Book Review: Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War


by Brian F. Swartz.

El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2021. Pp. xii, 180. Illus., maps, appends., biblio. $14.95 paper. ISBN: 1611215617

The Hero of Little Round Top

Joshua Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top on the second day of Gettysburg, was relatively unknown until Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize novel, Killer Angels was published in 1974, and Ken Burn’s PBS series, The Civil War that first aired in 1990, and the film adaptation of the novel that appeared in 1993. From virtual obscurity he became one of the most well-known heroes of the Civil War, a cult figure to many enthusiasts.

Although there have been several accounts of Chamberlain’s life, journalist and historian Swartz, himself a Maine native, has drawn upon fresh material, including rare and obscure letters, reports, and memoirs, to offer some important new insights into Chamberlain’s early life, his military career, his leadership while governor of Maine, and his presidency of Bowdoin College, enabling readers to gain a better understanding of the man’s life and role in the Civil War.

Swartz opens with the start of Chamberlain’s military career, in 1862 during the battle of Antietam, and carries his story through to end of the general’s life in 1914, in Portland, Maine. He gives us a fast-paced narrative, of battles such as Fredericksburg, Gaines Mill, Petersburg, Five Forks, and Appomattox Court House, plus a tour guide that allows the traveler to visit the sites mentioned. Swartz is particularly interesting in providing a detailed depiction of what the by then Colonel went through following being shot at Peterburg on June 18, 1864. Despairing of his survival, Ulysses S. Grant gave him a death-bed promotion, followed by heroic efforts on the part of his doctors that saved his life, including being hand carried by eight soldiers 16 miles to City Point, where a hospital ship ferried him to Annapolis, Maryland. He then recuperated at home until, five months later, returning to service, as a brigadier general. His recovery and return to service were inspired by his belief in the Lord, his fatalistic world-view, and his belief that he was divinely appointed to return and fight the Confederacy, a belief that was brought to fruition at Appomattox, when Grant appointed him to oversee the surrender ceremony of the Army of Northern Virginia.

In addition to the driving tour of sites important in Chamberlain’s career, Swartz includes appendices by noted historians Thomas Desjardins, Dr. Ashley Towle, and Ryan Quint on various aspects of the general’s life and career.

An outstanding addition to the literature on Chamberlain, Passing Through the Fire is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the Civil War.

Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated, Meade at Gettysburg, A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, Grant's Left Hook, The Winter that Won the War: The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778, Gettysburg Rebels, The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, Day by Day, 1861-1865, Unsung Hero of Gettysburg: The Story of Union General David McMurtrie Gregg, The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, and Custer: From the Civil War’s Boy General to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.


Note: A volume in Savas Beatie’s “Emerging Civil War Series”, Passing Through the Fire is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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