THAT TERRIBLE MAN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT

As the presidential election approaches, the Santa Rosa paper is relentlessly attacking the Republican candidate. Readers are told he lies about his past to impress voters and he won’t listen to others because he foolishly believes he’s always right. His own party wants nothing to do with him. His proposals are simplistic as well as unworkable and unconstitutional (a document he’s obviously never read) and he will destroy the country if he gets within a mile of the White House. Plus, he looks funny.

The newspaper is the Sonoma Democrat. The Republican is Abraham Lincoln. The year is 1860.

The Sonoma Democrat was the direct ancestor of the Press Democrat and before, during and after the Civil War was relentlessly pro-Confederate. Most of Sonoma County shared those sentiments to some degree – this was the only place in the state which did not vote for Lincoln either time. But editor Thomas L. Thompson shaped the Santa Rosa newspaper into the sort of rag that might have been published in the Deep South at that time, not only pro-slavery but astonishingly racist. Now that the Democrat is online we can search it and find there were at least 330 uses of the “n-word” between 1857 and 1886. To squeeze that many hateful slurs into a four-page weekly reveals Thompson to be an awful person and probably a little crazy. There’s no question he was certifiably nuts when he committed suicide in 1898; the coroner’s jury ruled he was “mentally deranged” after ranting that the Odd Fellows’ Lodge was out to get him.

(RIGHT: Abraham Lincoln May 20, 1860, two days after winning the Republican party nomination)

In the run-up to the election, sample items from the paper transcribed below show Thompson fed his readers a steady diet of anti-Lincoln, anti-abolitionist bile. To make sense of some of these articles it’s important to know this was an odd four-way election with both Northern and Southern Democrats in the running. Besides Lincoln, the official Democratic Party candidate was Stephen A. Douglas, who thought he could somehow forge a grand compromise to keep the United States patched together; Southern Democrat Breckinridge, who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right; and third-party candidate Bell, who wanted to appease the South by ignoring the slavery issue altogether.

The Sonoma Democrat introduced readers to Lincoln that summer with ad hominem attacks. Lincoln had “neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye” and lied about being a rail-splitter in his youth, as people in that part of Illinois made their fences from pieces of wood picked up in swamps (having grown up near there, I can attest there are no prairie swamps). During his service in the Black Hawk war, the paper claimed he forgot to untether his horse and fell with the animal when he tried to ride away; believing his horse had been brought down by an ambush, “Old Abe” tried to surrender to the non-existant Indians.

Sonoma county readers were told that some delegates at the Republican convention were “mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln.” Items reprinted from like-minded journals insisted he was a dead weight on the ballot and could not possibly win – although his inevitable loss in New York state would cause chaos, as the outcome would then be decided by the House of Representatives (he won New York by nearly eight points).

But more than anything else, Thompson kept hammering that Lincoln was a “Black Republican.” In Thompson’s argot, this was the worst thing he could call someone because it meant they believed African-Americans were human beings with legal rights. Whatever lip service Thompson and his ilk gave to state’s rights and the constitutionality of slave-holding, its rotten core was always racist hatred.

On election day Lincoln got 1,236 votes in Sonoma county, behind Breckinridge’s 1,466. Petaluma was the only town Lincoln won, with 375 voting for him. Santa Rosa cast 91 ballots for Lincoln and 205 for Breckinridge.

Thompson hunkered down in the final weeks of 1860, bitterly spinning a story of gloom and doom. Stock markets were in a “panic” and banks in two southern states were expecting to be closed. The “free negroes, their aiders and abettors” were plotting to avenge John Brown’s death with help from the Republicans. There was a recurrent theme in the dispatches from the pro-southern papers that the South was keeping a steady keel while the North was falling apart. Charleston supposedly would not allow steerage passengers on steamboats coming from the North to disembark unless there was a guarantee they would not become vagrants.

Thompson also launched a trope that the North was trying to nullify the Constitution and forcing the Southern states to secede against their wishes. Failing to return runaway slaves was nothing short of treason, according to Thompson, who hoped that Congress would mete out punishment “if the present disunion cloud should blow over.” There is the Confederacy mindset neatly summed: 1) we’re the victims; 2) we have the only true understanding of the Constitution; 3) we will never, ever, compromise on slavery. For these reasons and more, one dispatch from Alabama concluded: “Revolution is inevitable.”

