(statue of Joshua L. Chamberlain at Gettysburg Battlefield)
Recently my daughter earned a position a position at Bowdoin College and when I visited the campus I was struck by the statue of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an individual who I was familiar with but had not read much about. A week before visiting the Bowdoin campus my wife and I celebrated our anniversary traveling up and down the Maine coast, and for those who know me, they could predict I would find a few books, and in this case they were two biographies of Chamberlain, one of which was Alice Rains Trulock’s IN THE HANDS OF PROVIDENCE: JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, the subject of this review. I knew in advance that Chamberlain’s life story was remarkable, and perhaps, the book should have been titled, “The Professor turned General.” In any case students of the Civil War should become familiar with his exploits; a hero at Gettysburg, a hero during the run up to the siege of Petersburg, a hero at the final battle of the war that led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox; achieving the rank of major-general, and having his horse shot out from under him six times. His amazing career also included a professorship and presidency of Bowdoin College, and a four term governorship of the state of Maine. There is no question that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain deserves a full length biography depicting his many exploits and accomplishments, but I must ask, has Alice Rains Trulock done Chamberlain’s life justice? Trulock has written a comprehensive biography, but it lacks the incisive analysis that a major work of historical biography calls for. Trulock spends two-thirds of the book detailing Chamberlain’s role in the Civil War and the remaining third on his pre and post-war career. I wonder whether the book is an improvement over Willard M. Wallace’s biography, SOUL OF THE LION, written over thirty years earlier.
To Trulock’s credit she mines the documents carefully and does an exceptional job integrating Chamberlain’s own writings throughout the narrative. Her discussion of the attack and eventual siege of Petersburg and Chamberlain’s role in planning and carrying out orders is perhaps the author’s best section of the book, surpassing her very solid description of the Battle of Gettysburg. Her blend of the course of the many battles she describes, as well as her human interest approach provides the reader with the feel that they were riding along side Chamberlain as he was constantly under fire and repeatedly wounded. The major drawback to the narrative is the paucity of analysis, something that is not expected from a work of this type. Her approach is as a reporter and less so a historian. Her observations of Chamberlain’s bravery and the respect that the troops had for him is well and good, but beyond this and intricate details of a myriad of battles, I expected further discussion of the whys and wherefores of decision making and the historical significance of what transpired.
(General Joshua L. Chamberlain during the Civil War)
Trulock’s political observations are more interesting than her military ones. Her discussion of the Election of 1864 that saw President Lincoln defeat General George McClellan was astute. Arguing that it “was one of the most important victories of the war” for union forces, it belied the myth of McClellan’s popularity with the troops as Lincoln garnered a 3-1 advantage among the military. (221) The author also does a credible job as she portrays the important commanders during the war. In particular, her description of the self-serving Philip Sheridan, by providing examples of his egotistical nature is well put. I also enjoyed her discussion of the soldiers and the cross they had to bear. Her short biography of Sgt. Patrick DeLacey and his interaction with Chamberlain is poignant and reflects the raw courage of the men who fought for the union.
Aside from matters relating to the Civil War the reader is exposed to Chamberlain’s early years in Brewer, ME, his staunch moralism, and his early years at Bowdoin. After the war the narrative concentrates on Chamberlain’s presidency of Bowdoin, his governorship, military reunions, business ventures, his health, and family issues. An example of the analysis that may be missing is seen with the ruckus over the mandatory military drilling that Chamberlain called for at Bowdoin. When students opposed the order and rebelled, he suspended the entire student body as his solution for the “drill rebellion.” Trulock could have related this episode to Chamberlain’s own suspension from college when he thought his stand was a matter of honor to defend his beliefs, but she does not. Further, she does not really address why Chamberlain was able to be such a success in the military arts with little combat training. Perhaps it was the discipline he forged during his earlier life.
Overall, despite its flaws, Trulock’s biography is comprehensive and is a useful addition to any Civil War library. There are areas that should have been addressed, perhaps greater clarity of the “fog of war,” but to her credit she does address his depression, physical issues related to the war (he was wounded “by shot and shell” six times), and alludes to a probable case of PTSD from his wartime experiences. One wonders how he accomplished so much as he had to deal with so many personal issues. It reaffirms that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a worthy subject, and those with an interest in the topics that encompass his life might want to pursue Trulock’s biography.