Chamberlain at Petersburg
The Grand Old Man of Maine
Maine's Coastal Cemeteries
Storming Little Round Top: The 15th Alabama and Their Fight for the High Ground, July 2, 1863
Gettysburg and the Christian Commission (containing John Chamberlain's Diary)
Fanny & Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero's Life and Legacy
The Chamberlains of Brewer
The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear
(Most items reviewed here can be purchased from the 20th Maine store if in print.)
At the centre of this booklet is a previously unpublished paper which Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain wrote in 1899 about the events surrounding his dreadful wounding during the attack on Rives' Salient, at Petersburg on June 18, 1864. Very profusely annotated with scrupulous thoroughness by Diane Smith, the text itself is an interesting addition to Chamberlain's published writings on Petersburg (and slightly earlier than most of the rest). The booklet also contains excerpts from JLC's other Petersburg reminiscences, many photographic illustrations, and an Introduction in which Diane Smith describes the campaign in the month or so leading up to June 18, with emphasis on what happened to JLC and the Fifth Corps (because there is so much detail compacted into only twenty or thirty pages, this is rather dry, but useful).
In his paper, JLC pays rightful tribute to Tom Chamberlain's well known part in the saving of his life, when Tom brought Dr Shaw from the 20th Maine to attend him, and "stood over me like a brother, and such a one as he was. True-hearted [Ellis] Spear with him, watching there like guardians over a cradle amidst the wolves of the wilderness". Diane Smith annotates this with a brief description of Tom's army career and the nice Bangor Library photograph of him.
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The Grand Old Man of Maine contains a wide selection of letters - some familiar from frequent quotes elsewhere, but many of them unfamiliar - organised into strict chronological rather than subject order. I like this format as it means unexpected topics and correspondents (family and friends; associates in business, politics, education and the army) can crop up at any time, and the reader has no inclination to skip potentially less interesting sections. There is, as I'd hoped and expected, some Tom Chamberlain content. In his Introduction (p.xxxvii), Jeremiah Goulka says: "There is relatively little correspondence with [JLC's] son Wyllys or his brother Tom, both of whom appear to have been disappointments to him, but he did see more of them than the others because they worked with him at times". This is quite true, but I'm slightly surprised that the editor chose not to include the very significant letter that JLC wrote to Tom on June 5, 1869, in which he poured cold water on Tom's latest plan to get an office in New York. In fact, there are no letters at all to Tom in the volume, but thankfully there are several which mention him: to Fanny on March 20, 1866; to their Father on November 26, 1870, July 25, 1872, and May 16, 1873; and to Sae on March 21, 1872, and March 19, 1895. Of these, only two (those of March 20, 1866, and March 19, 1895) were not in my Letters Inventory (I've now added them). Both mention Tom merely in passing; in the second JLC says he hopes "to hear good news about Tom", which presumably refers to his failing health at that time. Much more important and very welcome are the four letters dating from between 1870 and 1873 (see my descriptions in the Letters Inventory). All of these discuss Tom's lack of success in business in New York (caused, JLC thought, by his being "a little too timid" and wanting in "self- reliance"), and/or JLC's efforts to help him, especially by trying to find him work in Boston.
Aside from the Tom material, though, is The Grand Old Man of Maine a good read? Obviously some letters are more interesting than others, and one often wishes to see the other side of the correspondence, but there is certainly much to enjoy here, especially the communications with family (the spectacular ups and downs of life with Fanny!) and those relating to Civil War subjects (the letters concerning William Oates's attempts to have a 15th Alabama monument erected on Little Round Top reflect fairly well on JLC - more so than I expected - but, again, I regret not seeing the other side of the argument).
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In Maine's Coastal Cemeteries, Karen Wentworth Batignani devotes roughly a page to Tom Chamberlain and his grave in Castine Cemetery (pp.159-160). There are many excellent photographs in the book, but not one of Tom's gravestone (understandable as it's quite plain compared with some of the amazing and picturesque examples featured). The full inscription from the stone is included though, marred by an obvious error or typo: "U.S.U." for "U.S.V."! Talking of obvious errors, Tom is rather quaintly described in his mini-biog here as having risen to the rank of "Lieutenant Colonel of Company G" of the 20th Maine. Of his grave, the book says: "He and Delia are buried downhill from the flagpole. His stone has an evergreen shrub and a solar-operated garden light provided by a visitor who believes she is the descendant of Thomas' illegitimate wartime offspring. Apparently several people have made that claim, though no proof has surfaced."
