New Maine Times Book Review: 'Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters'

Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters'

"JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN:  A LIFE IN LETTERS"

by Thomas Desjardin

Osprey Publishing, 2012
336 pages, $25.95
ISBN 978-1-84908-559-5
 

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

Maine’s most beloved and widely known historical figure must certainly be Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914), a selfless man of courage, honor, loyalty and compassion. Numerous books have been written about this American hero, but few have revealed his more human qualities than this collection of letters from his personal correspondence.

"JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN: A LIFE IN LETTERS" compiles nearly 300 letters, both those written by Chamberlain and those he received from family, friends and admirers, running from 1848 to 1914, from his college days at Bowdoin College, through his courtship and marriage to Fannie Adams, to the Civil War, and the post-war years.
 
Chamberlain, of course, is best known for his leadership and bravery during the Civil War, but he also attained prominence as a professor and president of Bowdoin College, four terms as Maine’s governor, and as the steady veteran during a state political crisis in 1880. However, for all those achievements, Chamberlain was a loving husband, a man of conviction, sensitivity, courtesy, tenderness, and thoughtful reflection, as shown in these remarkable letters.
 
This letter collection was put together and edited by Thomas Desjardin, Maine’s chief historian and author of "Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine" (Thomas Publishing, 1995), about Chamberlain at Gettysburg, and "Through a Howling Wilderness" (St. Martin’s, 2007), about Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec in 1775.  he book project is sponsored by the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., which archives many of these letters.

The letters are arranged chronologically, with at least one-third covering his college days at Bowdoin and his courtship and marriage to Fannie. Chamberlain’s writing reflects the style of the day as well as his upbringing and education — the language flowery, poetic and chaste. He ends one letter to Fannie: “With a thousand kisses of love, love passionate as boyhood, strong as manhood, and deep as life.” And, typical of a young man attentive to the moods of his mother, in one letter he offers excuses for why he hasn’t written to her more often.

Best, however, are his letters covering the Civil War years, when Chamberlain was a colonel and later a general in the Union Army. He fought in numerous battles and was gravely wounded four times in combat. His Civil War letters reveal much about his patriotism, explaining his willingness to leave his family to “sacrifice the dearest personal interests, to preserve our country from desolation, and defend the national existence against treachery.”
 
Other Civil War letters describe his constant concerns over his family’s financial condition, his loneliness away from Fannie, and telling descriptions of battles and campaign life.  In Virginia in 1862 he wrote: “Nothing flourishes here but graves.” After the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, he describes the courage of his soldiers during a futile frontal assault against entrenched Confederate infantry, saying his men “were resolved not to flinch in that fiery ordeal.”
 
In one Civil War letter he humorously tells the origin of the iconic “ferocious moustache” he wore for the rest of his life, and in another he modestly excuses his own battlefield heroism by writing: “I was a little impudent.”
 
The last third of the letters describe his actions as the defacto military governor of Maine during the tense political stand-off known as “The Great Count-Out Crisis of 1880,” when his calm, steadfast and firm leadership averted post-election violence and near civil war in Maine. Most of the letters here are written by admirers of his actions, such as “Please accept the sincere thanks of a son of Maine for your manly and patriotic action during the few weeks just past.”
 
Most enjoyable, though, is the language of the letters themselves, conveying true emotion, vividly colorful descriptions, and a genuine honesty seldom seen in letters today.  Chamberlain may have been a lion on the Civil War battlefield, but he was a considerate, tender correspondent.
 
Desjardin is planning to release a biography of Chamberlain this year, but for those who can’t wait, see John Pullen’s excellent biography, "Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero's Life and Legacy" (Stackpole, 1999).
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