Gettysburg Requiem

This book by Glenn W. LaFantasie covers the life of William Calvin Oates, who commanded the 15th Alabama Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg and led the troops who fought against Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863. The book is deeply researched and gives us a view of life in 19th Century Alabama.

This is a book about memory in addition to being a biography. In the Introduction, LaFantasie writes, “Memory embodies power. The act of remembering involves not simply the retrieval of data from a mental file cabinet; remembering profoundly encompasses all at once the past and the present in its image of an event or a face from  yesterday. The power of private memory had tremendous significance for Oates, especially when one considers how he struggled so arduously and failed so completely to gain mastery–self power–over his own life and over the world that surrounded him. In the same sense, he also failed to achieve control over his private memory. The specters of his recollections–particularly the ghost of his lost brother John at Gettysburg and the gray phantoms of his many lost comrades in the war–eventually overpowered him, and he could only succumb to private sadness. Public memory contains power, too, and Oates learned–as did so many other white Southerners–that the past could be reshaped and manipulated to great purpose and for formidable political benefit. Out on the hustings, Oates was an effective campaigner and public speaker, and he did not hesitate to use his combat record and his empty sleeve to great political advantage. Over and over, he praised the courage of his fellow Confederate soldiers, painting their sacrifices and their devotion to duty in idyllic terms that had little to do with the realities of the war. Even at Appomattox, he wrote, his fellow soldiers ‘were still ready to march into the jaws of death, where the hellish din of battle drowned the shrieks of the wounded and the groans of the dying.’ There was nothing, he said, ‘for any old Rebel to be ashamed of.’ The soldiers of the Confederacy had ‘stood by their colors with unflagging courage when ruin, carnage and death reigned supreme.’ For Southerners, though, the war was something not to be remembered as it had been experienced; it was to be remembered as they thought it should have been experienced. In the collecting Southern memory, the Civil War became a vivid romantic picture that artfully blended reality and myth into a created memory rather than a retrieved recollection. The Southern remembrance of things past emphasized the sad passing of the plantation way of life and the bravery of Confederate soldiers who had died for a noble cause–a cause fought in the name of states rights, not in the defense of slavery. Oates was a true believer when it came to the Lost Cause.” [pp. xxii-xxiii]

One of the major themes throughout Oates’ life was race. “Like so many of his fellow white Southerners, his opinion of African Americans was extremely complex, occasionally contradictory, and notably ambivalent. On one hand, he regarded then as honest, hard-working people who regularly demonstrated their own sense of responsibility and trustworthiness. On the other hand, he saw them as biologically inferior beings who required close supervision, stringent control, and incessant tutelage. Either way, he expected them to be obedient and submissive. To demonstrate his sincere concern for their care and welfare, Oates offered African Americans his paternalistic attitudes about their need for superintendence and their inability to enjoy the fruits of freedom. Paternalism, in fact, made Oates’s ambivalence possible, for it enabled him to comprehend blacks in completely racial terms while it also allowed him to praise, with an air of condescension, their hard labor and their contributions to the Southern economy. Even in his youth, when he could not possibly have owned any slaves himself, his racial attitudes resembled those found pervasively among the planter slaveholders.” [pp. 9-10] Related to racial issues was the issue of slavery. Oates was unashamedly proslavery. “For the most part, though, Oates was brought up without taking slaves or black people into much account. He accepted and took for granted that African Americans existed on the bottom rung of the South’s social ladder, which is where he felt they belonged. To a great degree, Oates was so unquestioning about what he considered to be the natural order of things that he didn’t pay much attention to black people one way or another, which is not to say that slavery had no effect on him or did not shape his world. Slavery influenced Oates profoundly, made its mark on him as a man and as a Southerner, determined how he viewed the world and his own place in it, just as it did so many other whites throughout the region, all of whom–whether slaveowners or not–seemed just as willing to rush to the defense of slavery and secession as Oates had been. Even though they owned few slaves or none at all and had little direct contact, if any, with the slave economy of the South, Oates and other whites from the poor wiregrass section of Alabama did have a common bond with the middle-class and wealthy slaveholders of the South: They were, quite simply, white.” [p. 23]

Oates’ proslavery views led directly to his prosecession viewpoint as well. “Like many other Southerners, including George Fitzhugh, the famous antebellum apologist for slavery and the Southern way of life, Oates believed that the root cause of secession lay in the hands of fanatical Northern ‘Puritans’ who habitually put ‘their noses into the business of other people’–and had done so since the days of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts–by denouncing slavery as the sum total of all villainy. If Northerners had left the institution of slavery alone, if they had not ‘pretended that it was a great moral wrong,’ if they had not encouraged lawlessness in Kansas by ‘Puritan’ radicals like John Brown, then the South would not have been forced to exercise its legal and sovereign right–guaranteed, in Oates’s opinion, under the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution–to quit the Union and form its own confederation. When the Northern states elected Abraham Lincoln, Southerners, in Oates’s opinion, recognized a ‘common danger’: that ‘their ancient and well-defined right to govern and regulate their own internal and domestic affairs in their own way would be overturned and denied to them.’ ” [p. 19] Further, “Like many Americans at the time, Oates oversimplified the causes of disunion and the events that brought on war, but he did understand that slavery was at the core of the crisis of the Union. As a loyal Southerner, he blamed the North for precipitating the struggle over slavery and argued that the south should have been left alone to deal with the peculiar institution as it saw fit.” [p. 23] Oates indeed felt slavery was a positive good for African-Americans. “In Oates’s opinion, however, compensation for their labor and their condition had been given to the slaves, not as individuals but as a race. African Americans would never have found their way ‘into the sunlight of civilization,’ he wrote, ‘except through the institution of slavery.’ Oates was living at the center of an American paradox: Liberty could only be maintained for whites so long as blacks remained in bondage. In explaining many years later why Southerners fought so desperately for the Confederate cause, he said: ‘We fought in the same spirit of our Revolutionary sires who bought with their precious blood the liberties we all now enjoy.’ Oates ostentatiously used the rhetoric of democracy throughout his entire political career, incessantly speaking about freedom and liberty and rights. Beneath the surface, though, he feared democracy because it, too, might dislocate the existing social and political structure of the South. In his words Oates professed to be a true democrat; but in his heart democracy frightened him, as it did many Southern power holders. Like other Southerners who supported secession, like other power brokers in the region, Oates did not crusade for equality, white or black. He may have sincerely believed that the South seceded and fought a bloody war to preserve its liberties. But in the end Oates wanted those liberties reserved to the white men on top who, in his opinion, deserved them the most.” [p. 25]