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The role of the 20th Maine in the fight for Little Round Top on day two of the Battle of Gettysburg has been well documented in many books and articles. Relatively neglected has been the (arguably more remarkable) performance of the regiment opposing them on the hill: William C. Oates' 15th Alabama, which attacked uphill against an enemy in a good position and less exhausted than themselves. Yet the neglect has only been relative, and it is not (as Philip Tucker maintains) "one of the best remaining untold stories of the Civil War". There are already two recent books covering the subject in some detail, even though they are not devoted solely to the 15th Alabama. Philip Tucker claims: "The reality that [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain's own versions of Gettysburg were self-serving and exaggerated has been conveniently overlooked and ignored by most of today's historians". This may have been true a few years ago, but surely not today.
So what does this new volume add to the information and insight offered by Morris M. Penny and J. Gary Laine in their useful Struggle for the Round Tops: Law's Alabama Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2-3, 1863 (1999); by the 15th Alabama sections of Tom Desjardin's excellent Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign (1995); and by other works of the last decade or two, either covering the fight in general or concentrating on the Federal side? The answer is: not a lot!
Storming Little Round Top is mainly bulked out with material from William Oates' account and the 15th Alabama biographical roster in his The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905, but easily available in reprint), and a few harder-to-find published sources, with only a limited use of unpublished manuscript records. Philip Tucker does a reasonable job of collating everything into a coherent narrative, but it would be far more readable if an editor had wielded a strict blue pencil over the generalities, repetitions, padding, and attacks of adjectivitis. I wish I had a dollar for every time a unit is described as "veteran", "hard-fighting" or "battle-hardened", and an officer as "young" and/or "handsome". The value of the narrative is further reduced by the inadequate notes and references, the one meagre map, and the lack of interior photographs. There is no bibliography either: a serious omission, comparing very unfavourably with the 16-page bibliography in Struggle for the Round Tops. John Oates (who is - you guessed it! - "young, handsome") and his fate at Gettysburg feature a number of times, as is his due, but the mentions contain no new information.
Storming Little Round Top is a very disappointing book which promises much more than it delivers. It offers no fresh facts or insights into the men of the 15th Alabama, and fails to bring home to the reader the bravery and suffering of the regiment on that hot Pennsylvania day in 1863.
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For this volume, Daniel J. Hoisington has collected together four accounts of the Gettysburg campaign, written by members of the U.S. Christian Commission: Andrew Cross (his report, The Battle of Gettysburg and the Christian Commission); Jane Boswell Moore (the essay, "An Incident at Gettysburg", and two published letters); George Alexander Peltz ("Two Brass Buttons", a 'story' of fairly dubious veracity); and John C. Chamberlain (his Diary).
John Calhoun Chamberlain (born 1838) did not fight in the Civil War along with his older and younger brothers, Lawrence and Tom, but he was with them at Gettysburg, having signed on for a short term with the Christian Commission, intending to use it as an opportunity to visit them. John, then a student at Bangor Theological Seminary, left Maine on June 1, 1863, but by the time he arrived at Stoneman's Station, Virginia, where he expected to find Tom and Lawrence, they had already started the march to Pennsylvania. Unable to hurry off immediately to catch them up, he ministered and preached to the wounded in Army hospitals for several days, looking out particularly for men from Maine. Those of the 20th Maine spoke in glowing terms of Lawrence ("brave but considerate", "He don't say go boys but come"), and said they had been hard used by their former Colonel, Adelbert Ames. They also liked Tom because he "was not afraid to speak to a private". It was at this time that John witnessed the poignant burial of two unknown soldiers; and encountered D. (Dexter) E. Boyden of the 6th Vermont (Sixth Corps), a "hard case" whose experiences, as described by John with dry Maine humour, were both funny and tragic. "O! the unspeakable suffering of war," John cries, almost as an afterthought, and as though he hasn't yet realised the full meaning of the words.
