‘On Great Fields’: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Professor and Hero

“The College Colonel,” a poem by Herman Melville, describes the return of a Civil War veteran soon after the end of hostilities at Appomattox. The colonel’s regiment is “but a remnant half-tattered, and battered, and worn.” The same can be said for the subject of the poem. An idealistic college student who enlisted at the start of the war, he now returns home with a maimed arm, with a missing leg, and—this is Melville’s point—with a different sort of education than the one he received in college: 

But all through the Seven Days’ Fight,

And deep in the Wilderness grim,

And in the field-hospital tent,

And Petersburg crater, and dim

Lean brooding in Libby, there came—

Ah heaven! what
truth to him

The poem could very well describe the unusual career of the subject of Ronald White’s “On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.” Chamberlain, who played a decisive role in the Union victory at Gettysburg, has been a subject of several previous biographies and was also a central protagonist in Michael Shaara’s beloved 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels.”

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