Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Book Review #2 Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates

Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Hardcover) by Glenn W. LaFantasie.
Lee, Grant, Longstreet, Sherman, Custer and other Civil War generals have many biographies for readers to enjoy. But it is rare for a biography of a colonel or in this case a lieutenant colonel to appear in the national Civil War library. Subjects such as these are too infrequent because of the lack of source depth and the amount of time it takes to put one together. Robert E. Lee or Grant have papers/letters in libraries and have and enormous biographical library behind them. So it is easier to write a biography of Grant but tackling the lesser known officers is a vein that historians need to hit more.
Author Glenn LaFantasie tackled an extremely difficult topic in his biography of William C. Oates (1833 -- 1910). LaFantasie's subject was a true man of his time and Oates should have had the nickname "Contradiction" for his attitudes and lifestyle. For example, he had a black lover (who mothered one of his three sons) but was a racist. Oates was a respected citizen, attorney, politician but murdered a man and beat up another on the steps of the Alabama legislature. He was wounded six times in battle but rose no higher in rank than lieutenant colonel of the 15th Alabama regiment. He felt that Lincoln could have made reconstruction easier but saw Lincolns presidency as a threat to the southern way of life.
LaFantasie's research is solid, straight-forward and is very detailed. He went through archives in several states, explored newspapers, magazine articles, periodicals and most of his citations are from primary sources. When I buy a Civil War book I really look at the sources that the author used because it is so vital to use primary sources. Too often you find books that use secondary sources and the only primary things that you see are the official war records. Today, the Internet makes things so much easier that authors can find things a lot easier than they did in 1901.
The research in this book reveals a man who struggled but was able to succeed during a difficult time in American history. Oates was a Confederate hero who dealt with the loss of his arm, struggled with his feelings of manhood and his regret at the loss of his brother John on Little Round Top. Throughout his life, Oates resisted everything but temptation which is characterized in his relationship with women. After losing his arm in 1864 Oates is nursed to health but a local family that in Alabama. The family gives Oates a black servant to help him to recover and he ends up having a sexual relationship with her that lasts a few years. This relationship ends up with Oates having a child. Later on he has a relationship with a 14 year old girl that produces another child. When he finally marries at the age of forty-eight it is to a 19 year old woman. So Oates was a man who had a lot of inner-conflicts that he took out on other people including the women in his life.
Glenn LaFantasie provides his readers with a full picture of Oates life. Besides the things that I previously mentioned he goes into detail (but not boring detail) about Oates career as a lawyer before and after the war. His experiences as a representative in the United States Congress is explored but since Oates spent 14 years in Washington D.C. one wishes that LaFantasie would have explored it more. His war years are explored in detail but LaFantasie doesn't overwhelm his readers with useless facts but does a good job by avoiding a pitfall that a lot of Civil War biographies fall into. The 15th Alabama's struggle for Little Round Top versus the 20th Maine could have taken up hundreds of pages. Glenn doesn't spend the entire book focusing on it and that is a good thing. He gives us what we need to know and maintains that focus for the entire book.
Although, the author spends some time criticizing the sexist and racist attitudes of the south he does provide an excellent picture of his subject. The best part of the book is Oates and his battle for a monument for his brother John and his 15th Alabama regiment on Little Round Top. I've always called this the 2nd struggle for Little Round Top because the United States government resisted any push for Confederate monuments at Gettysburg. Check out this book from your library or purchase a copy, it is well worth it and it is a great read.

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