He eventually travelled north, via Washington (and more hospital visits), and met up with his brothers at Aldie in the Bull Run Mountains, a few days after the battle there on June 17. He accompanied the 20th Maine to Gettysburg, and left his siblings as the regiment went into action on Little Round Top, July 2. "[T]he front was one continuous roar and one mass of smoke" as the exhausted John fell back to the rear and went in search of food. The next day, despite feeling "quite sick and faint", he worked with the wounded, principally at the Fifth Corps hospital, expecting all the time to discover Tom or Lawrence among the "Men without an eye or nose or leg or arm or with mangled head or body... each one looking a little worse than the one that went before". It was a joyous reunion when they finally met again on July 5, and he found that his brothers were relatively unscathed, although Lawrence was "sick and nervous". The dead on the battlefield and the optimism of many of the wounded ("all very patient and uncomplaining", despite devastating injuries) made a major impact on John, and this section of his account includes some of his most vivid and powerful descriptions. He was with the 20th Maine as it withdraw from the battlefield, but took his leave of his brothers several days later, when a bout of violent sickness laid him low for some time and prevented him from keeping up with them.
As he headed back to Washington around July 14, John's adventures were not quite over. At Relay House he was taken into custody and cross-examined by "an overbearing puppy with shoulder straps" and by the Provost, Captain Joseph, "an evil looking personage", who considered John's papers to be suspicious (his possession of a small Rebel flag and hymnbook, picked up as souvenirs, doubtless increased the suspicions). Held as a likely spy, he spent the night in a filthy guardhouse, his righteous and rightful anger growing by the minute. The next day in Baltimore his papers were accepted without question and he resumed his journey to the Capital. By a strange irony, it was John who suffered worse physical after-effects of the Gettysburg campaign than either Tom or Lawrence. It seems to have weakened his already weak constitution and he died of lung disease only four years later.
During John's weeks with the Christian Commission he kept a travel diary covering the period from June 1 to August 3, although he left it behind in Washington just before joining his brothers, so some of the later sections were compiled, "in my present unstrung nervous condition", from notes and memory, after he retrieved the journal on July 16. This Diary only came to light in the summer of 1986, among Chamberlain family papers (it is now in the collection of the Pejepscot Historical Society). In Gettysburg and the Christian Commission, the complete text appears in print for the first time. It's a fascinating document, full of interesting, evocative, touching and not infrequently humorous details of the sights and smells of army life ("O! for the snuff at a good old fashioned New England skunk", someone remarks, when the "Zephers" become especially offensive!), and the desperate tragedy of war.
It is also essential for all students of the Chamberlains, and not least because it gives John's low-key version of the "Hard Day for Mother" scene so dramatically and famously described by Lawrence many years later. "Low-key" sums up many of the diary entries, especially the early ones, and the reader gets the sense that John is sometimes holding his own emotions and feelings in check, which gives them greater significance when they do come to the surface (as in his experiences on the field at Gettysburg immediately after the battle, and with officialdom on the way home). His pride in his brothers, "the Col." and "the Adjt.", shines through; so does a growing, heartfelt horror at what he sees. There are several references to Tom, including John's initial meeting at Aldie with "a gay looking horseman cantering up the street" ("'How are you, Adjt? Take off my pants! What will you go for them, a 5 spot?', etc"); and their relieved greeting after the battle at Gettysburg ("If I ever shook hands heartily, I did so then, as I looked on Lawrence and Thomas alive").
Gettysburg and the Christian Commission begins with an excellent 37-page essay, "A Thousand Nameless Acts: The Christian Commission at Gettysburg", by Daniel Hoisington. Well-researched and immaculately written, it is both informative and moving. Hoisington also provides short prefaces before each of the Christian Commission members' accounts. The introduction to John Chamberlain's Diary is five pages long and gives some good solid background and context. Just as useful are Hoisington's annotations throughout: he has managed to identify practically everyone mentioned by John, although (disappointingly) one of the few exceptions is the obnoxious Captain Joseph!
John Chamberlain's Gettysburg Diary is an important document which has long deserved publication. Edinborough Press are to be congratulated for getting it into print at last, and as part of a very accessible, easy-to-afford but neatly produced and well illustrated, paperback edition. Highly recommended.
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While reading the various books about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, most of us must have wondered from time to time exactly what he saw in his wife, Fanny Adams Chamberlain. I confess that I, for one, have tended to think of her as a bit of a "cold fish". Now Diane Monroe Smith, in this superb biography of Fanny and Lawrence, has shown us just how wrong we've all been; and at the same time she has substantially added to Tom Chamberlain scholarship.