Closely related to his racial views were his views on the place of women in society. “To Oates and other Southerners, these relations of domination and subordination–so intricately blended in the public and private spheres of life throughout the South–reproduced the ‘natural’ order of things, which were dictated not only by the forces of nature but by God himself [sic]. Inequality, in other words, was a natural thing. As for blacks, Oates firmly opposed the ‘enforced equality of an inferior race.’ His attitude toward women, whether white or black, relatives or paramours, differed little from his views on African Americans. How Oates understood the role of women and blacks–who occupied key subordinate places in the patriarchal hierarchy–depended fully on how he grasped his own masculine role, his many independence, and the virile authority he wielded over dependents and inferiors. It was crucial to men like Oates to keep blacks, women, and disenfranchised whites in their place, or else he might have to face the possibility of the existing structure of authority being unraveled or toppled from below.” [pp, 24-25]

Notwithstanding his racial and proslavery views, Oates, in February of 1863, went to Richmond to lobby for the enlistment of blacks into the confederate army. Toward the end of the war, while recovering from a wound in late 1864, he entered into an intimate relationship with a slave that resulted in the birth of a child. “Finally at home, he recuperated in his small house and took comfort from the ministrations of a black nurse, Sarah (Sallie) Vandalia, a thirty-one-year-old slave who was his domestic servant. As he regained his strength and got back on his feet, he took advantage of Sallie’s proximity and tenderness toward him and became intimately involved with her. Virtually nothing is known about her or about the details of her relationship with Oates, other than the fact that he later acknowledged having a sexual liaison with her. In his youth, he had expressed his own attraction to women of color, and it seems likely that Sallie Vandalia was not the first black woman he had ever taken to his bed. Perhaps Vandalia consented. But, just as likely, she was the victim of Oates’s coercion.” [p. 167] Oates acknowledged the child as his son, Claude, and supported him, even paying for his education, according to family sources. Claude apparently graduated from the University of Alabama and may have attended its law school. Oates, however, was not finished taking advantage of younger women. “In the spring of 1867, and perhaps earlier than that, he became sexually involved with a young fourteen-year-old white girl, Lucy Hickman. She was probably the cousin of Robert H. Hickman, a farmer who had married Oates’s younger sister, Melissa, in 1858. Lucy (called Lou by family and friends) lived with her mother and  younger brother in Abbeville. Although Oates and Lucy Hickman were not related by blood, they were distantly related by marriage; dallying with the sister of one’s brother-in-law was not incestuous, but it was–at the very least–exploitative and predatory. The girl was less than half his age. By nineteenth-century conventions, she was a member of the family (although not a relative per se), which was how Oates came to know her in an intimate setting. Even in an age in which first cousins married one another (such as twenty-seven-year-old Edgar Allan Poe and his first cousin, thirteen-year-old Virginia Clemm), an illicit sexual relationship between a man twenty years older than his teenage partner was not considered appropriate. One can only imagine what Melissa and Robert Hickman–not to mention the entire community of Abbeville–thought when they learned that spring that Lou was pregnant with Oates’s baby. On December 13, 1867, at the age of fifteen, she gave birth to a son named Joshua Cornillus Oates. William Oates now had two illegitimate sons to support.” [pp. 183-184] According to the family, Oates did support both sons, and Joshua eventually became a physician. On March 7, 1882, Oates married Sarah Toney, who was called “T.” “He was forty-eight years old; she was nineteen. He had won his child bride.” [p. 210] The union would result in another son for Oates, one who was somewhat of a disappointment in that Oates wanted him to be a West Point graduate, and the lad eventually dropped out of the Academy.

Oates was a remarkably complex man. He became a governor of Alabama and a congressman, and was a US Army officer in the Spanish-American War. An inveterate racist, he appears to have genuinely respected the black leader Booker T. Washington and eventually fought for political rights for African-Americans. But he could never escape the memories of the Civil War, and especially the wounding of his younger brother, John, at Gettysburg, and John’s eventual death.

LaFantasie gives us a wonderful picture of a man who was so much the quintessential white Alabaman of the 19th Century. By understanding Oates, we can gain some understanding of typical white Alabamans of this time. I can highly recommend this excellent book.

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2 comments

  1. Mitchell werksman · · Reply

    This is NE of the few times I agree with you.

    1. Nice to see you can be right about at least one thing. 😉

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