 

 

DOUGLAS AND LINCOLN. — The men are entirely dissimilar. Douglas is a thick set, finely built man, with an air of self confidence. Lincoln is a tall (six feet four), lank man, awkward, apparently diffident, and when not speaking has neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 21, 1860

 

News from the Atlantic states.

The Overland stage with the St. Louis mails of the 21st ult. arrived at San Francisco on Monday last. On Friday, the 18th May, the Chicago Convention nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, for President, on the third ballot, and Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine, for Vice President, on the second ballot. The nomination of Lincoln struck the Republicans of the Middle and Eastern States cold. A forced enthusiasm, however, was got up in some cities…The New Yorkers are as mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln. They say they can’t begin to carry New York with Lincoln, and the dead weight of their abominable Legislature added. Bets are made that Lincoln will lose N. Y. by 20,000…

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1860

…Abe Lincoln has declared, that if he were in the halls of Congress, and the question of the abolition of slavery were to come up, ho would vote for it in spite of the Dred Scott decision. In other words he declared that the highest Tribunal of the land was no authority for him, that he would disregard all principles of law, justice and order, and would by the mere force of physical superiority compel nearly one half of the states of this Confederacy to change their social and domestic institutions, at the beck and nod of a tyranous majority; and this is the candidate of the party who with emulous ostentation denounce the South as disunionists and traitors. This is the party who daily shout and swagger about union and nationality, who complaining of intolerance on the part of the South, deny to her all toleration, all equality, all justice, all rights under the Constitution, and insult her with threats of coercion if she dares resist their sovereign will…

– Sonoma Democrat editorial, July 12 1860

The Pittsburg Post says: An old citizen who traveled in Illinois thirty years ago, and was especially familiar with the district of country where Abe Lincoln resided, says that Abe never split a rail in his life. In those days, he says, the people never thought of such a thing as splitting rails. They went into the swamps and cut hoop-poles and saplings for fences, and used them, round, as nature made them.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

At the time of the Black Hawk war, ‘Abe’ enlisted. The company numbered about eight mounted men. They started off in fine spirits to engage in the deadly fray. Arriving at a point on the prairies, about two hundred miles from the Indian lines, the party bivouacked for the night, picketed their horses, and slept on their arms…During the night, the sentinel, whoso mental caliber was in no measure proportioned to his patriotism, imagined he saw the Indians! and immediately discharged his old fusee. The camp was aroused in an instant, and each sprang to his saddle. ‘Old Abe’ shot out in the darkness on his charger like lightning, until the ropes ‘hove taut,’ when over he went, horse and himself, headlong! Thinking himself caught in an Indian ambush, he gathered up, mounted, putting spurs to his horse, took the opposite shute, but soon brought up as before, horse and rider tumbling headlong. ‘Old Abe’ got up, thinking he was surrounded! and shouted, ‘Gentlemen Indians! I surrender without a word. I have not a word to offer. All I want is quarter!’ There ‘Old Abe’s” first campaign ended!’

– Sonoma Democrat, September 13 1860

The conservative and Union loving men of the North are making every effort to defeat Lincoln. All parties concede that should Lincoln lose New York his defeat inevitable.

[..]

By reference to our Eastern news today, it will be seen that there has been a complete fusion between all the elements of opposition to the Black Republicans in New York-—the vote of that State to be cast for Douglas, Breckinridge or Bell, as they shall receive the highest popular vote. This will undoubtedly throw the election into the House of Representatives, and secures beyond question the defeat of Lincoln.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 27 1860

…On one side stands Lincoln, proclaiming the social, moral and political superiority of the North over the South, and calling upon men to enter into an “irrepressibly conflict” for the complete and entire destruction of the Southern States. On the other hand we have Breckinridge proclaiming the equality of the States, the harmony of commerce and industry, the sacred and constitutional right of self-government.–N.Y. Herald.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1860

