Sunday, August 05, 2007

"The Passing of the Armies" by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Today I went shopping for a paperback book to read on a long airplane flight and I picked up at Fred Meyer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's "The Passing of the Armies"

According to "The Passing of the Armies" is a Civil War memoir written by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a renowned commander most famous for his actions on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is an autobiographical account describing Chamberlain's experiences throughout the latter half of the Civil War, on and off the battlefield. It follows his accounts through Petersburg, White Oak Road, Five Forks, and Appomattox (where Chamberlain was given the honor of accepting the Confederate surrender). Throughout the book, Chamberlain frequently expresses his respect for the soldiers of both the Confederacy and the Union. It was published by Putnam and Sons in 1915, a year after Chamberlain's death.

It looked like such a good book I decided I couldn't wait till the airplane ride and started to read the book. Chamberlain won the Congressional Medal of Honor and saved the Union on the second day of Gettysburg when he and the 20th Maine held the end of the Union line at the Little Round Top. When his unit ran out of ammunition he ordered a bayonet charge against the attacking Confederate's to save the day and Union. A few years ago my son and I visited the spot at Gettysburg where the 20th Maine held the line. This book takes place much later in the war. Chamberlain was a college professor who volunteered to fight for the Union and by the end of the war had risen to the rank of General. He was chosen by U.S. Grant to accept the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox. He ends the book in Washington DC after the Grand Review of The Army of the Potomac and writes about the disbanding of the army. His words send chills down my spine.

To resume the narrative, on the first day of July, while encamped before Washington, we received an order, which, though expected, moved us most deeply. The first paragraph was this:


"June 28, 1865.

"By virtue of special orders, No. 339, current series, from the Adjutant General's office, this army, as an organization, ceases to exist."

What wonder that a strange thrill went through our hearts.

Ceases to exist! Are you sure of that? We had lately seen the bodily form of our army, or what remained of it, pass in majesty before the eyes of men; while part of it was left planted on the slopes of the Antietam, on the heights of Gettysburg, in the Wilderness, on the far-spread fields and lonely roadsides of all Virginia,—waiting the Resurrection.

The splendor of devotion, glowing like a bright spirit over those dark waters and misty plains, assures us of something that cannot die! The sacrifice of the mothers who sent such sons was of the immortal. All this must have been felt by those who gave the order. The War Department and the President may cease to give the army orders, may disperse its visible elements, but cannot extinguish them. They will come together again under higher bidding, and will know their place and name. This army will live, and live on, so long as soul shall answer soul, so long as that flag watches with its stars over fields of mighty memory, so long as in its red lines a regenerated people reads the charter of its birthright, and in its field of white God's covenant with man.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the Armies, (Pennsylvania: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), pp. 390-392.

James McPerson in his forward to the book says Chamberlain lived forty-nine years after Appomattox--- most of them in pain from the wound he suffered at Petersburg. He served four terms as governor of Maine and a dozen years as president of Bowdoin College. "yet somehow those years seemed anticlimactic, as if the passing of the armies in 1865 represented the passing of a part of his life that could never be equaled."

Little did he know that he would, over a 100 years later, be featured in Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels" and two movies... "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals."