The Legend From Little Round Top

REVIEW: ‘On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’ by Ronald C. White

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Matthew Brady/Library of Congress)
February 4, 2024

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain never directed a great army (like William Sherman), nor did he steer a warship into battle (like David Farragut), nor was he elected president on the strength of his record in the Civil War (like Ulysses Grant). Nevertheless, Chamberlain has become one of the most easily identifiable icons among the legions of Civil War enthusiasts, and especially those enthusiasts for whom the battle of Gettysburg is the war’s central event.

As the second day of the great battle waned, a determined Confederate attack swept up the slopes of a wooded, rocky hill that was known forever afterward as Little Round Top, where it was stopped and repulsed by a regiment of Union infantry—the 20th Maine Volunteers— commanded by Chamberlain. Running low on ammunition, Chamberlain made a desperate gamble: fix bayonets and charge downhill at the Confederates, catching the attackers by surprise. Against every expectation, it worked. Little Round Top was saved and, by presumption, so was the battle of Gettysburg and maybe the Union itself.

Presumption is the key word here. For decades after the battle, Union veteran organizations coming to Gettysburg for anniversary celebrations of the battle chose to meet on Cemetery Hill, a mile or so north of Little Round Top and just overlooking the southern edge of the town of Gettysburg. They did so because Cemetery Hill, not Little Round Top, was the key piece of military geography in the three-day collision in July 1863. And if anyone in particular saved the battle for the Union on the second day, it was Col. Samuel Sprigg Carroll and his brigade of Ohioans, West Virginians, and Indianans, who sprinted across Cemetery Hill to repulse a Confederate attack that had almost overwhelmed it. By contrast, for almost 50 years after his death in 1914, Chamberlain was little more than a very brief footnote to Gettysburg.

But then, in 1957, came John J. Pullen’s The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, a brilliant achievement that sparked a renascence in the long-dormant genre of Civil War regimental histories, and one which put Chamberlain and Little Round Top back at the center of the Gettysburg story. Pullen, in turn, became one of the principal sources for Michael Shaara’s sensational fictional re-telling of Gettysburg in 1974, The Killer Angels, where Chamberlain became Gettysburg’s version of Harry the King. The novel, in turn, was made into the 1993 feature film, Gettysburg, by Ron Maxwell, with the walrus-mustached Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels) as its primary hero. By that moment, visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield could buy keychains, t-shirts, and Christmas ornaments adorned with Chamberlain’s image.

Along with the merch came the books: Alice Rains Trulock’s In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War (1992), Diana Loski’s The Chamberlains of Brewer (1998), Ed Longacre’s Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man (1999), John Pullen’s own Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero’s Life and Legacy (1999), Tom Desjardin’s Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters (2012), and Brian Swartz’s Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War (2021). To this file, add Ronald C. White’s On Great Fields, whose applause for Chamberlain takes the arc of Chamberlain-worship yet a few clicks further. For White, Chamberlain "remains a hero," not merely for Little Round Top, but for a postwar career in politics, academics, and business, in which "Chamberlain worked to foster reconciliation between North and South."

White has not spent most of his lengthy career as a Civil War historian. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1964, he began as a Presbyterian pastor in Colorado, earned a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, taught at several colleges, and wrote extensively on the history of the Social Gospel. It was not until 2002 that he scored a major public success with Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. But he went directly from there to writing well-received biographies of Lincoln and Ulysses Grant.

White has a facile and easily readable style, and his narrative of Chamberlain’s life touches all the major points. The descendant of New England Puritans in Maine, Joshua Chamberlain attended Maine’s first college, Bowdoin, and then followed with study for the Congregational ministry (and perhaps missionary work) at Bangor Theological Seminary. In 1855, however, he was offered a teaching job at Bowdoin in "Logic and natural theology," then advanced to teaching rhetoric. In the summer of 1862, he volunteered for service in the Union Army and was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine, serving with them through the great campaigns of the following year. He was promoted to brigadier general, and in the first assault on Petersburg (in July 1864) was so seriously wounded by a bullet that ripped laterally through his right hip that he was frankly advised by a field surgeon that he was dying. But he survived, to be promoted to major general and oversee the troops that lined the roadside at the surrender of the Confederate infantry at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

He was elected to four one-year terms as governor of Maine, from 1866 to 1870, then served as president of Bowdoin from 1871 till 1883. He plunged into various business ventures in Florida and New York City, but much of his energy went into re-fighting the old battles of the war before worshipful audiences of Union veterans. His eloquent memoir of the last months of the war, The Passing of the Armies, was published 14 months after his death in 1914.

And yet, there has always been a series of question marks to dog Chamberlain’s life. His terms as governor were undistinguished, and he played no part of any significance in Reconstruction. He was, if anything, only too willing to indulge unrepentant ex-Confederates as they sought to recapture political control of the former Confederacy. His presidency at Bowdoin was a series of frustrations, marked by frequent attempts at resignation. His business ventures were a flop. And his marriage to Frances Caroline Adams, who believed "children are the result of tyrannical cruel abuse and prostitution of women," suffered from repeated separations, accusations, and tensions.

But the most serious question mark has been about Chamberlain and the war. As a biographer, White frankly admires Chamberlain (as he did Lincoln and Grant), and he is careful to record the many words of praise Chamberlain earned from the soldiers he commanded and his fellow officers for bravery and camaraderie. And it is true that the fabled "Bayonet! Forward!" attack at Little Round Top was a beau geste of the highest order. But Little Round Top was more of a tactical accident than a centerpiece of the Gettysburg battle. Chamberlain’s attempts in the dreary postwar years to paint himself in increasingly heroic terms in lectures and articles, moreover, earned corresponding pushback from veterans of the 20th Maine for his "inordinate vanity" and being "absolutely unable to tell the truth." Above all, William Marvel has aggressively debunked Chamberlain’s posthumous claims in The Passing of the Armies to have "commanded the Union side of the surrender parade" at Appomattox.

Apart from the notoriety Chamberlain has won from being at the center of a marvelous novel and an epic motion picture, it is not clear why Chamberlain deserves to be the object of so much bouquet-throwing. Nor is White himself the kind of military historian who can explain that. His overall account of the Gettysburg battle is sketchy, and once Chamberlain has cleared Little Round Top, White neglects to explain that the battle only ended the next day with Pickett’s Charge—which was, after all, one of the most dramatic moments of the Civil War. White has spent generous amounts of time with the Bowdoin archives, but even there, the gaps in Chamberlain’s own paper trail occasionally reduce White to guesswork.

Reputations are flimsy things. After his death, Chamberlain was practically forgotten, and by the 1950s, the National Park Service’s guidebook to the Gettysburg battlefield made no mention of him at all. It took a novel and a movie to call Chamberlain out of the shadows of a life of disappointments, and they may not be the sturdiest of materials for the future.

On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
by Ronald C. White
Random House, 483 pp., $35

Allen C. Guelzo is director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in Princeton University’s James Madison Program and author of Robert E. Lee: A Life.