My second favorite historical figure from the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln, is “the fighting professor”, Major General Joshua Chamberlain. Like many, I became a fan after reading the classic Michael Shaara novel Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, in which then-Colonel Chamberlain plays a starring role as the rhetorician-turned-soldier who saves the union army on Little Round Top. Like some Nietzchean philosopher-warrior come alive, he “refuses the line” at the far end of the Union left flank, with a desperate bayonet charge down the rocky hillside, all while contemplating the meaning of it all. Straight out of central casting, what academician wouldn’t salivate at admiring this action-hero figure?
But was it too good to be true? Could a rhetoric and religion professor really become a military hero? The academic skeptic in me just couldn’t rest without separating the rhetorical chaff from the history wheat. In my typical OCD way, I started reading about Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Lincoln, and the Civil War overall in hopes of answering these and other questions. I also made the trip to Gettysburg, stood on Little Round Top – on the very large boulder from which Chamberlain anchored the “wheel” for his company’s charge down the hillside – and tried to imagine that burning hot July 2nd so many years ago. Would I have been able to measure up?
In addition to spending much time on Little Round Top in Chamberlain’s shoes, while moving about the park, I lingered at two other places that day that invited introspection. The first, not far from Little Round Top was the national cemetery where Lincoln stood to deliver his great speech. It sent chills down my spine to imagine being there that day. The second was standing in the woodline where the young Confederate soldiers in Pickett’s brigade would have stood, preparing to march across a near-mile long, open field into the teeth of the Union line, looking across the way to tiny copse of trees where the Union lines waited. How could they do it? What could possibly motivate them to make that march of death? Would I have been willing and able to do it?
These questions, and many others, led me to explore a reasonable chunk of the available Civil War literature. This includes multiple books on Gettysburg, another handful on other battles (and visits to the sites), a dozen or so Lincoln biographies, and another 10 on other significant figures. Regarding Chamberlain, I’ve read several of his own first-hand accounts of the war he provided, but I haven’t read a full biography.
But I was tingling with excitement about seeing the house he lived in, now converted to a museum about his life. What items did they have within? What new facts would I learn about his extraordinary life?
In the next post, I’ll describe the museum visit itself. As is so often the case, the truth is a little different than what I thought I knew.