Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War

by Mark Perry

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-670-86225-8
Publisher: Viking

 Focusing on two Civil War heroes who commanded opposing regiments at Gettysburg, this dual biography forges an expansive, dramatic, highly readable history of the generation that came of age during that fateful conflict. Perry, who writes about history and military and foreign affairs (A Fire in Zion: How the Israelis and the Palestinians Made Peace, 1994, etc.), chooses his subjects well. Chamberlain, a devout and introspective Maine college professor, and Oates, a brawling Alabama roustabout, waged the battle for Little Round Top--``the single most important struggle of the single most important battle of America's most important and bloodiest war.'' Despite obvious differences in character, remarkable similarities mark the separate paths that crossed briefly at Gettysburg. Both were self-made men forced by family hardship to provide their own educations; both rode their war records to political office, serving as governors of their respective states; both failed to achieve their highest political ambitions--to serve in the US Senate. The experience of Oates, especially, illustrates the fluctuating fortunes of each side during the long conflict. He fought in nearly every prominent battle of the eastern campaign, from the highs of Stonewall Jackson's stunning Shenandoah Valley victories to the fateful Gettysburg defeat, where his failure to capture Little Round Top is posited as the war's turning point. Perry examines deeply the prevailing trends that shaped the politics of Oates and Chamberlain before the war (a survey that describes the rise of charismatic religion, the beginning of abolitionism, the antebellum movements for women's rights and temperance) and the politics of Reconstruction, which both men helped shape after it. Just when historical sideroads and blow-by-blow battle depictions threaten to swamp readers, Perry veers back to Oates and Chamberlain, the twin Everymen of his satisfying, wide-lens perspective on history. (16 b&w photos not seen) (History Book Club main selection; author tour)