cover image On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Ronald C. White. Random House, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-525-51008-6

Biographer White (American Ulysses) provides an admiring portrait of Civil War hero and politician Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828–1914), whose actions defending Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg earned him widespread acclaim. There, he instructed his outnumbered men to fix bayonets and charge downhill at the Confederates, who surrendered in shock at the assault, turning the tide of the battle and ensuring a Union victory. Born in 1828 in Brewer, Maine, Chamberlain was shaped from his early years, according to White, by “four tributaries”: Christian faith, a love of music, an adventuring spirit, and a commitment to education. As a professor at Bowdoin College, he pushed back against the “old-fashioned teaching methods” of the faculty and encouraged critical thinking in his students. As a colonel of the 20th Maine Regiment, Chamberlain was a “master of maps” who dutifully studied the terrain over which his men would fight, playing over a battle’s “possibilities and problems in his mind.” Chamberlain went on to serve an unprecedented four terms as governor of Maine, eventually returning to Bowdoin as president. By delving deeply into Chamberlain’s intellectual and spiritual life, White successfully reconciles his subject’s contradictory reputation as both a “bookworm college and seminary student” and a “risk-taking Civil War soldier.” Civil War fans and general history readers alike should take note. (Oct.)