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

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

by Ronald C. White
On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

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

by Ronald C. White


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The first ever biography dedicated to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, this is not just the details of his heroism in the Civil War, but a wide-sweeping examination of his life in a tumultuous America. Packed with illustrations, maps and photos, On Great Fields is a deeply engaging history that will keep you hooked.

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From the author of A. Lincoln and American Ulysses comes the dramatic and definitive biography of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the history-altering professor turned Civil War hero.

“A vital and vivid portrait of an unlikely military hero who played a key role in the preservation of the Union and therefore in the making of modern America.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of And There Was Light


Before 1862, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had rarely left his home state of Maine, where he was a trained minister and mild-mannered professor at Bowdoin College. His colleagues were shocked when he volunteered for the Union army, but he was undeterred and later became known as one of the North’s greatest heroes: On the second day at Gettysburg, after running out of ammunition at Little Round Top, he ordered his men to wield their bayonets in a desperate charge down a rocky slope that routed the Confederate attackers. Despite being wounded at Petersburg—and told by two surgeons he would die—Chamberlain survived the war, going on to be elected governor of Maine four times and serve as president of Bowdoin College.

How did a stuttering young boy come to be fluent in nine languages and even teach speech and rhetoric? How did a trained minister find his way to the battlefield? Award-winning historian Ronald C. White delves into these contradictions in this cradle-to-grave biography of General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, from his upbringing in rural Maine to his tenacious, empathetic military leadership and his influential postwar public service, exploring a question that still plagues so many veterans: How do you make a civilian life of meaning after having experienced the extreme highs and lows of war?

Chamberlain is familiar to millions from Michael Shaara’s now-classic novel of the Civil War, The Killer Angels, and Ken Burns’s timeless miniseries The Civil War, but in this book, White captures the complex and inspiring man behind the hero. Heavily illustrated and featuring nine detailed maps, this gripping, impeccably researched portrait illuminates one of the most admired but least known figures in our nation’s bloodiest conflict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525510086
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/31/2023
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 7,325
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Ronald C. White is the New York Times bestselling author of biographies A. Lincoln and American Ulysses, as well as three other books on Lincoln, most recently Lincoln in Private. White earned his PhD at Princeton, has lectured at the White House, and has spoken about Lincoln across the world. He is a senior fellow of The Trinity Forum in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Formation, 1828 to 1855


“Do It! That’s How!”
A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “My Lost Youth,” 1855

On a warm August day in Maine, a young boy plods across his family’s farmland, leading two oxen drawing a wagon heavily loaded with hay. Suddenly the wagon pitches, one wheel stuck between two tree stumps. It cannot move forward.

“Clear the wheel!” his father, walking behind the wagon, commands.

“How am I going to do it?” the boy replies.

“Do it! That’s how!” the father booms.

The son grips the hub of the lodged wheel and shoves and shoves with all his young might. Finally, to his astonishment, the cart tongue bumps against the off ox, and the wagon lurches ahead.

Years later, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would often recall this challenge, his father’s impossible command, and his own surprise and relief upon success. “ ‘Do it! That’s how!’ was a maxim whose value far exceeded the occasion,” Chamberlain would recall in a memoir of his boyhood. It became for him “an order for life”—an instruction for how to face any obstacle.

Chamberlain was the first child of Joshua Chamberlain, Jr., and Sarah Dupee Brastow. Born on September 8, 1828, during the final months of John Quincy Adams’s presidency, his life started on his family’s one-hundred-acre farm in Maine, set at the edge of the Pen​obscot River next to the village of Brewer in the “Down East” or eastern coastal part of the state. The Chamberlain house, average in size for that time, stands today at 350 North Maine Street.

Upon their son’s birth, Joshua and Sarah inscribed his name as Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain in their large family Bible. Underneath they wrote, “named for Commodore Lawrence of the American Navy.”

Captain James Lawrence, commander of the USS Chesapeake, a thirty-eight-gun wooden-hulled three-masted frigate, fought the British HMS Shannon off the New England coast during the War of 1812. Although Lawrence suffered mortal wounds in a losing naval battle, he would be remembered as an American hero for his defiant final order: “Don’t give up the ship.” The boy’s parents, ardent patriots, wished to honor Lawrence’s courage in their naming.

With their son’s name, his parents, in good Puritan tradition, also tethered his identity to the biblical Joshua. Chamberlain recalled that his parents admired how the biblical Joshua “left nothing undone which the Lord had commanded.” The boy would be the third Joshua in five generations of American Chamberlains.

Chamberlain’s family name traced its origins back to the twelfth century, when ancestor Richard de Tankerville became a chamberlain—the officer in charge of managing a royal household—to England’s King Stephen.

The first American Chamberlain, William, emigrated from Hingham, a market town in the east of England, to Massachusetts in 1648. Abraham Lincoln’s ancestor Samuel Lincoln had left this same town for a new England eleven years earlier. Both became part of “the Great Migration” of hundreds of ships and thousands of people who set their sights on the New World and the opportunities they hoped to find there. Over the next century and a half, the first generations of American Chamberlains worked long and hard to make a living as farmers in the stony land of far northern Massachusetts.

