The one fiction book I’d recommend for any history fanatic is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. An account of the Battle of Gettysburg from various perspectives, this is the work that introduced me to the ultimate warrior-poet of America: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
A college professor who taught himself Ancient Greek, Chamberlain was working at Bowdoin College in Maine when the Civil War erupted. In 1861 he asked for a leave of absence, ostensibly to study languages in Europe (because he needed to add one more to the list of ten—yes, ten—languages he already read fluently). Instead, he enlisted.
Chamberlain fought in one major battle prior to Gettysburg, a harrowing experience by his own account. He spent one freezing night on the battlefield, using the bodies of dead soldiers as a wall against the bullets…and also as a pillow to sleep. In that respect, his experience was not all that divergent from the average Civil War veteran.
The trial that made Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain came during the Battle of Gettysburg. Colonel of the 20th Maine, his regiment was assigned to protect the left flank of the Union line. Out-numbered and out-gunned, the regiment was soon buckling in on itself. Recognizing the dire straits they were in, Chamberlain took a risk. He executed a maneuver he had never seen or done—only read about in a book (one point for book nerds!). At his orders the regiment charged with their bayonets, swinging the line like a hinge. This action not only saved the flank, but led to the capture of over 100 soldiers.
Chamberlain continued to serve with distinction throughout the war—even though his death was mistakenly reported after receiving a major wound through the groin. (Really, you’d think any gunshot wound to the groin was major.) Chamberlain would use an early form of a catheter for the rest of his life—here’s a picture of a 19th century catheter.
In recognition for his actions, Chamberlain was selected to preside over the Confederate infantry parade during their formal surrender.
After all this, Chamberlain went back to Maine. He was elected Governor, and later President of Bowdoin College. He wrote a number of books, including a memoir of the Civil War (where most of this info is from). And, at age 85, he was the last surviving veteran to die from complications of wounds received during the war. Again, let me show you that picture of the 19th century catheter…which he wore for 50 years.
Chamberlain is my favorite because he dramatically proved the practical use of his book knowledge on a major stage (also, you have to have a will of steel to live with a catheter like that for half a century). I love the idea of the warrior-poet: the soldier who appreciates literature. This theme is extremely common in Japanese history, but less so in Western history. The other major American who comes to mind in this vein is Henry Knox in the Revolutionary War. Who are your favorite warrior-poets?