Someone asked me recently how to bring the person one is writing about to life (not that I'm an expert on this!). My response was "Quote, quote, quote" - that is: use as many of the subject's own words as possible. Diane Smith has taken this route, choosing to allow Fanny and Lawrence to speak for themselves through their letters to each other, and to and from relatives and friends. Her own contribution to the text, however, is a great deal more than just linking commentary: it provides a strong and insightful narrative thread, giving not only the historical and personal context but much else besides. This, combined with the vast amount of research which she has done, resulting in major new discoveries and connections, makes Fanny & Joshua a truly excellent volume.
There are some 'facts' about Fanny which everyone knows, or thinks they know: for instance, that she originally wanted a sexless marriage; and that, while Lawrence was fighting on Little Round Top, she went gadding off to New York on a shopping spree, leaving her husband in ignorance of her whereabouts. Both 'facts' are, as Diane Smith reveals, a long way from the whole truth.
As far as the first is concerned, it appears that Fanny had a perfectly natural (especially for those times) young woman's fear of childbirth, coupled with the belief that if she delayed having babies and continued to work, they could marry sooner. As for the second, Fanny was in New York in July, 1863 - that is unquestionable; but she went there from Washington, where she had been waiting for a pass to visit Lawrence. When the pass was not forthcoming as a result of the 20th Maine's smallpox outbreak, she had travelled back only as far as New York, in the hope that she might be able to return to visit her husband, and perhaps in the fear that she might be needed should he fall ill or be wounded. Unfortunately, letters which she sent to Lawrence and other family members to keep them informed of her whereabouts were delayed or failed to arrive (not an uncommon occurrence in the War), and in the ensuing weeks she looked in vain for a message from Lawrence telling her what to do. He, meanwhile, assumed that she had gone back to Maine. On May 26, sister Sae wrote to Tom Chamberlain giving him the news of Fanny's continued absence and adding: "Did you ever hear of such a thing?" Previous books have maintained that Tom must have withheld this information from his brother until after Gettysburg, presumably to avoid worrying him. In fact, even as late as mid-June, as Diane Smith has now shown, Lawrence was aware that Fanny was not yet home - he just did not know where she was, since by then he had no reason to believe she was still in New York.
As well as Tom Chamberlain's involvement in that infamous breakdown in communications, Fanny & Joshua is a veritable treasure-trove of other Tom material, with many quotes from letters to, from, and about him. Some of the sources are entirely unpublished, but even those formerly excerpted in print are often more extensively quoted here. They range all the way from the letter which Lawrence wrote early in 1854, where the mischievous and loveable (not "difficult", as has been suggested elsewhere) twelve-year-old Tom is called a "little rogue"; through Civil War correspondence; and on to Tom's unfortunate post-War years. His marriage to Delia was not without its bad patches but it is nice to know that, to begin with, they were "happy as gulls on a rock", according to Lawrence. Tom also seems to have got on with his nephew Wyllys (they were quite similar in some ways), but the communications from disgruntled business associates and worried family members tell a sad tale of Tom's failures. This latter part of his life is covered particularly well. In addition, amongst the superb and often unfamiliar range of illustrations in the book, there is a photograph of Tom which, I am fairly certain, has never been published before. He is in his Captain's uniform, and I would guess from internal evidence that it was probably taken during the same 'session' which produced the carte-de-visite heading this web site.
Overall, the impression left by Fanny & Joshua of the eponymous couple is of two strong, dynamic characters, sometimes too strong for their own good, although I find that I like them both very much. During their long marriage there were periods of estrangement, not only by force of circumstance but also by choice: at one point it even seemed that all love was lost, but it, or at least a deep affection, returned. This huge book paints the most thorough and accurate portrait of Fanny and Lawrence to date (though you'll need to look elsewhere for battle descriptions); as such it's an essential for even the most limited of Chamberlain bookshelves. The specific coverage of Tom Chamberlain also makes it one of the two most important printed sources of information on him (the other being The Chamberlains of Brewer, of course).
Oh yes, and Diane Smith does offer a very reasonable hypothesis to explain that disturbing line from a letter which Lawrence wrote to Fanny in the early 1850s, before they were married: "You remember the jar in the cellar-way. He would have been three weeks old to day"!
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A new Chamberlain book by John Pullen of The Twentieth Maine fame has to be a major event, and this absorbing volume easily lives up to expectations, even though it concentrates almost entirely on Lawrence's generally less exciting post-War years, together with the recent revival of interest in him (a quote here from the late Phyllis Marshal Watson is touching - what a shame she didn't live to see her feelings about Lawrence in print).
