If you want a glimpse of old Santa Rosa, don’t just cruise McDonald Avenue; stop by Wilson Street, which still looks the same as between the World Wars, when it was the heart of our “Little Italy” community. A recent column by Gaye LeBaron quoted West End chronicler Rita Carniglia Hall, who remembers “…there were shoe shops and barbers and clothing stores and, of course, restaurants and saloons. There was no call to go farther east than St. Rose Church.” Italian kids often didn’t even venture the few blocks to downtown until they were eight or ten, LeBaron wrote in her history of 20th century Santa Rosa. It was as if they lived in another town.

Although every one of those businesses is now gone, the buildings remain mostly as they were, having escaped the tempest in the 1960s and 1970s when Santa Rosa was bulldozing everything for the sake of “redevelopment.” Here’s a quick tour of this part of Wilson Street, starting on the corner of Sixth and heading north:

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On the corner are two survivors of the 1906 earthquake. To the right is the Redwood Gospel Mission, which is in a heavily modified Victorian that was once both a saloon and grocery store owned by Batiste Bettini – the same man who built the La Rose Hotel a block further down after the earthquake. There were other saloons in the Italian District around Adams Street between West 6th and West 7th, but let’s move on – this ain’t a history of Little Italy.

On the other side of Wilson St. is a long brick building that occupies the entire block. The section near the intersection of Sixth St. is newer, as you can easily tell by looking at the brickwork. The rest of the building dates back to the 1890s and was part of the flour mill. The part of the mill closest to the railroad tracks collapsed during the Great Earthquake, but was up and running again within five months – hopefully with a more hygienic crew (see picture). Around WWI it was bought by Sperry Flour Company, whose name is still seen on the south side of the building.

Proceeding to the middle of the block, (tap or click on the Google street view “forward” arrow to follow along) the nice little building at #512 was built for Oreste Paolini in 1920 and was where he sold men’s clothing until he died, sixty years later. Paolini’s finally closed in 2007, the last survivor of the old Wilson St. Italian business district. The red brick building next to it was built in the late 1920s for small storefronts.

Crossing Seventh St. and Babbini’s Restaurant was on the right in that Art Deco building that dates to 1929. The building next to it, finishing out the block, was originally a planing mill built in 1926 that appears to be almost completely unchanged since. On the west side of this block is a featureless warehouse, its flaking paint and mold-growing corners adding a scabby touch to the neighborhood. But this building, which apparently dates to just before the 1906 earthquake, is as historically important as anything nearby. This was the warehouse for the Lee Brothers, the largest drayage (hauling) company in Santa Rosa. Nearly everything aside from food that came into Santa Rosa from outside Sonoma County would have passed through that warehouse, unloaded from freight trains on one side and leaving for delivery on their distinctive yellow horse-drawn carts on the other. The Lee Brothers were a powerful force in town, and can be found mentioned in this journal nearly as often as Luther Burbank. (Their post-quake offices were at the Lee Brothers building in Railroad Square, which is currently Furniture Depot.)

The final block, between Seventh and Eighth Street, takes us back in time further still – the west side of the block was Frank Berka’s lumber yard, which dates to 1882. It makes perfect sense that it would be next door to the Lee Brothers warehouse; they were like sister companies, handling all the materials that were used to build Santa Rosa for generations. And as lumber yards tend not to change with current fashions, the yard itself looks just like it appears turn-of-the-century maps, with long sheds for storing wood products, although all original structures were destroyed in a major 1944 fire. But don’t delay taking a look; this block is slated to be demolished for a townhouse/retail development called “West End Village.” (The project was approved in 2009 but no building permits have been issued, according to the city.)

The developer is preserving, however, the corner building at 701 Wilson (currently offices for Copperfield’s Books), which has been deemed “historic,” although it was built in 1947 and is spanking new compared to anything else on the street. This was the retail store for the lumber yard and was designed by Santa Rosa architect Cal Caulkins. Its style is “International Style Modern” which was a descendant of Art Deco, minus any charm whatsoever. You see these plain stucco boxes with rounded corners and glass brick “windows” so often in Los Angeles that I have joked the style should be renamed “Sepulveda.”

