The neat thing about working for The Bond Buyer is that in the course of covering municipal finance, a reporter also picks up more than a little history.
Every once in a while, some graybeard who also happens to be concerned with what we call "the bond angle" starts spinning yarns, and the next thing you know, you find yourself in Michael Curley's Boston, or in Troy, N.Y., when it was a major league baseball town, or in Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin.
Anyone who has covered Sam Shapiro, state treasurer of Maine, for example, has probably heard his stirring rendition of Joshua Chamberlain's stand with the 20th Maine voluntary infantry regiment at Gettysburg, and, much later, on the steps of the statehouse in Augusta. Sam is a pretty natural raconteur, and the story is gripping.
This is the sort of the thing I hear and file away, fully intending to root around in some old bookstore sometime and come away with a volume on the subject. I was plenty surprised when I looked in Publisher's Weekly earlier this year and found that a new biography of Chamberlain was due out. I sent in my order, and sent off the clipping to Sam.
The book, "In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & The American Civil War," by Alice Rains Trulock (University of North Carolina Press, 569 pages, illustrated, $39.95), is compelling history. It's also a good way to unwind from a day spent unknotting such things as building lease deals and liquidity facilities for swaps.
Touched by war in his youth, Chamberlain, like so many men of his age, spent the rest of his days reliving it. And this - just what the Civil War meant to its participants - the author puts across very well. The world of 1861 is far away from our own, yet Trulock gets the reader to imagine what it was like to take days to travel to another part of the country, and what it was like to take part in the very hard fighting of the Civil War.
Chamberlain himself seems to have been a somewhat cold fellow, a tough character to convey. The author most often steps back and lets him speak in his own words, and his style is by turns touching and grandiloquent. In short and in sum, Chamberlain was a man for whom honor and bravery were more than words.
And this served him very well on July 2, 1863, on that small knob of a hill called Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Placed in charge of the federal left, Chamberlain can be said to have saved the day, and so the Union.
In essence, and as Sam Shapiro tells it, Chamberlain and the 20th held off repeated Confederate charges until nearly one-third of his command was dead or wounded, and ammunition was practically gone. The rebels massed for another try. Chamberlain remembered that his orders were to hold his position "at all hazards."
The scene is desperate. Junior officers tell Chamberlain they fear their troops will be annihilated. One asks for a chance to collect the wounded. "My thought was running deep," Chamberlain later remembered.
He tells the officer: "You shall have the chance. I am about to order a charge." He steps to the colors (which, as Trulock points out, with the bugle call, was the only way to direct traffic during the din of battle), and shouts, "Bayonet ... Forward!"
This is stirring stuff, and Trulock's portrayal seems faithful to what actually happened that day. Chamberlain later received the medal of honor for his actions, and only noted, "The inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests wide and far, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone."
Chamberlain was wounded six times during the war, yet made it all the way to Appomattox. The best book on the butchery known as Civil War medicine remains Margaret Leech's "Reveille in Washington," but author Trulock describes precisely what being wounded six times, and surviving it, actually meant. At Petersburg, Chamberlain received what she calls, again and again, his "terrible wound." But back in the notes on p. 466, she actually describes it. This is not reading for the squeamish.
Chamberlain returned home a war hero and went on to a fairly distinguished career, including several terms as Maine's governor. Second acts are rare in American lives, or any lives, yet Chamberlain had one in 1880. There was a dispute about the outcome of the elections that year in Maine, and while the matter was deliberated before the state Supreme Court, Chamberlain, as head of the militia, secured the statehouse.
Chamberlain could not be bought by any party. His moment came when an angry mob prepared to storm the statehouse. The general went to the top of the steps, faced the crowd, and said, "I am here to preserve the peace and honor of this state, until the rightful government is seated. Whichever it may be, it is not for me to say. But it is for me to see that the laws of this state are put into effect, without fraud, without force, but with calm thought and sincere purpose. I am here for that and I shall do it. If anybody wants to kill me for it, here I am. Let him kill!"
Treasurer Shapiro does the best imitation of the old veteran who pushed forward to defend his "old General," and I suggest you ask him for it next time he addresses the National Association of State Treasurers, or perhaps comes to town to see the rating agencies. I know I will thank him for introducing me the Joshua Chamberlain, who possessed the soul of the lion. Which goes to show, you never know what you might find when looking for the bond angle.