Answer: Civil War Historian, John J. Pullen

“For people who have not heard the story of the fight at Little Round Top on the Gettysburg battlefield – and today there aren’t many of these among readers of Civil War literature – it should be stated that it was here, late on July 2, 1863, that Joshua L. Chamberlain arose from the clouds of gunsmoke into the light of fame….Some say that Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the day at Gettysburg and therefore saved the Union.”

And thus begins the John J. Pullen classic, The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, considered by Civil War historians to be one of the best regimental histories ever written.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Pullen’s 1957 book renewed interest in Union Army General Joshua Chamberlain. “The Twentieth Maine recounted Chamberlain’s heroism when he ordered the 20th Maine Regiment to fix bayonets and rout the Confederates during the Battle of Little Round Top – one of the most well-known actions at Gettysburg and in the American Civil War.”

On the final charge, knowing that his men were out of ammunition, that his numbers were being depleted, and further knowing that another charge could not be repulsed, Chamberlain ordered a maneuver that was considered unusual for the day: He ordered his left flank, which had been pulled back, to advance with bayonets. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the regiment charged, like a door swinging shut. This simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver halted and captured a good portion of the 15th Alabama.

Praise for The Twentieth Maine poured in. The Boston Sunday Herald wrote, “this comes as near reliving the Civil War as anyone in the twentieth century is likely to get.”

Bruce Catton, Pulitzer Prize winner and Civil War historian said, “Mr. Pullen has gone to the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the participants with the thoroughness and care of a good historian, and he has had the literary skill to let the personality of the regiment come through.”

Then in 1999, John Pullen published the definitive Chamberlain biography, Joshua Chamberlain: a Hero’s Life and Legacy.

A reviewer wrote, “Renowned historian John J. Pullen, who first introduced Joshua Chamberlain to modern readers, is again approaching the subject of this complex man. This new biographical essay explores Chamberlain’s place in history–both man and myth. John Pullen, who drew back the shroud of a forgotten hero in his excellent book “The Twentieth Maine,” has come full circle in this engaging and enlightening biography.”

Born in Amity, Maine, Pullen graduated from Colby College in 1935. A field artillery captain during World War II, he worked as a reporter for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta after the war. He later worked in advertising in Philadelphia before resigning in 1965 to move to Brunswick, Maine (where I happened to live) and focus on his writing.

I remember John Pullen as a celebrated, active contributer to the Brunswick community. He was a member of the Joshua Chamberlain Civil War Round Table and spearheaded fund-raising efforts to design, create and erect a statue of Joshua Chamberlain next to the Bowdoin College campus.

The year before he died, John Pullen attended the premiere of Soldier, Come Home in Brunswick. He wrote kindly of the play, “Excellent and unusual. It lets the audience feel the Civil War both on the field and on the home front where women and families experience its dramatic effects.”

I was so pleased that such a distinguished Civil War historian had witnessed my efforts at a Civil War story. I had rubbed shoulders with the man who had awakened interest in a forgotten hero, introducing Joshua Chamberlain to modern readers – and, without a doubt, putting Joshua Chamberlain on the map.

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It was like a crash course in American History 101. Letter after letter told of famous Civil War events from the firing on Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox. I was holding in my hands a treasure of first-person accounts of our country’s history. Not only that – I was also reading the story and the history of my family.

This was my reaction as I opened the old shoe box containing over 100 beautifully preserved letters written by my great-grandparents.

I pored over the letters deep into the night, amazed at the information, but sometimes feeling I was invading their privacy –

Historic family Civil War letters were the inspiration for Frank W. Wicks' play, "Soldier, Come Home"

listening in on intimate details of their lives. But I read on, swept up by the beautiful language of 19th century letter writers.

One letter jumped out:

April 10th, 1864

Dear Husband, I seat myself this morning to speak to you through the silent voice of the pen…

And so writes my great-grandmother, Mary Pringle, to her Civil War soldier-husband, Philip Pringle. I have been struck by that haunting phrase for years.

I had to remind myself constantly that this was the only form of communication between Civil War soldiers and their families. The pen was the only voice that expressed love, longing and countless other emotions. Not surprisingly though, my great-grandparents’ letters were filled with everyday, ordinary information written by ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The pen had to provide instructions about tending the farm, feeding cattle, paying bills. And the letters always provided an update on the weather and a little neighborhood gossip.

But the letters contained a basic truth of the times. Mary Pringle goes on to say, “Write to me soon for I can hardly wait. It is all the pleasure I have to write and read your letters.”

Early on I was aware that the letters began to tell a story and were filled with drama. Relationships were complicated, misunderstandings were prevalent, family members gave support – and sometimes not, wives had to be quick learners as they were thrown – overnight – into the responsibilities of running businesses, farms, and earning enough money to make it all happen. I wondered – would it be possible to tell a story – to create a play – through a series of letters?

As it turned out, I didn’t have to do all that much work. As the war raged on the letters continued to tell the story – of the incredible battles, the shifting of power between husband and wife, and of new-found spirit and courage. The play practically wrote itself.

But the gap between letters received grew longer and longer. The mail service was being severely tested –

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Battle letter from Philip to Mary, May 14, 1864

fewer and fewer letters were getting through. Anxious families at home wondered if their soldier was dead or alive. At this point Philip scribbles at the bottom of a letter, “I am sending this by a wounded soldier.”

To make matters worse, the only way money could be sent home was by mail. But that was risky – On March 15, 1865 Philip writes, “The mail was robbed and there was a great deal of money taken. They blamed the mail carrier for it and they have him under arrest. They found a great many letters torn open and thrown away. Some lost 100 dollars, some 200. Someone even 900.“

An online essay, Wartime Letterwriting, says, “In addition, soldiers were constantly on the move, which made for further delivery problems. If a letter was addressed and delivered to a soldier’s last known address, there was no guarantee that its intended recipient was still stationed at that camp. Correspondents at home had to rely on information from a soldier’s last letter regarding his whereabouts.”

I am eternally grateful for the silent voices of my great-grandparents’ pens. They bestowed on me – as well as all of their descendants – a rare legacy of extraordinary history – family and country – loud and clear.

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“On Friday evening, a couple hundred people gathered in the Sanctuary for the dramatic performance of “Soldier, Come Home”. The play was written by Frank Wicks, and was based on letters written by his great-grandparents, Philip and Mary Pringle, during the Civil War. The play starred Rock Bergeron, Jack Mahoney, Jessica Peck, Bill Steele and Hamish Strong. The male players were dressed in tuxedoes, as opposed to period costumes, which kept the focus on the letters, and the emotions exuded in them. Jessica Peck wore a stunning dress, and delivered a dramatic performance. I very much enjoyed this theater project; I even sat in the pew once occupied by Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain, and their children.”

A description of the play performed at the historic First Parish Church in Brunswick, Maine as part of “Chamberlain Days Festival, 2003.” Submitted by Bobby Grenier of the North Lake County Florida Civil War Round Table.

(Note: Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin one block from the First Parish Church. Her pew at the church was next to Chamberlain’s.)


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