REPUBLICAN MEETING.– Hand-bills have been staring us in the face upon every corner for the last week, announcing that James Churchman, Esquire, of Nevada, would address the irrepressibles of this place yesterday. Well, the eventful evening arrived and so repaired to the Court House expecting to hear the Democracy entirely demolished. We found assembled exactly seven Republicans, most of whom were from abroad; there may have been as many as twelve, since there were three or four persons there whom we did not know. There were besides these some fifteen or twenty snuff-colored gentlemen, and about seventy-five Breckinridge and Bell men. The irrepressible gentleman had already commenced when we arrived, so that we did not hear the first part of his harangue. We listened to him, however, about three quarters of an hour, and we must say, we heard the most pithless, pointless batch of misrepresentations we have ever listened to. Mr, Churchman’s address is pleasing, and his manner well calculated to attract tho attention of a promiscuous assemblage; but he did not make a single point during the time we listened to him, that deserves the space it would take to refute it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 18 1860

KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, that Abraham Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico and declared it unnecessary and unjust.

Keep it before the people, that the Republicans are in favor of placing negroes on an equality with the whites, and in many of the free States sanction amalgamation.

Keep it before the people, that in Massachusetts the Republicans proscribed foreign-born citizens and attempted to deprive them of the right of suffrage, and would have succeeded had the Democrats not opposed it.

Keep it before the people, that in the same State negroes were elected delegates to conventions and assisted in nominating Republican candidates for Congress.

Keep it before the people, that the infidel Garrison, a leading Black Republican, unblushingly declares, that the Constitution of the United Slates “it a covenant with death and an agreement with hell!”

Keep it before the the people, that this same Republican leader Garrison, blasphemously asserts, that if “God had the power to abolish slavery and would not, he wae a very great scoundrel!”

– Sonoma Democrat, November 1 1860

The contest is over, and from the partial returns so far received, it is doubtful if the State has not gone againat us. In this County the Democracy have scarcely deserved anything else. At a time when every element of opposition was combining against them, when every energy was needed to secure success, they have remained passive and indifferent until they have actually allowed the election to go by default…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1860

San Francisco, Nov. 13th, 1860. Editors Sonoma County Democrat: The great battle is over, and although it has resulted in partial defeat, let not Democrats be disheartened, but rather let them organize and prepare themselves better for the next struggle, when the now prevailing party will have been “played out,” as were their immediate successors. Although six days have passed since the election, little is yet known of the result. According to latest accounts Lincoln is about 1100 ahead, but this seems doubtful, as it is strongly suspected that the despatches are not much to be relied on, having been gotten up more for betting purposes than for the diffusion of reliable statistical information. The news from the East will be sent with the greatest despatch by the Pony, and will be received here the fore part of next week. The telegraphing facilities of the Eastern States will be tested to their utmost, but it is generally expected that the general result will be known by that time. How annoying it is that the knowledge of a great event must be kept from us for days when a few hundred miles of telegraphic wire would put us in immediate possession of the all-desired information.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1860

The news by the Pony confirms the unwelcome intelligence of Lincoln’s election as the next President of the United States. At the same time it brings the news of movements in several of the Southern States, which indicate a fixed determination on their part to remain no longer in the Union. Their perfect and sovereign right to secede, if they desire to do so, must be conceded from the very nature and formation of our government. There are but two means by which any Union of States can be maintained or preserved; one is a community of interests, the other a preponderance of force. The former is the only means which was ever contemplated, in the formation of our Constitution, for the very objects of its formation, viz: “To establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty,” utterly preclude the idea of using force for its preservation, for this use of force would at once defeat every object for which the Union was formed. If these States, therefore, in their sovereign capacity, see proper to secede from the Union, there is no power under the Constitution to prevent them; and any attempt to coerce them would be as unconstitutional as it would be unholy, unjust and futile. This movement may be one pregnant with mighty consequences. There has never been a period in the history of our government when there was so much necessity for wise, deliberate and cautious procedure, and it is well that the people should weigh and consider the causes which have led to these untoward results, and prepare to meet the mighty events which loom up so portentiously in the future, for, as has been well said, it is for them to decide what course they will sustain the administration in pursuing toward those states which may secede.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 29 1860

