For every Northern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet four o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the hilltop is abandoned save for a few signal corps flagmen, the Rebs are emerging from the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Hood himself with his hat in one hand and his sword in the other looking along the ridge waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Warren and Vincent and Hazlett and O’Rorke and Weed and that guy from Maine look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: gift stores, a movie, t-shirts, all featuring the guy from Maine, with maybe a nice monument for Warren that everyone photographs … yet this time, we’ll remember Vincent and Hazlett and O’Rorke and Weed and all those who gave their lives (even Buster) to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the brave stand that will lead to the stillness at Appomattox two years hence …
Superbly understated, with a tip of the cap to Faulkner.
Very good, but, one of the biggest points in terms of Chamberlain being better known than the worthy officers you listed is that, unlike those officers, Chamberlain miraculously survived the war, despite his Petersburg wounds. He wasn’t a one hit wonder during the war, with regular army officers who didn’t normally have much use for volunteer officers pushing for his promotion. He also was a trained public speaker which put him in great demand. In terms of modern knowledge, it was nothing of his doing that, after his death, Pullen wrote one of the first great modern regimental histories on The Twentieth Maine which helped lead to Chamberlain’s selection by Michael Shaara as one of the lead characters in “The Killer Angels.”
Chamberlain may not have been responsible for Pullen, but he certainly was responsible for making himself the hero of Little Round Top with his repeated renderings of his role. Even some of his fellow soldiers in the 20th Maine took exception to his tendency to focus on his exploits. Whether the winners or losers write history may not be so important as the fact that the survivors first write it.
Actually, Desjardin’s book gives perspectives from numerous men who fought with the 20th Maine. You are right, they do not all agree with Chamberlain’s perspective. It’s fascinating how he follows many of the individual soldiers through their post-war careers.
Excellent work – preach on, brother. With a tip of the hat, of course, to Shaara, Burns, and Maxwell. The Professor only started his inflated legend. It took others to blow it up into a lucrative proposition.
Joshua Chamberlain remains something of a challenge to me. So does John B. Gordon. Here are two extremely competent citizen-soldiers who compiled credible records, yet their postwar publications and horn-blowing tends to grate. Yet it is hard to give credit where credit is due (and to withhold it when it is not due) without seeming to be a critic of each man’s performance.
You’ve nailed the problem. Both of them did plenty during the war that needed no embellishment. But the post-war “enhancements” and, especially in Chamberlain’s case, self-promotion put any objective writer in the position of having to make it clear where the criticsm is targeted. Gordon also escaped Shaara’s and Maxwell’s pop history lens and was subjected only to Burns’s, so that probably helps.
Brooks-I’m not sure what the expectations of Chamberlain should be. In the first place, he survived, which is is a major point in getting post-war attention. He was a trained public speaker and so would have been in demand. As he aged, he lost the nerdy look of his younger photos and developed an OW Holmes Jr. majestic aging Yankee look. He was very active in veterans affairs. Of course, they blew their own horns. So did many others which kept quite a few publications in business. I believe that in Chamberlain’s final publications, there was some issue of editors embroidering what he’d written. I don’t see him and Gordon as comparable. Gordon cast himself quite often as the central hero of everything, who would have won the war if his superiors had listened to him. I don’t get the same sense of hubris from Chamberlain.
In terms of criticizing Chamberlain’s recollection, a lot of credence is given to Ellis Spear, who turned on Chamberlain towards the end of their lives. However, when I bought a copy of Oliver Willcox Norton’s “Army Letters 1861-1865”, I was startled to read some postwar (July 1913) letters regarding Spears and Chamberlain from Norton, who, although he served under both Vincent and Chamberlain, devoted himself to ensuring Strong Vincent got the credit he was due. Norton’s correspondence was with Rev. Boyd Vincent, Strong Vincent’s brother, and includes a copy of a letter from Spear to Boyd Vincent accusing Chamberlain of “unjustly” taking credit away from Vincent for the events on LRT over the naming of Chamberlain Avenue (Spear claimed it should have been named Vincent). While Norton, in discussing, in his first letter, Norton says of Spear, “There may be some little truth in Spear’s statement about the action of the men of the 20th Maine without orders, but I do not take too much stock in it. These men were splendid soldiers and thoroughly disciplined and obedient to orders. I believe that Major Spear had some differences later with General Chamberlain and does not wish Chamberlain to have too much credit. Spear would represent that the men of the 20th Maine got along very well without any commander. I should say that they got along very well with a good commander.” the account of a Confederate who couldn’t bring himself to shoot Chamberlain, says he doubts the account, he concludes lightly by saying, “Chamberlain was the victim of one of those soldiers who recollect so distinctly so many things that never happened.” After the Bishop sent him the Spear letter, Norton responded saying that he had studied the 1903 map of the Battlefield and he believed that Spear’s claim that the avenue should have been named after Vincent, not Chamberlain was false.
A lot of work has been done on memory and how it is shaped. Over the years, as the various controversies were hashed and rehashed, a lot of hard feelings were created among former friends and odd alliances formed among former enemies.
Pullen’s book is ably followed by Tom Desjardin’s even better “Stand Firm, Ye Boys from Maine.”
Desdardin’s newly released “Joshua L. Chamberlain: A Life in Letters” promises to add a lot more spice to the subject of Chamberlain’s life.
The Professor was an embellisher. Hence his vivid portrayal of a surrender ceremony on April `12, 1865, some of the details of which existed only in his head and that of fellow fiction writer John B. Gordon.
It took me ten minutes to regain my breath from being doubled over with laughter. This is a classic for the ages…I felt…”like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.”
Okay. That’s stupendous. Actually my son had that T-shirt. Bought it here in town. Had the guy’s picture on it. Said “Class of 1852.” He wore holes in it.
T-shirt be damned.
I received a Christmas gift 15 years ago…a dozen golf balls with JLC’s fizz on it.
Been looking for Confederate ones because they would be more fun to hit!
Self-aggrandizement notwithstanding, one thing I have always wondered about is how many Confederates on the field before the “charge” had been at Malvern Hill in 1862…
Seems like once should have been enough, even for the CSA.