Our tour ends with mention of three buildings: On the corner of Wilson and Ninth St. is a little building that currently houses “Gotta Grow Garden Supplies.” Although it faces Ninth, it has a 769 Wilson St. address because there was once an Italian grocery facing Wilson on the same lot. (UPDATE: Now demolished.) Across from the lumber yard is a large storage barn with a sliding red door, which was also part of the lumber yard and built around 1910. And next to it, at 726 Wilson, is the neat little bungalow that was built in 1926 for grocer Albert Trombetta. There are other residences from there to the corner that also date from 1906 and the 1920s but nothing is apparently documented.

Santa Rosa’s 1989 Cultural Heritage Survey called all of this the “North Railroad District” and found it might stand by itself as a candidate for the state and national Register(s) of Historic Places as a mostly untouched historic commercial-industrial district, similar to Railroad Square. Nothing was done, although it was given a classification status that meant it was supposed to be reevaluated sometime after 2003 (it wasn’t). The town’s Cultural Heritage Board ignored the issue and folded part of Wilson St. into the West End Neighborhood as a nod to its historic ties to the Italian community.

But apart from being the Italian district and warehouse district, this three block stretch of Wilson Street had yet another important historic identity: The homeless district.

Today Wilson Street is well known as the home to those suffering the hardest of hard luck. At any time of day at any time of year, people can be found loitering about or dragging their heels down those sidewalks. The soup kitchens are the draw; between the Redwood Gospel Mission and St. Vincent de Paul, the hungry and destitute can eat three meals a day and just maybe sleep inside for a night. And so it was, more than a century ago. The little article transcribed below shows that a “Rescue Home” was being established in 1910 at the corner of Wilson and Eighth as a companion to the “Rescue Mission” two blocks away at Sixth and Washington Streets.

That homeless missions were there 100 years ago raises questions: Why were these services located close together in this neighborhood and not somewhere else in Santa Rosa? Does it mean there was a homeless population already established in the neighborhood around Wilson Street prior to 1910? Very probably so, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure; rarely did historians – or local newspaper editors – care about reporting anything happening in the world of the homeless. And so it has continued into modern times. Besides the Redwood Gospel Mission (founded in 1963) and St. Vincent de Paul, we know there was also a “House of Refuge” at one of the buildings on the corner of Wilson and Ninth as recently as forty years ago – but we only know that because it was stumbled upon by researcher Diana Painter looking at Assessor data for the developer. And there must have been others, particularly during the desperate years of the Great Depression. Likely homeless charities have continually been a significant presence on Wilson Street, but the details are lost as part of this shamed and shunned page of history.

The 1910 shelter was a “Dorcas” project, and even that heritage is a little murky. In 1874, the Seventh-day Adventist Church adopted the name “Dorcas Society” for its community initiatives, but there was a long history going back to 1811 of charitable women’s groups and domestic evangelicals in America that were all named after a woman in the Bible. At times it was also strongly associated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and sometimes with ladies’ auxiliaries of Masonic Lodges. During the Civil War there were Dorcas Societies that sewed uniforms and underwear for Union soldiers. Presumably the charities in Santa Rosa were Seventh-day Adventists since Mrs. Stumph below identifies herself as an evangelist, but we can’t be sure.

So in the end, there are three sides to Wilson Street. On the west are a looming trio of long buildings that once were teeming with busy workers, but now only serve to keep the street shadowed from the afternoon sun. On the east side are the boisterous ghosts of Italian barbers, cobblers, green grocers and children who don’t know (or care) about the world outside. And in the stray corners are found the homeless, always invisible, there always.

Misc. sources: Santa Rosa’s Architectural Heritage by Geraldine and Dan Peterson (1982); Cultural Heritage Survey of the City of Santa Rosa (1989); 701/717/737/769 Wilson Street, Santa Rosa, California: determination of historic significance by Diana Painter (2008)


In connection with the Rescue Mission on Washington street we are opening a Rescue Home at 117 Eighth street, between Davis and Wilson streets. In doing this we seek to provide, not an institution, but a real home, devoted to the material welfare, the moral uplift and spiritual life of the stricken in body, victims of drink, outcast, hungry and friendless, the “down and outs.”

We desire to give a temporary home, food and clothing, when needed; to point these unfortunate ones to the Christ; help them to gain employment and become honest, respectable citizens and members of society. Little children also will be received in an adjoining cottage.