The excitement in the South continues, accompanied with general depression in the markets and trade, amounting to a panic. There has been a general decline in stocks at New York, and a great increase in rates of exchange at Chicago. There is a tightness at St. Louis, and perfect derangement in monetary affairs South. The South Carolina and Georgia Legislatures have prepared for a suspension of their banks. No suspensions have yet taken place. The Mayor of Charleston has notified the agents of Northern steamers that he would not permit the landing of steerage passengers, unless the companies guaranteed their maintenance, if they became vagrants. Merchants have now goods on hand, but no new orders will be given to the North, except such as are indispensable.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 6 1860

Negro Lincoln Clubs. — We copy the following advertisement from the Pittsburg Dispatch, of October 16th, an influential Black Republican organ: “Colored Men of Pittsburg and Vicinity!–You are requested to meet and form yourselves into Wide Awake Clubs immediately, for the purpose of farthering the interest of the friend of the human race, Abraham Lincoln. Already New York has spoken in favor of universal suffrage. And if colored men would have their rights, they should move for the success of their friends. John Brown, the hero of Harper’s Ferry, is yet to be avenged.”

Is it strange that the South should bo excited und alarmed in the face of such proceedings, sanctioned and encouraged by the Black Republicans of the free States? Does not prudence dictate that they should be prepared to meet and repel a second John Brown raid? Do not the free negroes, their aiders and abettors, contemplate a second foray into the Southern States? Do the negroes not hope to avenge the death of John Brown, and have they not reason to anticipate assistance and protection from the Republicans?

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1860

WHO ARE THE DISUNIONISTS?– The New York Herald, of the 10th ult., says: We publish below an account of the Northern Slates which prohibit their officials and citizens from aiding in the execution of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, and which by their action, have boldly nullified the Constitution of the United States…It will be seen from the above that the Northern States are nearly all in a position of practical disunion–that is, they have refused to sustain the constitution which their fathers adopted.

LEGISLATING FOR TREASON.–If the present disunion cloud should blow over, as all lovers of their country sincerely trust that it may, we hope Congress will make a point of re-enacting, at an early day, some law defining treason, and providing sufficient means for its prevention or punishment…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1860

Read More

WHO HATED THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS?

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.

         

LINCOLN’S DOLOROUS AUDIENCE

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 clichés.”

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

LINCOLN

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.

Read More

THE COLONEL’S LONG YEARS OF CONSTANT SORROW

Even though his brother was 76 year-old, James Wyatt Oates was shocked to learn the old man had died that afternoon in 1910. He had always seemed invincible; countless times he cheated death during the Civil War, despite being on the front lines of some of the bloodiest battles – the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Chickamauga, Gettysburg. He was wounded six times, the last injury costing him his right arm. Still, it was nothing short of a miracle that he survived his last bout of combat at all; when that lead minie ball destroyed his arm he was facing a hail of enemy gunfire, waving his sword and urging his troops to fight even though the battle was clearly already lost. Confederate Colonel William C. Oates always fought hardest when he was on the losing side.

William and James Wyatt grew close, but not until after the Civil War. William was 17 years older, more like a father or uncle than a sibling. He was hardly around at all while Wyatt was a child, and was approaching middle age before he apparently developed any kind of bond with his youngest brother. William had already lived a full life to that point, having spent his youth brawling and gambling before settling down to be a successful Alabama lawyer, then Civil War warrior, then lawyer again. He was unmarried until he was 48 (although he was the father of two boys, one of them born to a slave who was his domestic servant), but there always was one constant in his life – his brother, John.

There was only two years difference in age between John and William. They were inseparable as children, each other’s best friend. They even looked alike, although John was always a few inches shorter. John also read for the law and joined William’s practice in Abbeville and when the war came they both were patriots in the Confederate vein. John was quick to enlist and became a private; William delayed a few months to raise a company from among the local men, with himself as captain. They were apart only a few months in different regiments before John was posted to his brother’s company and promoted to 2nd lieutenant.

