Conceived In Liberty: William Oates, Joshua Chamberlain, and the American Civil War

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9780140247978: Conceived In Liberty: William Oates, Joshua Chamberlain, and the American Civil War

At the center of this absorbing dual biography lies the legendary conflict at Little Round Top -- "the single most important struggle" of the Civil War. Little Round Top decided the Battle of Gettysburg, opened the door to Northern victory, and brought together the disparate lives of two important Americans: Joshua Chamberlain, an academic from Maine who proved to be a brilliant military strategist, and William Oates, an Alabama maverick who fought heroically throughout the war. Both were self-educated men whose military success propelled them to the governorship of their respective states.By drawing on a vast mine of documents, Mark Perry brings these men vividly to life, and affords a fascinating look at nearly seventy years of American history. As a compelling portrait of two fabled men and an evocative account of the most crucial period in our nation's past, "Conceived in Liberty shows how history should be written" (Joseph Persico, author of My Enemy, My Brother).

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Review:

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 Kirkus Reviews:

Focusing on two Civil War heroes who commanded opposing regiments at Gettysburg, this dual biography forges an expansive, dramatic, highly readable history of the generation that came of age during that fateful conflict. Perry, who writes about history and military and foreign affairs (A Fire in Zion: How the Israelis and the Palestinians Made Peace, 1994, etc.), chooses his subjects well. Chamberlain, a devout and introspective Maine college professor, and Oates, a brawling Alabama roustabout, waged the battle for Little Round Top--``the single most important struggle of the single most important battle of America's most important and bloodiest war.'' Despite obvious differences in character, remarkable similarities mark the separate paths that crossed briefly at Gettysburg. Both were self-made men forced by family hardship to provide their own educations; both rode their war records to political office, serving as governors of their respective states; both failed to achieve their highest political ambitions--to serve in the US Senate. The experience of Oates, especially, illustrates the fluctuating fortunes of each side during the long conflict. He fought in nearly every prominent battle of the eastern campaign, from the highs of Stonewall Jackson's stunning Shenandoah Valley victories to the fateful Gettysburg defeat, where his failure to capture Little Round Top is posited as the war's turning point. Perry examines deeply the prevailing trends that shaped the politics of Oates and Chamberlain before the war (a survey that describes the rise of charismatic religion, the beginning of abolitionism, the antebellum movements for women's rights and temperance) and the politics of Reconstruction, which both men helped shape after it. Just when historical sideroads and blow-by-blow battle depictions threaten to swamp readers, Perry veers back to Oates and Chamberlain, the twin Everymen of his satisfying, wide-lens perspective on history. (16 b&w photos not seen) (History Book Club main selection; author tour) -- Copyright 1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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