We are in immediate need of a stove, beds, cots, tables, chairs, matting, bedding, towels, blinds, dishes, food supplies, groceries, fruits in jars, etc. Any new furniture or that has been used gratefully accepted. Send us a card or telephone No 669R. Evangelist and Mrs. N. Stumph.

– Press Democrat, November 11, 1910


Will Preach at Mission

This afternoon at half past two o’clock Mr. Gibson of Oakland will deliver a sermon at the Rescue Mission at Sixth and Washington streets.

– Press Democrat, December 11, 1910


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Historians have said their job is trying to figure out what an image in a funhouse mirror actually looked like. True enough; time passes and our views of the past become distorted, and it’s not very long before even the distortions have their own distortions. And while we’re trying to untangle all that, we realize with dismay the original views weren’t so cogent in the first place.

Looking back at Santa Rosa a hundred years ago and most things seem familiar at first, except for obvious changes in fashions, technology and their world being completely dominated by white men (well, more obviously so, anyway). But squint just a little harder and everyday differences begin to appear; we no longer have peddlers knocking on our kitchen door, for example, trying to sell us eyeglasses.

It was common to see peddlers going door-to-door in 1910 as shown in the two articles transcribed below, both warning readers not to buy the peddler’s fraudulent or shoddy merchandise. The Santa Rosa Republican alerted that “traveling hawkers” were conning housewives into buying overpriced tablecloths and over at the Press Democrat, it was reported that investigators from the State Board of Optometry were in the county looking for peddlers selling “window pane” spectacles.

(RIGHT: Cartoon from the Jan. 9, 1898 Los Angeles Herald calling for immigration reform to limit the number of Syrian “pests” entering the country)

Peddlers were viewed with some suspicion anyway, and the newspapers only mentioned them in connection with crimes. In these stories the papers almost always specified the peddler’s ethnicity, which was usually Eastern European or Middle East – maybe Polish, Jewish, Russian, or as shown here, Syrian. And while they did sell useful things, most of their income came from dubious medicines and worthless glasses. From an insightful memoir of a Russian immigrant who arrived in 1904, recalling how family members taught him the trade: “…We bought all sorts of notions, small things such as needles, thread, string, buttons –all kinds of little things needed in every home. We also took along the most important thing, eyeglasses. The whole business is built on eyeglasses. A pair of glasses that costs a few cents can be sold for several dollars…”

But back to the PD report about an investigator looking for peddlers selling eyeglasses; isn’t the strangest part of that story really that the California State Board of Optometry had its own police force? And so it did; in 1907, former Los Angeles cop Nick B. Harris was hired as its Chief of Inspectors “to conduct the fight against the undesirables regardless of time or expense.” Over the following three years news items can be found about him chasing eyeglass peddlers and others selling bad optics. Just a few weeks before he swooped into Sonoma County, he was in pursuit of a gang reportedly planning to sell around $30,000 in fake telescopes and binoculars at the historic Los Angeles aviation meet in January. Later that year he opened his own detective agency in LA; here’s to Nick B. Harris, who truly deserved to be called a private eye.

Next in the annals of odd 1910 crimes: A counterfeit ten dollar bill was passed to Santa Rosa fish monger Bert Stump. But this wasn’t the sort of U.S. Treasury note that Bert or anyone else saw every day – it was supposedly printed in 1862. Why did Bert accept “torn and tattered currency” that would have been almost fifty years old? Maybe in part because he was still unfamiliar with the concept of dollar bills. Until the 1907 Bank Panic most transactions were done using gold and silver coins, and criminals exploited the public’s unfamiliarity with paper money by first printing counterfeits of the “clearing house certificates” that were temporarily used in wake of the crisis, then later altering the new $1 and $2 bills to read as $10 and $20. “Bert knows fish, and he thinks he knows silver,” the Press Democrat said, “and will handle those as heretofore in the course of his business.”

