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ON GREAT FIELDS by Ronald C White

Book Review by Colin E Wilks

This is a very rare American Civil War biography, one that concentrates on the subject and his immediate surroundings rather than fitting that person in to a general history. It is not often that I can say I had great difficulty in putting a book down and was genuinely sorry when I reached the end, but this is such a case.


If you are looking for a biography of Chamberlain the soldier complete with complex troop movements and battle details then this is not the book for you. The book is in three main sections, Chamberlain before, during and after the American Civil War and it is the first and third sections that make this biography extraordinary.  


Admittedly, you will find Little Round Top described in detail but you will also learn of Chamberlain’s youth, his time as a student, professor and President of Bowdoin College. His influential postwar public service to his home state of Maine, he served four terms as the elected Governor, and his country are examined in great detail. How did a man trained as a teacher of speech and rhetoric, a trained minister, a deeply religious person come to lead his beloved 20th Maine in their famous charge down Little Round Top at Gettysburg?


This isn’t hero worship, nor is it an attempt to jump on the band wagon of destroying an historical figure's reputation. This is the detailed cradle to grave story of an inspired, complicated, driven individual, not a super hero but a man as flawed as the rest of us, impetuous and stubborn. Mild mannered, soft spoken, amiable and good humoured, a most unlikely military leader.


As is the current trend, many “historians” knock Chamberlain accusing him of embellishing if not completely fabricating his role in the Civil War.  Reading this biography, I am more certain than ever that this is not the case. Study the type of person Chamberlain was before and after the war and come to your own opinion. Read about the high regard he enjoyed amongst his peers and colleagues throughout his 85 years of life.


A few months ago I said that Kent Masterson Brown’s book on Meade at Gettysburg was the best ACW book I had read for many years, I am now pleased to place Ronald C White’s Chamberlain biography on the top shelf beside it.


Very highly recommended!

 November 2023


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