- Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates
Glenn LaFantasie's Gettysburg Requiem recounts the life of William Calvin Oates, a man best remembered for his leadership of the 15th Alabama, the Confederate regiment that opposed Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's 20th Maine on the slopes of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. In a cunning narrative, LaFantasie brings Oates's life into sharper focus, elucidating the complexities of his "rough and tumble days" in Pike County; his subsequent enlistment in the Confederate army; his supreme moment leading soldiers at Gettysburg; his postwar days as a lawyer, congressman, Spanish-American War general, and governor of Alabama; and his strenuous effort to commemorate the death of his younger brother, John.
LaFantasie argues that Oates's life is primarily "a Southern story . . . the story of a very ordinary man who possessed some extraordinary talents and who, despite all his best efforts, could not escape his past" (xxx). During his time, he stood among Alabama's foremost politicians, served seven terms as a U.S. congressman and one term as Alabama's governor. The "One-Armed Hero of Henry County," as he was known by his constituents, received both praise and criticism for his staunch conservatism, his violent temper, and his questionable private life.
LaFantasie's book relies heavily on William Oates's family papers and his 1905 memoir, The War between the Union and the Confederacy and Its [End Page 102] Lost Opportunities. LaFantasie also consults a host of military, legal, and business records and uses well-known secondary sources to explain southern culture, politics, gender norms, and racial attitudes in order to clarify some of Oates's seemingly unaccountable decisions. Strangely, statements from Oates's contemporaries—other politicians and military officers—are noticeably absent, and the book is sadly lacking in newspaper sources, an odd omission, given Oates's public career.
Oates's spectacular career revealed ways the southern experience both circumscribed and influenced the actions of a man who wished to rise above his impoverished beginnings. Violence followed Oates wherever he went, from his youthful days, when he was wanted on several accounts of attempted murder, to his autumn days, when explosive outbursts against his wife and son grew increasingly frequent. Oates's ardent masculinity superintended his personal life. He fathered two illegitimate children, including one born of a slave, and he wedded Sarah Toney despite a thirty-year age gap. More than anything, however, Oates's memory, particularly the nostalgia surrounding his brother's death at Gettysburg, directed his personal affairs, fueled his depression, and confined his concentration.
As a biography, LaFantasie's Gettysburg Requiem is superb. It is engaging, informative, and never lacking in appropriate historical context. LaFantasie reveals William Oates's multiplicity of dimensions: ruffian, father, colonel, congressman, lawyer, husband, governor, general, lover, and southerner. With skillful prose, he exposes the complexity of Oates's political and social career, explicating his transition from antebellum Whig to Yanceyite Fire-Eater to staunch Conservative Democrat to unanticipated racial progressive.
However, LaFantasie is unevenly critical of Oates's memoir. He notes that Oates indulged in sheer fabrications, such as his recounting of Elon J. Farnsworth's supposed suicide at the Battle of Gettysburg, but he accepts uncritically other equally ridiculous statements. For instance, he believes that Oates was true to his word, that upon Union victory in 1865, Oates "accepted the North's victory, expressed deep sorrow over Lincoln's assassination, and quickly turned his attention to his own private affairs" (173). Predictably, the Battle of Gettysburg receives extreme attention—almost minute-by-minute detail—but other harrowing battles, including those of Cross Keys and Second Manassas, receive scant notice.
LaFantasie's discussion of Oates's opposition to Alabama's "grandfather clause" in 1901 and his resultant fight against black disfranchisement is suspect. Although "something in Oates" may have "changed" thanks to his frequent [End Page 103] contact with ordinary African Americans and with Booker T. Washington, his resistance was...