A few months later, the Santa Rosa and San Francisco papers reported that con men had bamboozled a local farmer out of his life savings by getting him drunk and enticing him to bet heavily on a game of bocci. On the face of it, a crime that could possibly happen today. But when the bocci cheaters were captured five days later it was revealed that they were using the ill-gotten loot to cheaply buy up much of the counterfeit money from second hand shops that had been stuck with worthless currency – apparently the gang believed they could vastly increase their criminal fortunes by passing the fake coins themselves. Yes, coins – judging by the 1910 newspaper accounts and the 1911 Attorney General report, it appears there were more bad guys with coin dies than printing presses. Quiz: Who today can identify a coin die? Extra credit: Explain how to silver plate a coin on a kitchen table using stuff easily obtained in 1910 (hint – it’s much easier than you might think).

Our final disjointed look at past and present concerns the magazine thieves. “Some vicious people are stealing magazines from the rooms of the local coffee club,” the Press Democrat noted grimly. I doubt anyone today would use the adjective “vicious” to describe someone who lifted a magazine from a coffeeshop, but read on: “Quit stealing them. Cease to be a thief. The man or woman who smuggles these books and carries them away deserves to be despised.” Thus the article is revealed to be another of PD Editor Ernest Finley’s Queeg-like obsessions with annoying misbehavior, not unlike his earlier crusade against orange peels on the sidewalks. I wonder how he’d possibly cope with today’s incivilities, such as mobile phones ringing in a movie theater or people who lunch their way through a visit to the grocery store – front page headlines, I’ll wager.

Thieves Who Are Engaged In Small Business

Some vicious people are stealing magazines from the rooms of the local coffee club. They have been doing this for some time. These magazines are donated to the people who like to read them. There are twenty-two of them and they are stamped at numerous places to the effect that they are not to be taken away from the room. But this admonition is not respected and these magazines are stolen and carried away. Of the twenty-two of these magazines received for the current month, fourteen have been stolen already. This is indeed contemptible business and it should be rebuked. Those magazines should be left in the club rooms where they can be ready by all who patronize the institution. Quit stealing them. Cease to be a thief. The man or woman who smuggles these books and carries them away deserves to be despised.

– Press Democrat, January 4, 1910

Woman “Stung” in Purchase of Table Cloths

…The REPUBLICAN has always advocated…spending money at home with the local merchants…In every instance where this advice has not been followed and people have purchased goods from a distance or from traveling vendors, they have been “stung” and have regretted their unwise policy.

Numerous instances of this could be cited, and they have been both of recent and remote occurrence. One of those which has come under our observation most recently is where traveling hawkers canvassed the city and sold to a number of unsuspecting women table cloths and other house-articles of the same line. After having purchased the goods some of the women who believed all that was told them of the superiority of the goods offered them made an investigation in local stores to see what price the same class of goods were sold at b the merchants of Santa Rosa. They were dismayed and chagrined to find that the “bargains” they believed they were securing from the peddlers could have been duplicated in the stores here at less money than they had paid for them.

Since this has become known there have been choruses of housewives shouting “Never again,” and the lessons that have been taught them in being “stung” in this instance will probably suffice for a long time to come.

Smooth talking agents, who only expect to sell goods to a customer once, and probably never be seen again in the community, are not careful in stating the truth in regard to the articles they offer for sale. The local merchant, who is in business here permanently, expects to make satisfied customers by selling splendid goods at right prices and in this manner to cause the customer to return again and trade in the store. The traveling hawkers have no incentive beyond the selling of goods in the immediate present, and for that reason many times are reckless in their handling of the truth regarding their wares.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  November 17, 1910

State Board of Optometry Seeks Peddlers of Worthless Eyeglasses in the County

Peddlers of fake eyeglasses are going to be brought to book through the efforts of the State Board of Examiners in Optometry. Word has been received by President L. B. Lawson to this effect. There have been some of this class of people, who are not registered opticians, who have been doing business…

…Harris is going out into the country to hunt down an army of peddlers who are said to be “doing the small towns,” and bunkoing the farmers with worthless glasses at exorbitant rates. It is the claim of the State Board that these fakers not only defraud the public in selling their window pane glasses, but they are a danger to the eyes of those who buy the goods.

Numerous reports have come to Secretary F. C. Chinn of the board of persons who have paid as high as $250 for glasses not worth $1. Some of these peddlers are said to have gone so far as to forge credentials and checks to give them standing in communities which they visit. Many ingenious devices for the deceit of the public have been discovered by Harris and his corps.


