Gettysburg Requiem:The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates
By Glenn LaFantasie (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, $35)
Warfare on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863, made Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain a Northern icon and a household word. But what of his Rebel counterpart in the 15th Alabama? Glenn LaFantasie’s Gettysburg Requiem:The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates reveals that while the Battle of Gettysburg also served as the defining point of Oates’ life, Little Round Top distressed him, unlike Chamberlain,throughout the postwar years. While Oates’ Alabamians fought as valiantly as the 20th Maine,they were repelled and lost many men.Oates’younger brother, John,was among those mortally wounded. LaFantasie asserts that the guilt Oates felt due to his inability to save his wounded brother haunted him for the rest of his life.
The author primarily based his research on the Oates’ family papers and a previously published regimental history written by the Confederate colonel,while also incorporating regimental files,personal correspondence and Confederate records.He effectively combines those primary sources with a significant amount of secondary works to present Oates as a complex person who attempted to achieve an aristocratic standing within Southern society.Although he never owned any slaves and came from a modest farming background, he still supported the patriarchal structure upon which slavery was based.
The Civil War affected Oates’marriage, shaped his personal relationships and determined his political affiliation.The conflict also left Oates physically impaired.At the 1864 Battle of Fussell’s Mill,Va.,he lost his right arm after a Minié ball shattered its upper portion. After the war, Oates returned to Abbeville and built a successful law practice.Believing the Reconstruction policies of the Radical Republicans were too harsh upon his native South, he later became involved in politics in the attempt to maintain white superiority within the region.Although he never achieved his ultimate goal of gaining a Senate seat, he served as a Democratic governor of Alabama and represented Alabama in the House of Representatives.
Oates’painful recollection of losing his brother at Gettysburg prevented him from wholeheartedly embracing the romanticized version of the war that Lost Cause proponents espoused. In an attempt to contend with those painful memories, Oates wrote his regimental history of his beloved 15th Alabama to publicize their sacrifices, honor and courageous exploits.
Throughout the postwar years, Oates and Chamberlain continued to battle, this time over their respective versions of what happened on Little Round Top. Both wrote letters to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association with widely disparate views of the fight and what monumentation should be placed on the rocky hill. Their wrangling prompts LaFantasie to ask the reader to rethink the previous assertions made by some historians that North and South smoothly reconciled in the late 19th century. Instead, LaFantasie points out that tension between Oates and Chamberlain regarding the fight at Little Round Top remained into the early 20th century.Oates believed that a monument to the 15th Alabama should be placed on Little Round Top,but the Memorial Association remained firm that Confederate statutes would be located at their “battle line” position, along present-day Confederate Avenue. In the end, Oates lost his second fight at Gettysburg,as no monument for the 15th Alabama was ever placed on Little Round Top.
LaFantasie’s treatment is balanced,depicting Oates as imperfect,acknowledging the colonel’s violent tendencies and ill-advised decisions on the battlefield.Whereas Mark Perry’s comparative biography Conceived in Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War offers a similar depiction of Oates, Perry’s piece contains numerous factual errors.LaFantasie’s work, however, provides a significant contribution to Civil War historiography, presenting the reader with a thorough biography of a man whom history has largely forgotten.
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.