In 1799, Lawrence’s grandfather Joshua moved his family to Orrington. Joshua, Jr., was born there the next year. Chamberlain’s father grew up in a new nation energized by the spirit of the American Revolution.

On young Lawrence’s mother’s side, Jean Dupuis, a Huguenot from La Rochelle, France, was an ancestor revered for his steadfast faith. French Catholics first used “Huguenot” as a term of derision for French Protestants as the Reformation, sparked by John Calvin, spread across France in the sixteenth century.

In 1685, with prejudice against Protestants rising, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had, a century earlier, granted Huguenots substantial rights. This overturning spurred Dupuis to immigrate to Boston that same year to start a new life in America.

Chamberlain’s maternal grandfather, Charles Dupuis, fought in the American Revolution. A misspelling of his name on his army unit’s muster list resulted in the Americanized name of subsequent generations: Dupee. Chamberlain’s mother, Sarah Dupee Brastow—often called Sally—was born in Holden, Massachusetts in 1803.

Joshua and Sarah married in 1827. Their union has been remembered as the proverbial marriage of opposites. If Chamberlain’s father was taciturn, his mother was talkative; Joshua’s stern demeanor brought the Maine landscape to mind, while Lawrence remembered how much everyone liked his mother’s “joyous freedom of spirit” and “impressible sense of humor.”

But the romanticized version of their marriage fails to account for internal tensions, which grew with the years. He of strong, unshakable opinions on all kinds of issues, she wishing to listen to all sides of a question. These tensions would affect the future course of their oldest son, who at times would act with his father’s decisiveness, and at other moments would patiently listen to the many sides of an argument.

As the first child, Lawrence received the unfettered attention of his parents until age six, when the family welcomed another son, Horace, in 1834. The two boys were followed by a sister, Sarah, born in 1836; then John in 1838; and finally, in 1841, Thomas, thirteen years younger than his eldest brother. Throughout his life Lawrence would feel a deep responsibility for his younger brothers and his sister.

To accommodate his growing family, Lawrence’s father moved them a short distance, to a larger house at the foot of a slope down from the Pejepscot River; the house still stands in Brewer today.

The people of Maine, the most northerly continental state, lived in isolation from the rest of America. Boston was 204 miles to the south. Traveling by horse, an animal that can typically walk four miles in an hour, the journey would take four and a half to five days.

The village of Brewer was named for Col. John Brewer from Worcester, Massachusetts, who settled there in 1770. Incorporated in 1812, by 1830, two years after Lawrence’s birth, the town could count a thousand residents. It was located on the Penobscot River, the main highway of Maine, called by locals “the Rhine of Maine.” Bangor, an even larger town located directly across the Penobscot from Brewer, was a successful commercial hub that boasted a population of three thousand. In the nineteenth century, shipbuilding was both Brewer’s and Bangor’s major industry.

By the time the river reached the two towns, it was so wide and deep that large ships could travel the forty-three miles upriver from Penobscot Bay on the Atlantic Ocean to Bangor and Brewer to load rich harvests of pine forest—Norway, white, jack, and pitch—that lumbermen floated down from the north. McGilvery & Company, Charles Cooper & Co., and Joseph Oakes & Son kept the shipyards humming with activity. Ships were berthed so tightly on both sides of the Penobscot that locals boasted one could skip across the decks from Brewer to Bangor without touching the water. Lawrence, who loved to be around ships, challenged himself to climb every new vessel before it was launched and place his hat on the top of the mast.

This vibrant economic growth coincided with Maine’s first years of statehood. Immediately after the American Revolution, settlers began to pour into what people called “the wilderness,” a region of Massachusetts known officially as the Northern District of the state. In July 1819, after several abortive attempts by area citizens to separate from Massachusetts, resentful at being ruled by faraway Boston, the citizens voted overwhelmingly to petition the federal government to become the twenty-second state.

The Northern District believed its application to the sixteenth Congress would be a mere formality. But in Congress, their request became entangled in the Southern states’ steadfast determination to maintain a balance between free and slave states in an expanding United States. Powerful leaders, including Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, made it clear that Maine would be admitted as a free state only if Missouri was admitted as a slave state at the same time. The debate over the admission of Missouri foreshadowed the increasingly vitriolic controversy over slavery.

Mainers were furious. Their application was being held hostage by this acrimonious debate. In the end, Clay, President James Monroe, and Northern and Southern congressional leaders formed what became known as the Missouri Compromise. On March 15, 1820, Missouri and Maine were simultaneously admitted as the twenty-second and twenty-third states, defusing the congressional debate over slavery—for the moment.

Growing up on a family farm in America’s far northern reaches, young Lawrence was insulated from the nation’s growing unrest over the issue of slavery.

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