– Press Democrat, January 26 1910

Bert Stump, fish dealer, has discovered that all is not gold that glitters as U. S. Treasury gold notes. And on account of that discovery, he announces that he has suspended specie payment in redemption of torn and tattered currency, and will refer all such business to the banks or to a government sub-treasury. Bert knows fish, and he thinks he knows silver, and will handle those as heretofore in the course of his business. But although he has only one arm, he thinks he will risk a good swift punch to the next man who tries to pass any ragged paper money on him.

Bert took in a ten-dollar bill a few weeks ago that was in the last stages of dissolution. He received it in payment for fish, and gave proper change in return. He turned in the money at the Santa Rosa National Bank, where it was viewed with a doubtful scrutiny, and accepted on condition that Bert make good if the sub-treasury turned it down. Bert made good to the bank Monday. The treasury people said the note was counterfeit. It bore date of 1862, and looked as though it had been in active circulation ever since the date of issue. Perhaps it had, and perhaps that note was newly-printed by a green-goods gang, and had been worked up to its appearance of age to render its testing more difficult.

You might as well offer Stump a cancelled cigar-box stamp now as to hand him an old greenback. It isn’t safe to do either. He’s mad.

– Press Democrat, March 16, 1910
John Bianchi of This City Meets With Disaster From a Financial Standpoint

A game of bocci, in which Giovanni Bianchi, a brother of “Little Pete” Bianchi, of the Campi Restaurant, participated Monday evening with three others, cost Bianchi $1,000, according to the victim’s report to the police Tuesday. Bianchi arrived in Oakland several days ago and met the three sharpers in a hotel. They scraped an acquaintance and soon afterward confided to him that they had a sterling business venture, but needed $1,000.

According to the Oakland dispatch, Bianchi was induced to become the capitalist. He returned to Santa Rosa with one of the strangers and drew his entire savings out of a bank. Then he returned to Oakland, rejoining the other two men Monday night.

The strange men took hime to a Peralta street resort, where, after a few bottles of wine, they suggested a game. Bianchi was drawn into the contest and when his money was all gone his friends disappeared. He slept over his misfortune before he decided he had been buncoed.

Tuesday afternoon he confided his mishap to Captain of Detectives Petersen, who has had several similar cases recently. The police are trying to run down a gang of bocci sharks who work in the bay cities and make thousands of dollars every few weeks.

“Little Pete” went to Oakland Monday night to try and straighten out the tangle.

– Press Democrat, September 22, 1910

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Lots of people, as it turns out, including Santa Rosa attorney James Wyatt Oates: He didn’t like what Lincoln said. Others had more knee-jerk reactions.

Oates, as followers of this journal well know, was the man who built (what would become known as) Comstock House in Santa Rosa. He originally came from Alabama but he personally played no role in the Civil War – he was only eleven when it began. Mr. Oates had views on the war that were out of step with what we might presume a Southerner of his generation would have. He did not mourn the Confederacy’s defeat and thought Lincoln was a great man who did the right thing in fighting to preserve the Union; he hated slavery, and deplored the way the South tried to justify it. We know his strong views on the subjects because he was also a writer of sorts, and twenty essays and short stories have survived. His 1905 essay, “Lincoln,” is partially transcribed below, but all of them can be read in facsimile at the web page for his collected works.



Between the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s famous address four months passed, with the situation steadily growing worse in both the North and South. No one still had any illusions that the war would soon end or enjoyed complete faith that their side would ultimately triumph. It was these dispirited and discontented people whom Lincoln’s words needed to touch.

In the North, less than two weeks after Gettysburg and just as the public was beginning to grasp the enormous scope of the casualty count, came the unprecedented riots in New York City and Boston as the first draftees were called up under the new federal law. Anti-war judges began releasing men from the service duties using the writ of habeas corpus, resulting in Lincoln suspending this basic right in September. By doing so, Lincoln declared that he, as commander-in-chief, and the military did not have to honor court decisions. This made it easier for Lincoln’s many critics to charge he had assumed dictatorial powers.

The Union had also become more politically divided since the the war began. Lincoln’s Republican party suffered major losses in the 1862 midterm elections; the new Democratic majority in Indiana tried to assume control of all soldiers from that state and Illinois legislators wanted to send delegates to a rogue armistice convention in Louisville where peace would be negotiated.

