Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Review--Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine

Desjardin, Thomas A. Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign. Oxford University Press, NY, NY. 1995, 239 pages, maps, b/w photos, notes, bibliography, index.

For those who have read much on the Gettysburg campaign the story of the 20th Maine and Joshua Chamberlain is old news. Desjardin however takes this story and turns it into something unique, vital, and highly readable.

The story picks up after a round of smallpox effectively keeps the 20th out of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Due to illness and the promotion of the much disliked Adelbert Ames there is a leadership gap which is filled by the little experienced Chamberlain. As we know Chamberlain was up to the challenge.

Desjardin presents a well balanced and quick moving account of the fighting at Gettysburg and the important battle that took place at Little Round Top. Here the 20th Maine prevented a flanking maneuver by the 15th Alabama and depending upon whose view you read perhaps saved the Union. Whether you believe this or not there is little doubt that the fighting here was critical to the success of Union troops overall in Pennsylvania.

As the battle draws to a close Desjardin describes the carnage. The scene at the Abraham Trostle house is given several pages and shows just how brutal the fighting at Gettysburg really was: "During and after the battle, wounded men of both sides had crawled to this barn for shelter or comfort, and many of them remained unable to flee as it evaporated into a roaring inferno....Some of the bodies were charred to the skeleton or mere ashes while others lay swollen with their clothes burned off." (page 101).

Desjardin finishes off his work with a post-war wrap up for both Joshua Chamberlain and William Oates. Chamberlain was promoted to Brigadier General near the end of the war. After the war he returned to Maine where he was elected governor for four one year terms and eventually was named president at Bowdoin College. In 1893 he received the Medal of Honor. Not to be out done William Oates had a successful post-war career as well. This included writing two books on the battle. In addition he served 14 years in the United States Congress and served a single term as Alabama governor. Becoming a loyal citizen Oates served as a brigadier general during the war with Spain in 1898.

Desjardin summarizes that the ultimate outcome of the battle was the irreplaceable loss of men and material for Lee and the Confederate army. The 20th Maine played a key role in helping to turn the war. While important, the contributions of the 20th Maine may be overstated with the popular success of the book Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg.

Overall Desjardin has written a highly readable book. It is a book that should be read any student of the Civil War. The book is especially recommended for those who have read Michael Shaara and want to know the real story. For those looking for more in depth research the notes and bibliography are highly recommended as are the five appendixes which include casualty lists on both sides, number of combatants, and first hand recollections.


  1. Robert - Great review! Does he mention why set out to write a new regimental history when Pullen's "20th Maine" was a classic already? I haven't read "Stand Firm" but I did read his "These Honored Dead" and it was great. Keep up the good work! Jim Schmidt

  2. Hi Jim, Thank you for the kind comments. I value your opinion and this means much to me.

    As far as John Pullen goes I haven't read his book but will be looking for a copy now. He is given very brief mention here. His work is listed in the bibliography and he is given a short mention in a chapter dealing with the legend of the 20th Maine. Desjardin gives his work high praise (...redefined the art of writing Civil War regimental histories...). It is pointed out that while the 20th deserves praise Pullen does not go so far as to credit them with saving the country. Pullen is also given much credit for inspiring Michael Shaara and thus the writing of Killer Angels. This is on page 161 of this edition.

    I didn't find anything that really gave an inspiration for the writing of this book. Desjardin is from Maine however so that might play a part.