Examining Chamberlain's life and career after the Civil War, Pullen looks at why (despite his four terms as governor of Maine) he experienced as many failures as successes. Lately there have been signs of an anti-Chamberlain backlash, and Pullen's perfectly correct description of Lawrence's "stubborn insistence on doing whatever he thought to be right" regardless of the consequences, and of the fact that he "did not set a value upon himself below his real worth", will be read by the revisionists as a polite way of saying that he was a self-righteous braggart. They will not be pleased for long, however, as Pullen's intention is neither to destroy Lawrence's reputation nor to deify him, but to portray the public and (to a lesser extent) the private face of a man who was deeply flawed but astonishingly courageous (both during the War and after it). The balance is just about right, although I would have liked to see some discussion of Ellis Spear's later criticisms, even if it was only to debunk most of them.
The coverage of Lawrence's continued involvement with War matters is probably the most interesting aspect of Joshua Chamberlain, but some sections of the book are as much a history of Maine as of one individual. John Pullen's detailed analysis of the political events in the state in 1879-1880, which culminated in Lawrence's quelling of an angry mob by words alone, deserves particular praise. I had read what all the other Chamberlain books say on the subject (including Lawrence's own article), but now I finally feel I've begun to understand what happened.
There are only a few passing mentions of Tom Chamberlain here, but a long letter from Lawrence to his daughter in December 1886, quoted in full, contains a throw-away remark which is curious, given the time when it was produced. He writes from New York to tell Grace that he has been very sick but is feeling better, and adds: "Wyllys [his son] is well. My brother & sister are well. So, as Cicero would say, 'I am well'." Tom was the only brother still alive in 1886, so the reference is clearly to him, and yet by this year the family had become seriously concerned about his health, drinking and dissipation. Lawrence's letter perhaps reflects some small upturn in Tom's fortunes, but if so it must have been all too fleeting.
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This review has been reprinted in the October 1998 edition of the Chamberlain CWRT's First Call (Volume xiii, No.8), and in the December 1998 issue of the ACWRT(UK)'s Crossfire (No.58).
In his foreword to Diana Loski's small but well-researched and well-referenced book, Tom Desjardin says: "When people gather to discuss the life and times of [Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain], the questions turn inevitably to [his] siblings. What ever became of John Chamberlain? What did Tom do after the war? How did their sister feel about them fighting?"
This is very true. In fact, I first came to write my essay on Tom Chamberlain because friends who had seen the movie Gettysburg asked me if I knew whether Tom had survived the war. Despite the existence of so many books on Joshua L. Chamberlain it has, until recently, been hard to find anything more than brief snippets of information on his four younger siblings, mentioned only in passing by writers clearly desperate to get back to the subject closest to their heart - the great man himself.
Nevertheless, the other Chamberlains all deserve consideration in their own right. There was Horace, the lawyer, who died of consumption at the young age of twenty-seven, but not before touring Europe and writing an (apparently mercifully!) unpublished novel inspired by his travels. There was John, the businessman trained as a minister, who joined the Christian Commission during the Civil War in order to visit his brothers, and died a few years later, perhaps as a direct result of his experiences in 1863. There was Tom, the war hero and brevetted Colonel, who struggled and failed to make a life for himself after the hostilities. And there was Sarah (Sae), the rock-solid heart of the family, who held steady despite the tragedies surrounding her, and outlived all her brothers, dying in 1921 in the era of "Motion pictures, telephones, and automobiles".
Diana Loski succeeds in breathing life into these various characters, even the short-lived Horace, but the bulk of the book deals with the war years so inevitably concentrates on Tom and John. Quotations from many family letters and from John's diary of his weeks with the Christian Commission are well used, although the sections from the latter only serve to confirm my view that a complete and annotated edition of John's diary should be published. Brief though his adventures were, they make fascinating reading - not merely during the time when he joined his brothers at Gettysburg, but also later when he was arrested as a suspected Confederate spy. Ms Loski gives just enough background on the war and on the career of brother Lawrence to allow the reader to understand the context without getting bogged down by unnecessary generalities.
