Book review

Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero's Life & Legacy

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.


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.