07 June 2006 by Published in: General musings 8 comments

My recent visit to Gettysburg reminded me of a phenomenon that never ceases to amaze me. As I drove through the Little Round Top area, and specifically, by the spur where the 20th Maine fought, I was again astonished by the number of people packed into that small area. Many of them are, of course, there because of either The Killer Angels or Ted Turner’s movie adaptation of it.

The star of both book and movie is Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the commander of the 20th Maine Infantry. To be sure, Jeff Daniels gave a terrific performance as Chamberlain, and he deserves the accolades that he received for that performance (too bad the follow up in Gods and Generals wasn’t half as good). He really captured–and even looked a great deal like–the essence of the fighting professor.

It bears noting that I am a great admirer of Chamberlain’s, and also a fan. The very first article on the Civil War that I ever wrote–awful as it was–was a biographical sketch of Chamberlain’s life entitled “The Fighting Professor”. I have a real war-time autograph of Chamberlain’s hanging on the wall of my office (from February 1863, signed with the rank of lieutenant colonel), framed with the Dale Gallon print Hold at All Costs, a depiction of Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top. I also own Don Troiani’s Bayonet, a depiction of the charge of the 20th Maine at the climax of the fighting for Little Round Top.

Having said all of that, it never ceases to amaze me as to the completely disproportionate amount of attention that Chamberlain receives vis-a-vis others who also made equally important contributions to the Civil War. There’s no doubt that this is the result of the focus on him in both Shaara’s book and Turner’s film. There’s also the fact of the compelling story: professor of rhetoric, no military training whatsoever, becomes Medal of Honor winning hero who accepts the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. There’s also the point that Chamberlain unquestionably had a true gift for the English language. His writings–in florid Victorian prose–are nevertheless some of the finest writings I have ever read.

Because of the combination of all of these factors, and probably others I haven’t even thought of, Chamberlain receives a very disproportionate amount of attention for his exploits. It’s reached the point that Chamberlain is almost treated like a saint, and the 20th Maine’s spur becomes the destination of an almost religious pilgrimage. It means that, much as I admire Chamberlain, I’m sick to death of hearing about him, and it caused me, a number of years ago, to jestingly dub him St. Joshua of Joshua Top. In the first year or two after the release of the movie, the 20th Maine’s spur was so crowded with people searching for Buster Kilrain’s name on the regimental monument that you almost couldn’t move up there. Fortunately, as the years have passed, this has subsided a bit, but the whole St. Joshua of Joshua Top mentality survives. It never ceases to amaze me.

While any attention to the Civil War is a good thing, this whole St. Joshua of Joshua Top phenomenon unfortunately means that other, equally deserving heroes, such as Brig. Gen. George Sears Greene, whose defense of Culp’s Hill had greater military significance than did Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top, have been largely shunted into history’s dustpan, largely forgotten, and certainly not receiving the credit they deserve. Is it right? No, it definitely is not right. Is it understandable? Yes, it is. Is it unfortunate? Absolutely. Can anything be done about it? Sadly, probably not. As long as people’s first impressions of the Battle of the Gettysburg continue to result from either Shaara’s book or Turner’s movie adaptation of it, this unfortunate phenomenon will continue on unabated.

And it means that equally worthy and deserving soldiers will continue to be overlooked in favor of St. Joshua of Joshua Top. It also means that equally important and interesting spots, such as Culp’s Hill, where the Union truly was saved, go largely unvisited and are often deserted. What’s wrong with this picture?

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Comments

  1. Kevin
    Wed 07th Jun 2006 at 8:47 pm

    Hi Eric, — I get what you are saying and I have to admit to being worn out in re: to the Chamberlain love fest. That said, that people are still travelling at all to Gettysburg is probably something to still give thanks for. I’ve been following the latest results in terms of what our high school and college graduates know about American history. And it ain’t good!

  2. Wed 07th Jun 2006 at 9:00 pm

    Kevin,

    There’s no doubt, and anything that gets people there can’t be all bad. I just hope that they are able to see that there’s more to this story than just the story of St. Josh.

    Eric

  3. Wed 07th Jun 2006 at 11:33 pm

    This is an interesting perspective. I have not been to Gettysburg for a # of years so I was not aware of the “love fest” at LRT surrounding Chamberlain. The influence of movies is quite powerful it seems, and so is that of novels. If Sharaa had focused on someone else in his novel, would another general or colonel be the “hero” that we all seem to know about today? What if W.S. Hancock was the heroic focus of the novel–would the tourists be at the Copse of Trees? This says a lot about how folks learn about history.

  4. Art Bergeron
    Thu 08th Jun 2006 at 8:15 am

    Eric, a point well made. Back some years ago, I participated in a Civil War discussion board hosted by Prodigy, and I got into some minor scuffles with a few members who belong to the St. Joshua crowd. Admittedly, I purposely tried at times to stir the pot. It is too bad that Shaara focused on Chamberlain rather than a more (equally?) deserving person and helped create this cult.

  5. John
    Thu 08th Jun 2006 at 10:00 am

    I have been interested in Chamberlain’s (and the 20th Maine’s) exploits at Gettysburg ever since reading Pullen’s book on the regiment (quite probably the best regimental history I have read) when I was in jr. high. I remember a trip to Gettysburg after my sophomore year in college with a friend and seeking out the regimental monument down an little used path. My friend was amazed that I knew the location of a relatively unmarked site, compared to the rest of LRT at that time.

    It is amazing what can be done with a novel and movie that a good piece of historical research couldn’t do.

  6. Randy Sauls
    Thu 08th Jun 2006 at 10:41 am

    Eric:

    I have always considered Shaara’s book and Turner’s movie to be sort of a “Valentine” to Chamberlain, and for that matter, to Longstreet, and I agree that the book and movie have certainly focused undue attention on St. Joshua. A walk past the tourist shops on Steinweher Avenue, each brimming with “Don’t Call Me Lawrence” T-Shirts, is evidence. On the other hand, anything that gets people (especially kids) interested in any historic site is OK by me. As for Greene and Culp’s Hill, you’re absolutely right. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the summit of Culp’s Hill is one place on the field where you can escape the crowds, explore a little, and be alone with your thoughts. My GGG-Father (3rd NC) was one of the men who tried to take Culp’s Hill from Greene and I’ve always enjoyed visiting that part of the field.

    Randy

  7. Charles Bowery
    Thu 08th Jun 2006 at 11:38 am

    Eric,
    I learned my Gettysburg staff ride – leading techniques from Carol Reardon, who likes to read a portion of Chamberlain’s dedication speech for the 20th Maine monument while standing on the spur. After doing it dozens of times it still brings a tear to my eye. In spite of the commercialization and over-emphasis, still a great story!

    I also agree that Culp’s Hill is the most fascinating and under-studied part of the main battle area. I always had my USMA cadet groups stand near Spangler’s Spring and talk about the bravery of the Massachusetts and Indiana regiments that attacked across that open field, and about the importance of following orders, even when a leader thinks those orders are wrong. Then a walk up into the saddle between Lower and Upper Culp’s to see the opposing Maryland U.S. and Maryland C.S. markers.
    Cheers!

  8. David Corbett
    Thu 08th Jun 2006 at 7:35 pm

    Dear Sir ,
    When I was a callow lad all we learned of was General Warren as “the Saviour of the Roundtops ” etc. . To me it is refreshing to see this “new” American hero and one of such sterling qualities . Recent times seem to have produced a paucity of such figures and Americans need “heroes”. Chamberlain can hardly be surpassed in this category.
    Sincerely ,
    David Corbett

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