Chamberlain's "History"

Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory has a book review he did on The Grand Old Man of Maine: Selected Letters of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 1865-1914. Edited by Jeremiah E. Goulka. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 335 Pgs. $39.93 cloth.).

Having grown up in Maine I am quite familiar with Chamberlain’s story. Regardless of what one may think about the elevation of Chamberlain as the "Hero of Gettysburg" and the cult like status of him propagated through movies like Gettysburg, tee shirts and beer, he was at least in my opinon remarkable man. However this does not mean that I accept everything that has been credited towards him and that has served to elevate him as Maine’s premier Civil War hero. Clearly Chamberlain like many Civil War veterans had his faults.

Chamberlain wrote in 1896 “there is a tendency now-a-days to make “history” subserve other purpose than legitamate ones." (pg155). Close scrutiny of the historical record points out that many times Chamberlian’s own version of history was created to serve the purpose of expanding his reputation. Chamberlain’s tendency to embellish his record and accomplishments did not always sit well with his former comrades. The friendship between Major Ellis Spear of the 20th Maine and Chamberlain eventually soured over how the story of Chamberlain’s war record was portrayed and Chamberlain’s role in expanding it.

In the With a Flash of His Sword, The Writings of Major Holman S. Melcher, 20th Maine, Edited by William B Styple. (Kearny, NJ: Belle Grove Publishing, 1994, 335 pgs, $33.00 cloth.)the appendix includes a letter from Spear to Oliver W. Norton written in 1916. Commenting on Chamberlain’s Passing of the Armies, Spear wrote that Chamberlain’s account was a “tissue of lies” and that his “literary ability was of high order, and he always had a gracious manner, but was absolutely unable to tell the truth and was of inordinate vanity.” (With a Flash…Pg 298).

Chamberlain died in 1914 so Spear did not have to worry about ridiculing his former friend, but to air his thoughts like this speaks volumes of how some of the imperfections of Chamberlian’s nature and his desire to put the best positive light on his experience touched a nerve with his former brother in arms.

As Goulka writes in his introduction, Chamberlain was raised and educated in the notions of Victorian manhood. Elements such as honor and courage were traits that Chamberlain endeavored to exhibit publicly throughout out his life. His tireless work in developing and expanding the record of his Civil War service is clear evidence of this. Chamberlain is not the only former solider who did this but given his recent rise in status over the past thirty years he does attract a higher level of scrutiny from historians. To me Chamberlain was continually challenged internally trying to find higher meaning within his war experience and to recapture the excitmentemnt and spark that the war brought to his life. The only major difference between Chamberlain and the thousands of other Civil War veterans who did the same was the public and active nature by which he did it. I think critically evaluating Chamberlain and his history serves the purpose of examining how the traumatic period of the Civil War continued to shape the psyche of the individuals who lived through it and as a result the collective psyche of this nation.


Popular Posts