The Emancipation Proclamation also divided the North. Outside of New England the Abolitionist movement was not as strong; Midwesterners typically didn’t want slavery to spread to new states, but were often indifferent to having it abolished. Following the Proclamation, propaganda spread that the Midwestern states were about to be “overrun with negroes, they will compete with you and bring down your wages…” So anxious were people about the rumors about immigration of former slaves that Lincoln was forced to debunk it in the State of the Union Address. Further alienating moderate Republicans, strident supporters of Lincoln formed “Loyal Leagues” that demanded local businesses declare full support of abolition or face a boycott.

In the South, Lee’s bedraggled army was at risk of collapse. There were not adequate rations or other basic supplies for the troops that survived Gettysburg or the 56,000 men who had just been released by Union forces at Vicksburg and other battle sites near the Mississippi River. Some states were no longer able to reliably support their regiments financially, leaving soldiers no option but to beg or steal food from farmers near their camps. Desertion became a major problem; by a month after Gettysburg, the Confederate War Department reported there were 136,000 soldiers absent without leave. Many simply went home but there were pockets of marauding deserters and draft-dodgers roaming the countryside. Near the Texas-Louisiana border it was reported an estimated 2,000 deserters had fortified an island on the Red River to serve as a base for raids on surrounding farms and plantations. The Confederate Armies had become armies of locusts laying waste their own land.

No less significant a crisis was the widespread belief in the South that they were losing the war because God was displeased. From the beginning Southerners were told from pulpit and podium that the war was a crusade against those ungodly sinners of the North, and if things were going badly they needed to get back in God’s favor, pronto. General Robert E. Lee called for a day of fasting and prayer for “a purer patriotism and more determined will” because “…we have forgotten his signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty and boastful spirit.” In the months following Gettysburg, a “Great Revival” whipped up evangelical enthusiasm among the troops in camp meetings that were intense and frequent, sometimes multiple times a day. One soldier wrote his regiment had not only become “members of the Church of the Living God, but professors of religion.”

Perhaps sensitive to this renewed Southern fevor, Lincoln added “under God” to the Gettysburg Address – words that do not appear in the version of the speech written down by his secretary at the White House before Lincoln left for Gettysburg.


Mr. Oates was also a well-respected lawyer, and there were two things about the Gettysburg Address that troubled his legal mind. The end of the speech particularly got under his skin: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

He objected to Lincoln saying democracy would “perish from the earth” if the Union lost the war. Oates argued that Confederate soldiers – even though they “fought for a cause utterly wrong, utterly illogical and shocking to the sense of a fair man,” as he wrote in another essay – were “equally zealous, was as devoted to government of, for and by the people as was any Northern man who fought in that contest.”

Further, Oates argued, the United States of America wouldn’t have been harmed by having a Confederate  States of America next door:

To say that the establishment of the South as a separate government would destroy that character of government finds no justification in any process of reasoning from the then known facts. There were then abundant evidences of that stalwart spirit in the American people, both North and South, that would not permit that character of government to ‘perish from the earth,’ whether we remained one or became two distinct nations.

Read together with his 1910 essay, “The Southern States,” Oates’ central tenets appear: Although Oates strongly denounced slavery and was pleased the Union triumphed, he also agreed with Southerners who viewed the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” And while he admired Lincoln, he thought the president and other Northerners were so worked up over the slavery issue that they couldn’t see past it and recognize the South states had every right to spin off a government of their own, exactly as it was for the colonists in 1776. Holding such logically and morally complex and contradictory views reveals Mr. Oates as undoubtedly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Our Mr. Oates didn’t take issue with Lincoln’s remarks about the “honored dead” who had “consecrated the ground” at Gettysburg, but certainly his older brother would have had strong opinions about that. Confederate Colonel William C. Oates had command of the 15th Alabama Regiment on the second day of fighting at Gettysburg and led them in the Battle of Little Round Top. Among the regiment was another Oates brother, John, who was wounded and left behind as the Rebels retreated in panic. John survived for three weeks in a Union field hospital near the battleground. Even while Lincoln was speaking, John’s body was still on the farm where he died, about two miles away. John’s name was written on a wooden marker and placed on the grave. By the end of the war, the marker was lost.

