Conceived in Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War, by Mark Perry, Viking Penguin, New York, (800) 331-4624, 500 pages, $31.95.
Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine is the closest thing we have to a Civil War pop idol. Entire conferences focus on him, artists grind out image after image for an eager public, and books about him appear annually by the boxload. The modern Civil War industry has elevated him to a status once reserved for the likes of Lee, Grant, and Jackson. Chamberlain is both a historical and marketing phenom. Conceived in Liberty obviously seeks to capitalize on the ’90s wave of Chamberlainmania.
At the same time, author Mark Perry has tried to go beyond the merely popular to the important and useful. His approach has great historical and popular potential. Conceived in Liberty seeks to illuminate an entire era by chronicling the parallel (and very interesting) lives of the two most famous antagonists on Little Round Top: Chamberlain and William C. Oates of the 15th Alabama. The life stories of these two men are unfailingly interesting, full of vivid contrasts, personal struggles, and dramatic moments.
Perry is a good writer (something the field of Civil War history needs in greater abundance). He grasps well the essence of his two immediate subjects, even delving into some warranted revisionism. He clearly relishes the myth-busting role. He also is faithful in his attempt to tell a balanced story, not succumbing to the temptation to make this another “Gettysburg book” by loading it down with yet more battle minutiae. On these pages, Oates’s and Chamberlain’s postwar careers receive as much, or even more, ink as their climactic clash at Gettysburg.
Despite these virtues, the book is seriously flawed. Perry’s attempts to provide background habitually degenerate into annoying and sometimes baffling tangents, a tendency that reflects the interests of the author rather than the needs of the narrative. At one point, Perry uses 13 pages to discuss Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a neighbor of Chamberlain) and radical abolitionist James G. Birney to the complete exclusion of Oates and Chamberlain. Some of the book’s many interludes are, ironically, well done, but they often bear only tangential relationship to the story. A sharpened editor’s pencil could have tightened the narrative considerably.
A good editor might also have squelched the small avalanche of unsupported and uninformed opinions, all offered in a vain attempt to add drama and authority to the narrative. “The Civil War changed at Gettysburg,” offers Perry. President Abraham Lincoln’s April 1861 call for 75,000 volunteers “was a mistake,” he claims. The fault for Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s circuitous march at Gettysburg on July 2 “lay with Jeb Stuart.” Given Perry’s limited understanding of the events he describes (see below), the opinions carry no historiographical weight.
Worse than the tangents and refutable opinions are the errors. While Perry may grasp his subjects’ personalities, he often completely fails to understand the events in which those subjects played a part. This book is fraught with some of the most spectacular mistakes and omissions ever to find their way through a major publishing house.
On Perry’s pages, the Battle of the Wilderness lasts three, not two, days. Perry rather amazingly constructs a narrative for a third day of fighting that never occurred. Moreover, he completely botches the narrative of Longstreet’s May 6 flank attack, putting Confederates where no historian has ventured to put them before.
Here are some other unfortunate examples from a long list of mistakes: Perry completely misunderstands the geography around Petersburg and Richmond, placing the Darbytown Road–and the important fighting at Fussell’s Mill on August 16, 1864–“near Petersburg,” south of the James River. “Taps” was emphatically not the bugle call of the 20th Maine. Isaac Trimble was wounded on August 29, 1862, not August 28. James Clay Rice fell on May 10, 1864, not May 8. The Army of the Potomac troops did not “move South to their encampments at Falmouth, Virginia” in September 1862, but two months later. Perry completely ignores Chamberlain’s efforts at the Battle of White Oak Road and goes on to imply that the Battle of Five Forks occurred on April 2, not on April 1, 1865. Elsewhere, he descends into vagueness that betrays his lack of understanding. A few minutes with so basic a source as Mark Boatner’s Civil War Dictionary could have corrected most of these miscues. The cumulative effect of this negligence is devastating, leaving the reader mistrusting even sections of the book that are likely well grounded.
In short, the concept of using the lives of Oates and Chamberlain as a lens through which to view the nation’s most momentous epoch is excellent. In this book, however, the concept far outdistances the content. Fraught with errors and misimpressions, this particular lens on history is decidedly out of focus.