Without a doubt, Joshua Chamberlain's The Passing of the Armies is one of the classic books of Civil War history. When it was posthumously published in 1915, it received acclaim for its Victorian prose and accuracy in bringing to life the final twelve days of the war in Virginia in March and April 1865. Chamberlain, a distinguished Union officer, was an eyewitness to the scenes he recounted as General Robert E. Lee's army received its death blow at Five Forks and was brought to bay at a tiny Virginia village called Appomattox Court House. After Lee surrendered his troops to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, it was Chamberlain who, three days later, was in charge of the actual surrender proceedings when the surviving rebels stacked their muskets, parked their cannon, and rolled up their tattered red flags.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914) is one of the Civil War's heroic figures. When conflict erupted in April 1861, the thirty-three-year-old Chamberlain was professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This erudite, learned scholar could read seven languages, but he became restless as the war progressed. When offered a leave of absence to go to Europe to study in August 1862, Chamberlain instead went to the state capital Augusta and obtained a commission as lieutenant colonel of the new 20th Maine regiment. Modern Americans interested in the Civil War know that Chamberlain - played by actor Jeff Daniels in Ted Turner's Gettysburg and Gods and Generals - played a key role at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. By now colonel of the 20th Maine, Chamberlain placed his men in position on Little Round Top on the extreme leftof the Union battle line. His men weathered a series of attacks by Alabama troops, then, when casualties were mounting and his men almost out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that swept the exhausted enemy down the slopes and ended the threat to the Union flank.
Chamberlain rose to brigade command during the Virginia fighting in May 1864, but remained a colonel because he had no political connections to advance his name in Washington. On June 18, as he led his troops in a desperate assault on the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Chamberlain was shot through both hips; his wound was pronounced mortal. Grant promoted the colonel to brigadier general so he could die at that rank. Incredibly, however, Chamberlain recovered from this wound and returned to command in time to play a key role in the fighting he describes so well in The Passing of the Armies.
After the war, Chamberlain came home to a hero's welcome in Maine. He had been wounded six times during the war and had fought in more than twenty battles. The general received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in defending Little Round Top at Gettysburg. In 1866, Chamberlain became governor of Maine by the largest margin ever received up to that time by any governor. After serving four one-year terms as governor, Chamberlain became president of Bowdoin College. Although he enacted many positive advances for the school, Chamberlain became embroiled in controversy when he tried to institute a system of compulsory military training for the student body. After he retired as president in 1883, Chamberlain devoted the remaining years of his life to a variety of business ventures, none of which were extremely profitable. His Petersburg wound continued to plague him, and Chamberlain became more and more enfeebled as time progressed. Still, he retained his military bearing even when walking with a cane. The general was active in a number of veterans' organizations and could always be relied upon to give a rousing speech when called to do so. When war with Spain broke out in 1898, Chamberlain tried to obtain a commission to lead troops but was rebuffed. The aged general died on February 24, 1914, the result of an infection of his Petersburg wound. Chamberlain's children found his manuscript and published The Passing of the Armies a year after his death.
Although Chamberlain did not begin work on The Passing of the Armies until sometime around 1908, the general had actually considered writing a history of the Fifth Corps shortly after the war. But his political and academic careers shelved his plans, and in 1896 William H. Powell published The Fifth Army Corps. While working on his Appomattox account, Chamberlain also penned some magazine articles about his experiences at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg. Some of his postwar speeches appeared in printed compilations.
Chamberlain had served his entire military career with the Fifth Corps, and like other officers associated with it, was extremely proud of its combat record from the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 until Appomattox in 1865. But the corps had also fought with a shadow hanging over it. Major General George B. McClellan had led the Army of the Potomac from 1861 until relieved from command in November 1862. An excellent organizer and hero to his men, McClellan nevertheless suffered from what President Lincoln called "the slows." McClellan was a very cautious general and hesitated far too often to please his superiors in Washington. Many general officers were saddened when McClellan was relieved from command. McClellan's favorite corps was the Fifth, led by his friend Fitz John Porter. At Second Manassas in August 1862, Porter, who openly disliked Army of Virginia commander John Pope, displayed what Pope thought was hesitation to obey orders. After this Union defeat, Porter was castigated for his role and eventually relieved of corps command, court-martialed, and dismissed from the army in January 1863.
