Glenn W. LaFantasie on William C. Oates and Memory

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I just picked up Glenn W. LaFantasie’s new biography Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Oxford University Press, 2006).  Oxford has released a number of first-rate studies over the past year, including Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation, J. Matthew Gallman’s America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Dickinson and David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.

I have only had a chance to read the Introduction to LaFantasie’s study, but it looks to be a very interesting study.  No doubt all of you are familiar with Oates who served as Colonel of the 15th Alabama and fought at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 against the better known Joshua L. Chamberlain.  Oates was wounded six times during the war, including the loss of his arm.  Following the war he went on to serve seven terms in the U.S. Congress and one as Governor of Alabama.  Interstingly enough, in 1901 he argued for black suffrage rights at the Alabama Constitutional Convention.  LaFantasie spends a great deal of time on Oates’s postwar career, including his attempt to reconcile his belief in the tenets of the Lost Cause and the role of public memory in shaping his preferred narrative of the war and his private memories which were crowded with the horror of battle.  LaFantasie seems to have a great deal to say about this tension:

Oates participated more buoyantly in the concoction of a patriotic and public memory that honored the Confederacy’s righteous cause and its stand against Northern political domination, sectional aggression, and military invasion.  While he balked at celebrating the leadership of Jefferson Davis, whom he held in extremely low regard, or mindlessly praising Lee for every order the general issued on the field of battle, he did become an enthusiastic believer in and promulgator of the Lost Cause and all its tenets.  By doing so, he succeeded in temporarily sublimating his very worst memories of the war and substituting in their place the more glorious recollections of a mythical romantic war fought bravely by the finest sons of the South against the most rapacious devils of Yankeedom.  In the end, though, the terrible memories always seeped through, like ink stains through paper, as they did so often and so poignantly in his book [The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905)] and in his private letters.  Memory for William Oates was both public and private.  But it required great energy, which he repeatedly expended, to keep the private memories from view.

Later LaFantasie makes the important point that the difficulty concealing the content of one’s private memories suuggests that sectional reconciliation and reunion was not as straightforward as has been suggested by some historians.  This point has been forcefully made by John Neff in his recent book Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (University of Kansas, 2005). 

I am learning to appreciate this distinction between public and private memory as I continue my research on the Crater.  A perfect example of this can be seen in the 1903 Crater reenactment which took place on the battlefield in Petersburg.  While the public witnessed a reenactment and speeches that made no reference to the presence of black soldiers in the battle, the veterans of Mahone’ brigade who took pen to paper continued to emphasize this salient feature of so many wartime letters and diary entries.  William Stewart, who commanded the 61st Virginia, collected upwards of 50 personal accounts that were included in a scrapbook and is now part of the collection at the Museum of the Confederacy.  It is hard to know whether this volume was meant for publication.  The accounts are so rich in detail especially in their focus on the emotions that were unleashed once they realized that the attacking columns included U.S.C.T.  And yet public ceremonies in which these men participated in were void of racial overtones. 

I look forward to reading this, though I will probably not get to it for some time.  On a different note entirely, I highly recommend Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative LegacyFukuyama is an excellent writer and provides both a long and short-term analysis behind recent foreign policy decisions.  It is relatively short and easy to read.  He is one of those writers who has the ability to make you feel intelligent about an issue that seems incredibly complex. 

2 comments… add one

  • Daniel J Maxwell Aug 7, 2008

    I have just begun to read the book Gettysburg Requiem. The introduction makes me suspicious of the author. The generaliztion of southern men as controlling and the Civil War was about slavery puts me on my guard. Life is not as simple to roll peoples’ motivations into points of singularity. But I am always willing to try and gain more information. What exactly is a “family professor”? My initial thought is socialigist, but I’m not sure. I’m pragmatic and love “root cause analysis”. The Civil War history leaves countless “what if” scenarios. Neither side can claim any absolute justification because both sides created the situation. I hope to learn more about the real person. Because we are who we think we are, who others think we are, and there is who we really are.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2008

    You will have to judge the author’s interpretation for yourself. Slavery was obviously an important factor in the Civil War and it shaped Oates’s world view both before and after the war. I enjoyed the book despite the fact that I did not agree with everything in it.

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