The 15th Alabama Regiment saw action in the following year of 1862, but luck followed them; even at the Battle of Antietam – the bloodiest day of the entire war – fewer than ten of them were killed. Morale remained high. John’s health was beginning to deteriorate, however. Sleeping on frozen ground during the winter of 1862-1863 had caused him to develop acute rheumatism in his right hip and leg that was getting worse by the week. In the spring of 1863 he even requested a desk job as it had become painful to simply take a step.

By the time they arrived at Gettysburg on July 2nd, he was in particularly bad shape. They had just marched all night, making 28 miles in eleven hours; John fell behind and William sent back his spare horse for his brother to ride. Besides his constant pain and exhaustion, John had a high fever, yet still defied William’s order that he report to sick leave. “I will go in with my company though I know it may cost me my life,” he said, according to William’s history. It would be the last time the brothers’ spoke.

William had been given command of the 15th Alabama Regiment only about two months earlier, and this would be his first time leading them into battle. He was respected by his troops for always being in the front of the fighting, but his habit of not faithfully following and/or understanding orders along with his lack of any military education repeatedly led them into trouble that day. While under an artillery barrage, Oates sent 22 men off in search of water, leaving the regiment short-handed (and without canteens) when the order to advance came. He disobeyed direct orders to advance towards a position on the Confederate line, instead fruitlessly chasing Union sharpshooters up a steep hill covered with boulders, both further exhausting his men and wasting valuable time. When an officer caught up with his regiment and found them on the wrong hill, Oates tried to argue he thought there was a strategic advantage in staying put. Oates’ regiment was ordered to follow orders, now greatly delayed with the afternoon shadows were growing longer. Meanwhile, Union troops had beaten Oates in taking command over the nearby hill called Little Round Top. (The battle for Little Round Top was introduced in an earlier essay about William’s 1905 visit to Santa Rosa, and can be explored in great depth at many Civil War history websites, such as this one.)

RIGHT: Artist’s rendering of Col. Oates and the 15th Alabama at Little Round Top. Image courtesy U.S. Army CECOM Historical Office (artist credit not given)

For purposes here, let’s summarize that Oates’ many delays resulted in his regiment fighting uphill on Little Round Top, another rocky slope. The combat was bloody and continued for over an hour. On word that Union troops were also approaching from the rear, Oates ordered a retreat and his men began withdrawing for the night. Suddenly the Yankees locked bayonets and made a screaming charge down the hill, causing the Rebels to panic – “we ran like a herd of wild cattle,” Oates later wrote with remarkable candor. Left behind were their dead and wounded, including John Oates. William did not know if his beloved brother was captured or dying or dead.

It was nearly two full months before William learned that John had been wounded by no less than six bullets. He survived for 23 days in a Union field hospital near the battleground before dying of blood poisoning. He was buried in his own casket in his own grave on the site, with a wooden headstone. By the time William revisited Gettysburg after the war, the marker was gone.

Through all the accomplishments that followed – four terms as a Congressman and two years as governor of Alabama, appointment as a brigadier general in the Spanish-American War – William Oates was haunted by Gettysburg and the fate of his brother. Biographer Glenn W. LaFantasie wrote in Gettysburg Requiem:


…[H]e was tougher than most men his age. What weighed on him, though, and sapped his strength…were his memories of Gettysburg, of the death of his young brother, of the ghost-like images of his comrades falling on Little Round Top, and of the lost opportunity that the battle represented for the Confederacy and for him personally. Oates could not escape the vise grip Gettysburg had on him, a grip that prevented him from ever gaining any real peace in his old soldier’s soul.

He hungered to know every detail of what happened to John after Little Round Top and what happened to his remains. After much sleuthing, he found the Union doctor who treated John and was heartened to learn that the doctor’s family was drawn to John and his last words were, “Tell my folks at home that I died in the arms of friends.”