As Lincoln spoke, over a thousand bodies had already been buried at the Gettysburg soldier’s cemetery. That was less than half the total, and it would be another four months before the last soldier who died at Gettysburg would be buried there. Of course, that meant the last Union soldier, because the cemetery was only for them. When workers encountered a Confederate body, they left it at the same spot, only reburying it deeper down. By contrast, the government was treating the Union dead with tender care, endeavoring to make certain the identification was correct, sorting the caskets so soldiers could be buried next to comrades from their home state. Any mementos were carefully collected and saved for the fallen soldier’s nearest kin.

The Civil War had been over for seven years before private funds were raised to deal with the body of John Oates and the other dead Confederates. His body was among those taken to the Hollywood cemetery in Richmond, where about 2,000 Rebels who died at Gettysburg – most of them unidentifiable by that time – were placed in a mass grave. Record keeping was so poor that it took William Oates 45 years to even find out that much.

(That the Union forces chose to not deal with the Confederate dead remains a contemporary problem. Throughout the 20th century, Confederate remains kept turning up at Gettysburg, most recently in 1995. As there were about 1,500 Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg that are still unaccounted for, there are almost certainly many bodies undiscovered, according to the National Park Service.)

But give the Oates’ credit: If they disliked the Gettysburg Address, it was because they took issue with what Lincoln said. Others in the South hated it for more visceral reasons. In the days after the speech, Southern newspapers mostly ignored it; some ridiculed it as inconsequential or even silly; others claimed Lincoln didn’t even speak at the ceremony. The very few that printed the speech did so only after taking out the first line, with its inflammatory bit about all men being created equal.

After the surrender at Appomattox, Southern resentment over Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address continued even after the Civil War generations began dying out. There’s a very good academic study (PDF) written by Jared Elliott Peatman that looks at Southern opinion of the Gettysburg Address as viewed through newspapers in Virginia.

For the century that followed, the South tried to pretend the Gettysburg Address didn’t exist. In most of the country it became customary for someone to recite the Gettysburg Address on Memorial Day; in the South, the custom was to have someone read General Robert E. Lee’s Farewell Address. No school district or college would consider a textbook that discussed the Gettysburg Address; the United Confederate Veterans formed a committee to make sure “long-legged Yankee lies” were not being taught. A 1909 list of history books approved by the state of Virginia did not include a single title about Lincoln or the Gettysburg Address, but it did include Confederate biographies and the Uncle Remus books.

Lincoln’s reputation in the South was rehabilitated after World War I – at the 1922 dedication Lincoln Memorial there were even a few very aged Confederate Army veterans attending in uniform. But the Gettysburg Address mostly continued to be shunned, even during the big fuss over it during the 1963 centennial. The Richmond News Leader of November 19, 1963, according to the Peatman study, presented an article titled, “Gettysburg Address: Unforgettable Words” which “…was, from start to finish, a condemnation of the Address’ literary style. Among the many faults the author pointed out were the repetition of verbs, the lack of punch, beginning the speech with a number, the brevity of the speech, the repetition of ‘great,’ and the use of various cliche╠üs.”

But why did the Gettysburg Address end up being the South’s Civil War Purity of View Litmus Test? Part of the hatred probably is simply because it explicitly said all men were created equal. Part was also because the speech was inexorably tied to Gettysburg, and the memories of what happened there – both the defeat and how poorly their dead were treated afterward – lingered as an open wound well into the 20th century. But there probably are still some like our Mr. Oates, who view the Gettysburg Address as unfairly demonizing them as being haters of American democratic ideals. Peatman’s study deserves the last word on the subject:

In 1858, Lincoln declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free… It will become all one thing or all the other.” But Lincoln was wrong. The story of Virginians’ reaction to the Gettysburg Address shows that when it comes to issues of race, and the remembrance of the struggle for freedom, as of 1963 the United States remained divided, with no prospect of soon becoming “all one thing or all the other.”

Adapted from remarks delivered at the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, November 16, 2013


No one would detract an iota from the justly high estimate of Lincoln held by men. He was one of the greatest of his race, and today when all the passions that surged around him during life have died, foe and friend alike can and do extend full justice to that most unique and pathetic figure.