And thus the Fifth Corps marched and fought with the shadow of McClellan and Porter hanging over it. Officers hostile to McClellan's memory belittled the corps and its reputation. During the 1864-1865 campaign, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren led the Fifth Corps. As chief engineer of the army at Gettysburg, Warren had dispatched the brigade to which the 20th Maine belonged to Little Round Top. As a reward for his services, Warren received command of the Fifth Corps. But as a corps commander, Warren at times failed to carry out orders received from army headquarters and sometimes quarreled with his superiors. Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac from Gettysburg to the war's end, once considered relieving Warren for questioning his orders and failing to execute them, but backed off and instead privately castigated Warren for his actions. General Grant, too, was sometimes dissatisfied with Warren's actions during the 1864 campaign.
When Grant sent General Philip H. Sheridan and his cavalry to assail Lee's right flank at Petersburg in late March 1865, he attached the Fifth Corps to support the cavalry and placed Warren under Sheridan's command. Sheridan preferred to work with the Sixth Corps, but Warren's men were on the left end of the Union line and more readily available. Grant also authorized Sheridan to relieve Warren if the Fifth Corps leader failed to follow his orders. Sheridan did relieve Warren during the battle of Five Forks because of Warren's alleged failure to push his troops into combat as ordered. Warren eventually was granted a court of inquiry into his conduct at Five Forks; this board exonerated him of Sheridan's gravest charges and praised his handling of the corps during this battle. Chamberlain was one of the officers who testified in Warren's favor.
Thus when Chamberlain decided to write The Passing of the Armies, he wished to set the historical record straight by writing an account favorable to Warren and castigating the impetuous Sheridan for ruining Warren's career. Chamberlain's narrative of the March 29-April 1 operations at Lewis' Farm, on the White Oak Road, and at Five Forks shows Warren's leadership and how the Fifth Corps turned the tide of battle when it outflanked the Confederate line in spite of Sheridan's ire that the corps had not attacked as he wished. Chamberlain's account is a valuable addition to the Union side of this confused and misunderstood battle. After describing the battle, Chamberlain entered into a lengthy criticism of Sheridan's handling of Warren and of how he denigrated each of the corps' three divisions for their roles in the battle. The general felt that his narrative would counteract Sheridan's statements in his memoir and also those of General Grant, whose memoir relied on Sheridan's account. Chamberlain thus restored the besmirched honor of his beloved Fifth Corps.
One of the most interesting and moving parts of the book is Chamberlain's recounting of the formal surrender proceedings that took place at Appomattox on April 12, 1865. Grant chose Chamberlain to superintend the Confederate surrender, placing him in temporary command of the First Division, Fifth Corps. As the head of the defeated army came up, Chamberlain ordered his men to "order arms," the mark of salute to a defeated enemy against whom they had fought for four long years. Surprised at the Yankee salute, a dejected General John B. Gordon recognized Chamberlain's intention and ordered his men to return the salute. Both sides remained silent as the tattered gray-clad survivors stacked their arms and disbanded. Here, in print, Chamberlain replied to the criticism he had taken once news of his salute became known across the North. The general pointed out that he merely saluted the worthiness of his erstwhile battle opponents, not their cause.
Chamberlain then describes the northward march of the corps from Appomattox to Washington. The veterans passed through many of the battlefields on which they had fought. The scars of war were everywhere, as were the graves of many of their comrades. Once in Washington, the troops waited to be mustered out of service. But first, the government scheduled a two-day Grand Review of the armies, which took place on May 24-25. On the first day, General Meade's Army of the Potomac marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the cheers of the crowd. On May 25, General William T. Sherman's western army passed the reviewing stands. This section of the book is perhaps Chamberlain at his best as his prose lucidly and poignantly recalls the histories of the troops who passed in review.
Chamberlain also saw fit to criticize General Sherman's postwar comment that war "is all hell." Writing as a Victorian gentleman turned soldier, Chamberlain remarked that war sometimes called forth the highest qualities of manhood. "He did not mean to imply that its participants are demons," wrote Chamberlain. "As to that, we may say war is for the participants a test of character; it makes bad men worse and good men better."
When he wrote these lines in the eighth decade of his life, Chamberlain was reflecting the views of his generation of veterans. They had left their homes, families, and jobs to help save the Union. To most of these men, participation in the Civil War was the most important thing they would ever do. And they were intensely proud of their wartime services -- none more so than Joshua Chamberlain. His book has proven to be a classic study of the end of the Civil War in Virginia. An eloquent and educated man, Chamberlain's prose style is high Victorian and his reasoning quite clear throughout. Although highly critical of Sheridan and defensive of the operations of his Fifth Corps, Chamberlain's story of the four climactic days from March 29-April 1 is an important contribution to the true story of this intense fighting. It is an important work by a contemporary who witnessed the events he wrote about. The Passing of the Armies is a superb book that belongs in every Civil War library.
Richard A. Sauers holds a Ph.D. in American History from Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, primarily on the American Civil War.