Review of Joshua L. Chamberlain: The Life in Letters

The complete title isĀ Joshua L. Chamberlain: The Life in Letters of a Great Leader of the American Civil War by Thomas Desjardin and I just finished reading it. It took a while. I read over half of it a week after it was published but then life got in the way and I had to let it sit for a little bit. Tonight I finished it just in time to watch the women’s gymnastics Olympics competition without distraction. I think Chamberlain would want it that way, said tongue-in-cheek.

I avoided reading reviews of this book for the most part because I don’t like to be influenced by other opinions when people want mine to be unfiltered. Given my history with the Chamberlain story, it’s better for me to avoid armchair historians anyway. We’ll keep my history out of this review though and approach it as an historian on the family in my own right. I believe I have earned the right to be called a Chamberlain historian given the fact that I have spent many hours climbing around different libraries, Chamberlain residences, places of employment, and historical societies in Maine to research the actual things he wrote, the things he owned, and so forth. We’re talking white gloves, protective sleeves, librarians giving me strange looks over their glasses and all. In other words, I know a little more than the average bear, so my review of this book is meant in the utmost respect as someone who has spent more than a decade doing similar research (although I didn’t have an all access pass like Desjardin did!).

Joshua L. Chamberlain: The Life in Letters of a Great Leader of the American Civil War is a collection of previously unpublished letters held by the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There are over 200 unpublished letters in this book, although many are not in fact written by Chamberlain himself. The letters came to the NCWM by way of artist Don Troiani, who acquired them from Chamberlain relatives (mainly descendants of his sister), which means these were things that he probably kept over his lifetime. He would not have kept most of his own letters, obviously, so it’s a little inconceivable that this book would contain a large number of things written in his own hand. Most of the letters in his own hand were addressed to Fanny, who progressed from friend to fiancee to wife over the course of the book, and she would have kept them, allowing us to see them today.

This is not to downplay the things he wrote, however. The collection begins while Chamberlain is a college student. We are allowed to see a few of his papers, which show a somewhat awkward writing style that had not yet developed into the writer we know in history. As the book progresses, so too does his relationship with Fanny (alternately spelled Fanny and Fannie, which everyone did to her, not just him). The intimacy in their relationship relayed through letters was a necessity for them as they were often separated by great distances. Historians interested in Chamberlain the army leader or Chamberlain the politician are going to struggle with the first half of the book as it focuses on his love life, local happenings, and family matters. I disagree with the idea that these aspects of his existence are somehow less important or less than worthy of study because every part of his private life influenced what kind of man he was in the various incarnations of his professional life. A study of a man must encompass the entirety of his being, not just cherry picking the glory and the disaster.

One aspect of the book that I found quite important was the multitude of letters from Fanny, which is not something Chamberlain historians are used to seeing. That has made her a bit of an enigma at best and a minor footnote in mediocrity and a cold-hearted villain at worst. Letters from Fanny in this book reveal a woman very much in love with Chamberlain nearly from the beginning of their acquaintance but almost fearful of its depth and magnitude to the point of recoiling sometimes. I believe the publication of her new letters disproves the idea that she was a cold fish who never loved him. She was plagued by insecurity, family hostility, and living in a world where women were not equal to men no matter how progressive men were (like her Chamberlain). People interested in what was going on in Fanny’s mind would do well to read this book as a companion to Fanny and Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain by Diane Monroe Smith, which is the one other book that gives Fanny fair treatment.

There is some suggestion in the first half of the book that Chamberlain’s relationship with his cousin Annie was an actual affair while Fanny was in Georgia during their engagement. It was speculated in the Smith book but more letters concerning their relationship surfaced in this collection. It should be noted that none of “the affair” letters in this collection were penned by Chamberlain but instead we get a glimpse at 11 letters from Annie. I found her to be increasingly dramatic, obsessive and possessive as time passed. Once Fanny came into the picture again, he appears to have all but ditched Annie entirely, creating almost a scorned and isolated woman, exiled by her own father for having the affair. She would not take no for an answer, even asking him for a rendezvous just before his wedding. I believe there are pieces of his side of the story, so to speak, in the Smith book. Again, these things are important if we are to study the entire man and what made him tick. I have many more impressions about “the affair” but that’s a whole other blog.

The letters Chamberlain wrote during the Civil War are probably going to be the most interesting to the average fan buying this book. Comparatively, the war makes up a fairly small portion of the book but the letters are mostly written by him and full of interesting content. There are insights into his frustration with the army, the government and making sure things are secure at home. Of course, there are his usual eloquent descriptions of army life, loneliness and combat as well.

In the last portion of the collection, there is almost nothing from his four terms as Governor of Maine. Those things have already been largely collected and published, or, at the very least, accessible in state archives. The final portion of the book is largely made up of letters he collected praising his work during the Twelve Days state crisis in 1880. I did not find very much of value in these letters as most of them read like fan mail but it is important in the context of showing the instrumental role he played in restoring order without bloodshed. He certainly kept those letters of praise as anyone naturally would and I find no fault in it. They simply didn’t hold my interest as much as the first three-quarters of the book because of the lack of his own voice in the matter.

As to the overall importance of the collection, I do believe there is significance to this book but it’s hit and miss. That’s hardly the fault of the author, however, as some have insinuated. Chamberlain material has so largely been collected, published and examined that finding anything new is a revelation. The significance of this book is further developing the truth in this man as well as dispelling myths about some of the people who populated his life. Studying the man means studying everything about him – the good, the bad, the love, the hate, the hardships and even the seemingly trivial. The importance of this collection is adding to what we already have and know. I’m not entirely sure that it could stand on its own as a book about Chamberlain, meaning I wouldn’t give it to someone with a new interest in him. This book is easier to read if you have a working knowledge of his life. I suggest it as a companion to the Smith book primarily but some prefer other biographies. In other words, this is not a beginner’s book for aspiring Chamberlain scholars but it serves its purpose of fleshing out a rather complicated man surrounded by rather complicated people.

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