The Chamberlain sibling who comes across as the most likeable is undoubtedly Sae. Ms Loski makes a telling point when she notes that: "The two surviving portraits of [Sae] show a smile on her face at a time when Victorian ethics and the long process of portraiture and photographic processing caused most people to show their serious side." There is plenty of evidence here, however, that poor Tom rarely had a smile on his face, at least once the war was over. His wife Delia wrote, "He seems to feel that he was born to be unlucky", but his bad luck was largely of his own making. Although post-traumatic stress and physical illness were probably among the causes of his failure in later life, there was also a flaw in his character which would have existed even if the war had not intervened (in fact, there is an argument for saying that his life might have been still sadder without the war). In an insightful paragraph, with which I largely agree, Diana Loski sums him up thusly:
"It appears that Tom had been guided all his life by family members and simply was not prepared to live independently. Even in war, Joshua had remained near Tom, looking out for him as their father had requested. Additionally, the army, with its many regulations, was more structured than normal life. Tom liked the army and felt comfortable within that structure. When it was taken from him, he fared poorly navigating alone."
The Chamberlains of Brewer packs a lot into a relatively small number of pages, but rarely seems rushed. There are no errors of any significance (though I might disagree occasionally with Ms Loski on matters of interpretation), and the excellent text is supplemented by a fine choice of illustrations. These include a portrait of Tom in later life which may be unique. The only major omission is an index, the lack of which is unfortunate, even in such a small volume. Nonetheless, both Diana Loski and Thomas Publications should be congratulated for producing a new book which offers much genuinely original scholarship, rather than just a rehash cashing on in the Chamberlain cult.
A review of The Chamberlains of Brewer appeared in the December 1998 edition of Civil War News, and it's interesting to compare it with mine. The reviewer, Jeffry Wert, while generally coming out in favour of the book, does list several errors. His points are all perfectly valid. As he says, "the Union army did not abandon its winter camps along the Rappahannock and withdraw to Alexandria on Jan. 24, 1864" (Diana Loski's source for this detail was the History of the 44th New York, a regiment which was moved to Alexandria on that date); "the Federals did not remain behind their breastworks at the Wilderness on May 6" (it may have been quiet in front of the 20th Maine, but there was savage fighting elsewhere); and "Grant did not attack Lee's lines at Cold Harbor on June 2, but on the 3rd" (Tom Chamberlain was injured on June 2 during the Union defence of the Bethesda Church end of the line, not during the infamous attack). Although the first two mistakes hadn't particularly registered with me until I read the Civil War News review (I did spot one or two others!), I'm not sure I'm quite ready to go back on my statement that "there are no errors of any significance" in the book. In the light of Jeffry Wert's own superb biographies of George Armstrong Custer and James Longstreet, however, he is probably fully justified in expecting the same level of accuracy from other authors.
The Feb/Mar 1999 Civil War News included a letter responding to Jeffry Wert's review. The letter-writer, E. Michelle Brown, defends The Chamberlains of Brewer as being the first to place Joshua L. Chamberlain within the context of his family - a very fair point - but she fails to address Wert's main criticisms of the work's factual errors. She then goes on to say: "The picture that stays in my mind is that of Thomas Chamberlain's isolated, wind-swept grave in Castine. This spring, as a result of Loski's book, flowers might once again be placed on it by reflective visitors. To me, and probably the good Colonel as well, that is much more important in the scope of humanity than the exact time of day Petersburg fell."
I'd certainly be the last person to disagree with a sentiment that encourages the remembrance of Tom's grave, but as the photograph (pre-dating The Chamberlains of Brewer) on the home page of my site shows, the grave has not been forgotten or neglected in recent years. I have even heard of the stone being adorned (or defaced?) with a large lipstick kiss, which is taking things a bit too far! We have the Gettysburg movie and Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels to thank for the interest in Tom, whatever one might think of his portrayal there (and I like it, though it's not at all close to the 'real' Tom).
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This review of the memoirs of Tom Chamberlain's friend, Ellis Spear, was written for the ACWRT(UK)'s Crossfire, and appeared in issue 56 (April 1998). It has also been reprinted in the June 1998 edition of the Chamberlain CWRT's First Call (Volume xiii, No.6).
Ellis Spear of Wiscasset, Maine, was a Captain, Major, and eventually Colonel of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's Twentieth Maine Volunteers, ending the Civil War as a brevet Brigadier-General. He completed his Memoirs a few years before his death in 1918, but they did not see print in his lifetime and have remained unpublished until now, despite the recent near-cult interest in Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine's participation in the Battle of Gettysburg. Some will no doubt deduce from the Memoirs' failure to appear for so long that they must not be worth reading, but happily one needs only to examine the first half dozen pages of The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear to realise that this is not the case.
