Thursday, August 26, 2021

Booknotes: Passing Through the Fire

New Arrival:
Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War by Brian F. Swartz (Savas Beatie, 2021)

Brian Swartz's Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War "chronicles Chamberlain’s swift transition from college professor and family man to regimental and brigade commander. A natural leader, he honed his fighting skills at Shepherdstown and Fredericksburg. Praised by his Gettysburg peers for leading the 20th Maine Infantry’s successful defense of Little Round Top—an action that would eventually earn him Civil War immortality—Chamberlain experienced his most intense combat after arriving at Petersburg."

Military biographies are not a common part of the ECW series lineup, but I would welcome more of these, especially some covering figures who don't already have extensive biographical treatment. Chamberlain's story, of course, has been abundantly covered in books, magazines, and films, and popular interest in his Civil War career continues to remain steady. Using "Chamberlain’s extensive memoirs and writings and multiple period sources," Swartz's book "follows Chamberlain across Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia while examining the determined warrior who let nothing prevent him from helping save the United States."

Passing Through the Fire dutifully covers the entirety of Chamberlain's Civil War service, including Fredericksburg and his most famous leadership exploit at Little Round Top, but well over half the book recounts the general's activities during the 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Nearly forced to retire from the service due do his horrific injuries, Chamberlain did return to the army and was present at the Appomattox surrender, where he contributed yet another episode to famous Civil War legend and lore.

Twelve maps support the text along with numerous period and modern photographs. The appendix section contains three essays. The first is a tour of Chamberlain-related historical sites across Maine while the second discusses Chamberlain's relationship with his wife Fanny (a subject much explored and debated in the extensive Chamberlain literature) and the third looks at how Chamberlain gained (largely through the Shaara Gettysburg novel and the Burn's documentary series) his lofty and enduring stature in modern Civil War popular culture and history.

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