“General, you have the soul of the lion and the heart of the woman.” – General Horatio G. Sickel to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, March 29, 1865.
These words, spoken during the Civil War battle of the Quaker Road, eloquently express the almost universal admiration felt for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – scholar, soldier, state governor, college president, and perhaps one of the greatest heroes in American military history.
In the Hands of Providence is a masterful biography of Chamberlain, one of the foremost Americans of the nineteenth century, and certainly one of the most heroic and hardest fighting U.S. Army officers of all time. The author of In the Hands of Providence, the late Alice Rains Trulock, presents a well researched, meticulously documented, and detailed portrait of this brilliant and courageous man.
Trulock begins by tracing Chamberlain’s early life and career – his almost idyllic childhood; his student days at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine; and his teaching career as Professor of Rhetoric (and every other subject, save mathematics) at his beloved alma mater. Finally, Chamberlain’s military career – including his rise from command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment to general officer rank in the Union army; and his outstanding leadership and valor during some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Five Forks – is chronicled with some of Trulock’s liveliest and most exciting prose.
Chamberlain entered the pantheon of American military heroes on the hot, muggy afternoon of July 2, 1863. He was then Colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteers. On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, he and his 380-man regiment were placed on Little Round Top, at the far left of the Union line. Chamberlain was given orders to hold this position at all costs. An Alabama infantry brigade, which outnumbered Chamberlain’s undermanned regiment by nearly two-to-one, repeatedly assaulted the 20th Maine’s rapidly thinning lines, but were successfully repulsed each time. Finally, with nearly one-third of his men dead or wounded, and with his unit desperately short of ammunition, Chamberlain personally led a successful counterattack against the Confederates, thereby saving the Union army from a crushing defeat. For his actions that day, Chamberlain was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
While Chamberlain’s fame rests mainly on his extraordinary performance under fire at Gettysburg, he continued to demonstrate outstanding leadership and valor on the battlefield in subsequent Civil War clashes. During the war’s last year in Virginia, he personally led attacks against Confederate forces at the battles of the Quaker Road, Petersburg, and Five Forks. He survived two serious wounds that were inflicted during these engagements. His insistence on leading his men from the front was a constant source of concern to his superiors, an inspiration to his men, and earned him the distinction of being the only Union soldier to receive a battlefield promotion from General Ulysses S. Grant.
Trulock also traces Chamberlain’s post-Civil War career. He was elected to four one-year terms as Governor of Maine (1867-1871). Later, he returned to Bowdoin College, where served as its President from 1871 to 1883. After retiring from Bowdoin in 1883, he tried his hand at a variety of activities: unsuccessful businessman, goodwill ambassador, lecturer, and surveyor of the port of Portland, Maine. Chamberlain died in 1914, at the age of 85, from complications brought on by his old Petersburg wound.
In addition to providing obviously well researched and superbly written descriptions of Chamberlain’s military, political and business accomplishments, In the Hands of Providence also gives the reader a balanced and objective look at Chamberlain’s personal life. Especially enjoyable and informative are the descriptions of his relationships with his wife Fannie; his daughter Grace and son Harold Wyllys; and his brother Tom. The author does a wonderful job of allowing the reader to get to know Chamberlain the warm-hearted and loving family man, as well as Chamberlain the patriot, scholar, college professor and president, military hero, and Governor of Maine.
As I began reading In the Hands of Providence, I found myself questioning the author’s objectivity; the book appeared in places to border on hagiography. I guess it must have been my natural inclination toward cynicism coming into play; after all, I thought, nobody could be as consistently good as Chamberlain was! However, the author’s impartiality (tinged with admiration) soon became evident. Chamberlain, the product of a different, less cynical century, and a man with prodigious intellectual and spiritual gifts, was indeed a genuinely good man (with faults) throughout his life, universally admired by friend and foe alike.
In the Hands of Providence is genuinely eloquent book. Trulock had a marvelous ability to suit her prose to the situations she described. In one chapter, she could capture the intensity, horror and excitement of battle, and in the next chapter, wax poetic with her descriptions of Chamberlain’s personal life. This highly readable and entertaining book is the best modern biography of one of the most extraordinary and gifted Americans of the nineteenth century.