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Memoirs of the Civil War: William W. Chamberlaine

Edited by Robert E.L. Krick; University of Alabama Press

William Chamberlaine of Norfolk, Va., served in the Confederate infantry and as a staff officer in the artillery branch throughout the war. His memoirs, originally published in 1912 in a very small print run, stand out among Civil War recollections for a variety of reasons. Although his account was written after the fact, Chamberlaine apparently drew on his own records and perhaps a journal to help his memory and create his story of the war. Now it’s finally available to the general readership.

Chamberlaine’s story includes many aspects of soldier life often left out of broader accounts. These include a potentially deadly poisonous snakebite while in camp near Petersburg; surreptitiously using the enemy’s mail system to send letters to relatives while behind enemy lines in the Gettysburg Campaign; being a fly on the wall during an argument among ranking officers about slavery; visiting friends in Petersburg while shells were flying (Chamberlaine had to put a fire out in a neighboring building); and petty thievery by troops, which couldn’t have helped morale. Railroad history buffs will find his accounts of rail travel especially interesting.

Unlike many wartime memoirists, Chamberlaine chooses to remain relatively neutral in terms of events and characters, and sometimes his narrative reads a bit like a court recording. On the whole, however, Chamberlaine’s account is well worth reading. His voice is unique, and he includes “general remarks” at the end that reveal much about his views on the significance of the events he lived through.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.