Glenn W. LaFantasie on William C. Oates and Memory

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

Civil War Talk Radio

I had a great time being interviewed by Professor Gerry Prokopowicz on Civil War Talk Radio – listen for yourself.  Although he was suffering from bad allergies he managed to stay focused and asked some very good questions.  We talked a bit about teaching in the first segment, but concentrated on the Crater in the last two.  I would have liked to have talked a bit more specifically about memory and the Crater, but we did hit on a number of important themes.  As I mentioned at the end of the interview, it was a real honor being asked to take part in the show.  I just hope I didn’t come across as a bumbling idiot. 

Thanks again Gerry.

3 comments

National Park Service Interprets Civilian Life in Fredericksburg

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will premiere a new film which examines the experiences of civilians – both free and slave.  The film, titled "Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, will run tomorrow night at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street and has a running time of 30 minutes.  At some point I will make my way to see it.  Park Service historian John Hennessy took the lead on writing the script and here is what he had to say about the movie:

"The default history of Fredericksburg is the experience of the white population. Literally half the population here had a very different experience and view," said the script’s writer, John Hennessy, who is chief historian for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.While many white residents saw the arrival of Union forces as a disaster, he said, slaves saw it as a chance for freedom. Hennessy said the film isn’t aimed at taking sides. "We don’t try to assert the primacy of one experience over another."

While I agree with Hennessy here it is troubling that he has to justify a film that acknowledges divergent civilian perspectives by noting that the script does not imply any kind of hierarchy of experiences.  It clearly reflects the assumptions and interests of those who will view this movie.  Click here for the Richmond Times-Dispatch article.

2 comments

Florida Bans “Revisionist History”

Looks like we no longer have to worry about those revisionist historians corrupting the minds of the young in Florida.  From the Los Angeles Times article:

And just last week, in an unprecedented move, the president’s brother approved a law barring revisionist history in Florida public schools. "The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth," declares Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."

Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty. The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.  There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.

Continue reading if you have the stamina (Hat-tip to Cliopatra).  I wonder what the commission charged with judging what counts as factual or revisionist will look like?  This is laughable, but disturbing.

13 comments

Civil War Talk Radio

Just a quick reminder that I will be appearing tomorrow on Civil War Talk Radio.  I am looking forward to the interview with Prof. Gerry Prokopowicsz.  We will no doubt talk about the Crater, teaching the Civil War, and blogging.  The show airs at 12:00pm – 1 Pacific Time.  Of course, if you miss it I will provide the link on my site. 

2 comments