However, the American people on occasions become emotional and lose the power of discrimination. Truth is vastly more important than the interest of any man or than the memory of all men. It is a fine trait that yields willing and full mead of praise to him to whom it of right belongs; but it is a finer trait to do that and at the same time keep to the truth. The disposition today is to exaggerate and claim for Lincoln a stature not his in truth. Of course, to paraphrase the Gettysburg speech, it little matters what we here and now say; rather will he in the end be judged by what he then did. But we should seek to get at the core of things; to over-estimate any man is not justice to him or to others, and I have that confidence in Lincoln’s love of truth to feel that he would prefer to be judged as others are judged, and to be judged justly. The enthusiasts are trying to make a myth–a god–of his memory, all of which will fail as such things have failed all down the ages.


The one thing that I do not like in this hour of unstinted adulation is the unthinking, uncritical way in which Lincoln’s celebrated Gettysburg speech is praised. As a a composition it is excellent; as a means to an end it was a stroke of genius; as a truth — it will not stand. He was speaking of the Union soldiers who fought on that field, in the light of American institutions, and the essence of what he said is in this expression: “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” This meant that the people of the South were trying to destroy “government of the people, for the people, by the people,” which was not true. The South was equally zealous, was as devoted to government of, for and by the people as was any Northern man who fought in that contest. Both sides equally desired that kind of government; nor was that kind of government in issue or in danger. The question is issue was rather whether there should be one government by, of and for the people North and another government by, of and for the people South, or one government for both.

Truth will not permit anyone to say that that kind of government in the North was in any sense menaced. No one so desired such government “to perish from the earth;” nor was anyone endeavoring to do anything which would produce such a result. Certainly the South was making no such effort. Had she been successful, the North would have had for herself “government by, of and for the people” just as she wanted it [and] just as she had it before; and so would the South, for her government, in that respect, was identical with the government established by the Fathers of the Republic. In truth, we might go further; as it was given to Lincoln to understand, he was, of course, telling the full truth, but in all honesty with prejudice laid aside, with a clearer light, we may ask, was he engaged in an enterprise that extended to the South “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” in the sense of the Father’s work? Truth will not permit it to be said that he was. He was denying to the South that kind of government. The frozen truth is that Lincoln was trying to save the Union in a way that negated the idea of such government; and he in substance said at another time that he would do anything to preserve the Union. That it was best to save the Union may be admitted and I believe it was; but that was not what he said. He was speaking of a thing that might or might not exist in or out of the Union. To say that the Union was necessary in order that such government might exist will not do. That was not true then nor is it true now. What would have happened by way of change in that character of government North or South had the South succeeded, was then a matter of prophecy; and all the prophets have been dead for centuries. But to say that the establishment of the South as a separate government would destroy that character of government finds no justification in any process of reasoning from the then known facts. There were then abundant evidences of that stalwart spirit in the American people, both North and South, that would not permit that character of government to “perish from the earth,” whether we remained one or became two distinct nations, and there was not one fact tending to show that such government would “perish from the earth” if the South succeeded.

A recognition of this is due to the brave and devoted people of the South who fought and died in the firm and honest belief that a right to have a government of their own choice was as much the right of eight million of Americans then in the South as it was of three million of Colonists in 1776.

That it has come about since 1865 that the South has a full measure of that kind of government is due, not to the logical sequence of that war, but to the inherent love of that kind of government all over this Nation, North and South.

Since that war we have not lived up to that idea of government in dealing with others. This will not please our self-love; but it is a fact all the same. Read that phrase from Lincoln’s speech and then look at Puerto Rico and the Philippines and see, if one can, where that doctrine comes in. The very spirit of the war waged by the North for the Union was destructive, in its necessary tendencies, of the character of government Lincoln did not wish to “perish from the North.” I am not saying whether that idea is at all times the best; neither am I contending that it would have been for the best had the South succeeded. All that is aside from the question; for what is the best kind of government depends upon a multitude of things, and what is best for one people or one condition may not be so good for other people or for the same people under different conditions. This truth lies behind the reason for the government by, of and for the people, that they may change it when they do not like what they have. The power to change is the very essence of such a government; if this American government

There was enough of the great and good in Lincoln for an exceeding large mead of admiration and praise, but it should stop where he was wrong, as in that matter. Nor am I satisfied when I hear admirers of Lincoln claim that he was as great or greater than Washington. The equal of Washington never breathed the breath of life, and from present indications this estimate will stand forever as the truth of all the ages.

James W. Oates.
August, 1905.

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