The book consists of three sections. The first chronologically is a transcript of Spear's Diaries for 1863-1865; the second is his "Personal Memoranda of the War of the Rebellion", written in 1896, apparently for his descendants to keep in his memory; and the third is the "Civil War Recollections" proper, which were started around 1905 but seem not to have been finished for ten years. This third section is often merely an elaborated version of the second, but at 190 pages it is about three times as long and it covers the entire period of the War, whereas the "Memoranda" ends at Spotsylvania Court House. Naturally the Diaries, being written 'on the spot', offer the most historically reliable version of events, and they frequently provide useful insights and information, but their understandable terseness leads to a number of daily entries where Spear simply records that the weather is "Cold" or "Rainy". Even July 2, 1863, the day which was arguably the most important in the Regiment's career, gets no more than a hundred words. This is the defence of Little Round Top:
"The Enemy soon made his appearance. We fought at close quarters more than 2 hours. They flanked us & hurt us severely. Our men fell rapidly. At last we charged drove them & took many prisoners."
In the "Recollections" these few lines have been extended to about four pages. One always has to be wary of reminiscences (whether by Spear, Chamberlain or anyone else) of events which happened thirty or forty years previously, and Spear unquestionably had an axe to grind by the 1890s, but, mercifully, the vicious personal attacks on Chamberlain which he indulged in during the final few years of his life are not to be found in the "Recollections" or the "Memoranda". Contrary to popular opinion, though, he does assert that the left wing of the Twentieth Maine on Little Round Top, under his command (as acting Major), was not out of ammunition and never received the order to charge. He then goes further and casts doubt on the idea that Chamberlain ever gave any such order. Instead, he claims that a few soldiers around the color guard wanted to move slightly to cover their wounded, and their cry of "Forward" was understood by the rest of the line as a command to charge.
The modern idea of Chamberlain coolly formulating a "textbook manoeuvre" and sending his men in a "Right Wheel Forward" has never been borne out by the facts. Chamberlain himself at the time and for years afterwards spoke only of his men attacking in what accidentally became a "Right Wheel Forward" because of the lie of the land. He also modestly admitted that he only got as far as the order to fix bayonets before the men took matters into their own hands. Lt Holman Melcher and other members of the color company had wanted to collect the wounded from their front but had been informed by Chamberlain that he was about to order the charge.
True, Chamberlain maintained he had personally told Spear he was planning a charge, but otherwise their description of events is not so markedly at odds. However, Spear had one major fault, which is seen here and elsewhere in his writings about the War: he tended to assume that his experience was the same as everyone else's in the Regiment. He wasn't ordered to charge, so therefore he deduced that the rest of the Twentieth can't have been either. In reality, surely it is just as likely that in the heat of battle the order simply didn't reach him.
Spear's Memoirs are of vital historical importance, especially since the only other published full-length history by a soldier of the Twentieth Maine, Theodore Gerrish's Army Life, was written by someone who was not himself present at several battles, including Gettysburg. Nevertheless, Spear's intention was to write about the "smaller details", and it is his concentration on the minutiae of the everyday life of a middle-ranking officer (with a particular emphasis on food and comfort!) which gives the book its distinctive flavour. He was the possessor of an especially dry sense of humour, of the sort which I understand to be typical of "Down-East" Maine. Thus, except in the midst of the worst of battle, there is always time for an amusing anecdote or witty turn of phrase. For instance, when describing an attempt to play "euchre" in a small tent in camp on the way to Fredericksburg, he says:
"The tent was not high enough to stand in and one of us had to lie across the end and one on each side, each resting upon one elbow and handling the cards as best we could. When we got tired of that position we would exchange places so as to bring the other elbow into action, and when we were utterly weary of the game we went out and stood in the rain."
Ellis Spear was a down-to-earth realist; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a romantic, and possibly the best writer to participate in the War. To get a feel for the truth of what life was really like in the higher echelons of the Twentieth Maine, one should read them both (it would be wrong to assume that the realist was always the more accurate). If you want to know only about the "gallant manhood" of the troops then stick to Chamberlain, but you will be missing a great deal.
The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear also contains a good selection of photographs and some short endnotes. Sometimes the notes are a little too brief to put Spear's experiences properly into context, and both they and the index are not without errors, but these are minor criticisms.
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Last altered June 17, 2005.
Copyright (c) 2005 Rosemary Pardoe.
All unassigned material written by Rosemary Pardoe and not to be reproduced without permission.
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