason why is Chamberlain’s vivid, powerful accounts of his experiences in the war, especially at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. A prime example is a letter to Fanny written on December 17, 1862, a few days after Fredericksburg. It’s one of the longest letters in this book, and well worth attending to in its entirety. Two passages, though, make clear what a remarkable piece of writing it is. He describes the doomed Union assaults up Marye’s Heights as follows: “Line after line advances to the very crest of the Rebel batteries and rifle pits, checked each time by the nature of the ground, and the strength of the entrenchments, no less than by the awful fire that seems to scorch them from the hillside” (178-79). Further, Chamberlain witnessed the Aurora Borealis that spanned the night sky after the battle. Confederates viewed it as evidence of divine favor for their cause, but for Chamberlain the “[f]iery lances, and banners of blood-red flame—columns of pearly light, garlands and wreaths of gold” were heavenly accompaniments of honor as he and other survivors retrieved dead comrades from the field (180).

In addition, these letters remind us that this remarkably brave, honorable soldier was also all-too human, if forgivably so. He complains repeatedly in letters to Fanny of not having enough space to himself or sufficient time alone, as well as of command ineptitude and inefficiency. In another series of letters to her he discusses his chances for promotion and explains how he has lined up the references necessary to have a realistic shot at advancement. Perhaps it’s because of the political uncertainties associated with promotion that he also openly brags “I have won it in the field and if Napoleon had seen it he would have made me a [general] on the spot” (210). At one point, moreover, he has to send an abject apology to Fanny for speaking nastily to her while home on leave (222).

In connection with the humanizing effect of many of his letters, this collection also, and lastly, shows what a devoted, loving husband Chamberlain was. I would go so far as to say that Chamberlain’s love letters are often as moving and poignant as Sullivan Ballou’s justly famous letter to his wife on the eve of First Bull Run. For example, on January 1, 1863, in the aftermath of Fredericksburg, he wrote, “If you could look into my heart, you would be happy, I could almost believe men if I were with you woman; because love like this I bear you is stronger than Death and better than life even; and I know it would be a blessing to have such a love even as a last will and testament” (185). But the letters are not only movingly passionate. They’re also affectionately teasing and funny, as when Chamberlain asks Fanny to “[w]rite and tell me everything you do—unless you are making a drudge of yourself in that case don’t say a word about it. I shall try to forget you. If you are happy, I shall love you; if not, I shall not!” (211).

All in all, much of this book fails to “provide important new information and insights on Chamberlain” (iv); there’s too much in it that seems like archival dross rather than material with which to build a better understanding of this man and soldier. That said, when I read Chamberlain’s midnight letters home, in which he describes trying to get a couple hours of sleep in the muck and rain, or his breathless account of the events on Little Round Top, I’m in the grip of Civil War writing as powerful as anything I’ve encountered in a long time.

Thom Bassett teaches in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University. He is writing a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman and the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina.

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