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Conceived in Liberty: Joshua Chamberlin, William Oates, and the American Civil War Hardcover – December 1, 1997
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The popularity of Michael Shaara's wonderful Civil War novel The Killer Angels left many readers hungry for more information about its real-life protagonist, Joshua Chamberlain, who bravely led the 20th Maine in holding the Union's extreme left flank at Little Round Top on the second day of Gettysburg. This dual biography introduces a new figure, nearly as compelling: William Oates, the man who commanded the Alabama troops opposing Chamberlain's bluecoats. Their parallel lives, captured on these pages, reveal the country's 19th-century sectionalism and allow Perry to write a chronicle of the Civil War and its aftermath through the prism of two engaging personalities.
Chamberlain's story is fairly well known. He was a Bowdoin College professor who left his post to serve in the army, fought well, and went on to a successful postwar political career as the governor of Maine. Oates, like Chamberlain, was the son of a farmer who got caught up in his nation's defining conflict, and then helped it inch along to recovery years later as a pragmatic governor and member of Congress. Perry refuses to canonize either--Chamberlain was an overbearing husband and Oates stuffed ballot boxes--yet his treatment of these two admirable but flawed men provides a refreshing new way to read about the Civil War. --John J. Miller
From Library Journal
Perry's (A Fire in Zion, LJ 8/94) latest work presents the life and times of two men who met in battle at Little Round Top on Gettysburg's second day. Perry offers a compelling look at the lives of those officers?how they differed (U.S. officer Chamberlain was a romantic; C.S.A officer Oates was a pragmatist) and how they were similar: contrary to the impression left by Michael Shaara's Killer Angels (LJ 9/1/74) and the movie Gettysburg, neither Oates nor Chamberlain had much use for the idea of black suffrage. While the section relating to the war is somewhat weak, the account of the two officers' pre- and postwar careers is strong and gripping. That, and a look at the prevalent trends of the time that shaped Oates and Chamberlain, makes this a worthwhile purchase and enjoyable reading for Civil War buffs. Recommended for all public libraries.?Robert A. Curtis, Taylor Memorial P.L., Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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One of those soldiers - Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain - is now very much entrenched in the History Wing of our modern Celebrity Culture. Before the Civil War, Chamberlain had considered the ministry and then became a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. He had a remarkable Civil War career, which culminated when he was chosen by Grant to command the formal surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on April 12, 1865. Earlier, during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864, he was seriously wounded by a bullet through the abdomen. Death was believed imminent and his commanding officer asked Grant to give Chamberlain the satisfaction of a promotion to brigadier general before he died; Grant agreed and promoted him on the spot, the only such immediate promotion Grant bestowed during the entire war. After the war Chamberlain was elected to four one-year terms as Governor of Maine and then he served for twelve years as the president of Bowdoin College. He died in 1914. The consensus is that he died from complications of the bullet wound he had suffered at Petersburg, making him the last known Civil War veteran to die as the result of wounds suffered during the war.
Despite that distinguished record, Chamberlain was a decidedly minor historical figure through much of the 20th century. What catapulted him to fame were Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels", Ken Burns's film "The Civil War", and the movie "Gettysburg" (in which the six-foot-three-inch Jeff Daniels played the five-foot-seven-inch Chamberlain). All three of those works of popular media portrayed the fight for Little Round Top as the critical juncture of the entire Battle of Gettysburg (and by implication, then, the Civil War). In that fight, the 20th Maine regiment, commanded by Chamberlain, anchored the left flank of the Union army and successfully resisted - against what sort of odds depends on who's telling the story - repeated assaults by the 15th Alabama regiment. [For an account of the fight that argues (pretty convincingly) that the popular version of "The Killer Angels" and the films is somewhat mythical, as well as for an explanation of how that myth came to be, see Chapter 7 of Thomas A. Desjardin's excellent book, "These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory".]
The 15th Alabama was commanded by William Oates. Oates remains little known, but to me he is as interesting as Chamberlain, perhaps more so. Oates was born into a dirt-poor farming family in southeastern Alabama. He left home at age seventeen and for a while he led the rough and ready life of a drifter and ne'er-do-well. Once he settled down he pursued an education with remarkable tenacity and drive, and he became a lawyer. He too was seriously wounded during the Civil War. In a battle in August 1864, he was shot in the upper arm, splintering the humerus. The only treatment for the wound was a battlefield amputation. When an orderly appeared with Oates's arm and asked him what to do with it, Oates told him "that I did not care, as it was no longer of any service to me, but that he had better dig a hole and bury it. He did so, just on the opposite side of the tree under which I lay." After the war Oates became a prominent political figure in Alabama, eventually serving seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and two years as the Governor of Alabama. He also wrote what author Perry calls "perhaps the finest first-person account of the [Civil War] ever written."
In CONCEIVED IN LIBERTY, Mark Perry gives us intertwined biographies of Chamberlain and Oates. They are a fascinating pair, with many similarities and a few marked differences. The most basic difference was that Chamberlain believed that the Union would prevail - and did prevail - because God was on its side. Oates, on the other hand, was much more modern in his thinking. He later wrote, "I do not worship a God who takes sides in battle * * *. I am an unwavering believer in God as the Creator of all things. I believe that He * * * endowed men with the power of acting for themselves and with responsibilities for their acts. When we went to war it was a matter of business, of difference among men about their temporal affairs. God had nothing to do with it."
In addition to Gettysburg, either Chamberlain or Oates or both fought in many of the other major battles of the Civil War, including Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic, the Seven Days' Battle, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Brown's Ferry, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, and Five Forks. Consequently, in this dual biography, Perry inevitably covers much of the fighting of the Civil War, and he does so very ably. He also sets his juxtaposed lives against a broader historical backdrop of the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War and those following it. At times I felt this background history was more than I wanted or needed, but Perry does discuss a number of interesting issues. All in all, despite a few nits and quibbles, I found CONCEIVED IN LIBERTY to be a fascinating work of biography/history, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Neither man was trained for the military before the war, though Chamberlain was attracted to the army life. Trained for the ministry, Chamberlain became a leading professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. Oates was a neer-do-well, spending much of his late adolescence moving one step ahead of the law for a crime he committed in Alabama. Oates was able to clear himself and get home and remarkably bootstrap himself to the position of educated man, school teacher and lawyer on the rise.
When the War broke out, both Chamberlain and Oates were enthusiastic champions of their regions. Oates was able to act on his military desires from the outset, while Chamberlain had to sneak into the army by pretending to take a sabbatical from a college reluctant to lose a star professor to the cause.
Both serious students of war and engaged commanders, Oates and Chamberlain met on what may be the penultimate part of perhaps the War's most significant battle. Upon fierce engagement with barely 600 total men hung the fait of armies numbering almost 200,000 and a nation of millions.
This book gives an excellent telling of the battle at Little Round Top. The fighting will of course be familiar to the Civil War student. What also fascinates is the well drawn in-depth dual portraits of two men who embodied the mind of warriors for their respective causes.