William became morose every July 2 and December 24, the latter being John’s birthday. On Christmas Eve, 1900, he wrote a letter to his 17 year-old son attending West Point. “The night recalls to me the fact that one whom you never saw but who was dear to me was born on Christmas Eve night.” On these anniversaries, he wrote to Willie, the memories of their last conversation flooded back, and how he had failed to convince John to stay out of the battle. That John had died a prisoner of war sickened him. “He was a noble young man and died for his country and in a just cause as he and I both saw it.”

For the last fifteen years of his life, William fought to have a monument built on Little Round Top commemorating the 15th Alabama regiment. “[W]hen I am dead and gone, I want to leave a little stone on the spot where my brother and others were killed,” he wrote in his application. He wanted the marker to include a wordy plaque that mentioned John twice:


To the memory of Lt. John A. Oates
and his gallant Comrades who fell here
July 2nd, 1863.  The 15th Ala. Regt.,
over 400 strong reached this spot, but
for lack of support had to retire.

Lt. Col. Feagin lost a leg.
Capts. Brainard and Ellison,
Lts. Oates and Cody and
33 men were killed, 76 wounded
and 84 captured.

Erect 39th Anniversary of battle,
by Gen. Wm. C. Oates who was
Colonel of the Regiment.

In early 1909, he happened to discover John’s body had been exhumed in 1872 and sent with the remains of eleven other Confederates to Virginia for reburial. Excited that he was at last about to find a grave where he could place a marker he sought more details, only to find that John’s general burial spot was again unmarked and lost somewhere amid a large section designated only as “Gettysburg Hill” in a Richmond cemetery.

Hearing that news, “Oates became seriously ill and bedridden,” according to biographer LaFantasie, not specifying what his ailment was. His doctor suggested the cool mountain air in North Carolina might make him feel better, but he soon turned back home and returned to bed. Exactly two months after learning that John’s grave had forever disappeared, William Oates passed away quietly.

You could say he simply lost his will to live, and surely that would be hard to dispute.


SOURCES:
Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates by Glenn W. LaFantasie, 2006
The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and its Lost Opportunities by William C. Oates, 1905
John A. Oates: No Brothers Loved Each Other Better by Rosemary Pardoe
The Inimitable William C. Oates by Glenn W. LaFantasie
GENERAL WM. C. OATES DIES AT ALABAMA HOME
Was One of Most Beloved Men of the Entire South

General William C. Oates, a brother of Judge James W. Oates of this city, died at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Friday. Not only did the news cause great sorrow in the Oates household here, but it will cause sorrow and genuine regret to many Santa Rosans who had met the courtly southerner in his several visits to Santa Rosa, where he was the guest of his relatives, Judge and Mrs. Oates.

The deceased was a born leader of men, and all of his life has been in the forefront of progressive movements for his beloved south. He served from the start to the finish of the civil war, first under General Stonewall Jackson and after his death under General Longstreet. At the close of the war he had gained the title of colonel and was in command of a brigade of cavalry.

General Oates was probably the most beloved man of Montgomery, and one of the most prominent men of the entire south. Early in his eventful and energetic life he became a great favorite with the people there, and the close of his life found him receiving the admiration of all the people among whom he had lived so many years. Judge Thomas C. Denny of this city spent some days with General Oates and his estimable family during July, and he remarked when he returned to this city that he had never seen a people so united in the love and veneration of a man as were the residents of the southern city in their love and veneration of General Oates.

Thirteen times was General Oates wounded in the civil war, and in that eventful struggle he lost his right arm. As soon as he could recover from this wound, he was back at the front again, and the close of the great struggle found him fighting as aggressively as he did at the commencement of hostilities. General Oates enlisted with the Fifteenth Alabama Infantry Volunteers of the Confederate army, taking up arms early in 1861, and remaining with the army until the final close. He was in every fight in which the Confederate army of northern Virginia engaged from and including the first battle of Bull Run. In his thirteen wounds General Oates was twice severely wounded, one of these being the loss of the arm. Wounds had no effect on his valor and he would again go to the front as rapidly as he could recover and and fight aggressively. He was always a leader, and in every movement looking to the restoration and upbuilding of the south following the war, he was in the Vanguard. General Oates lost his arm in front of Petersburg in the fall of 1864, Death claimed him at the age of seventy-eight years that were crowned with many successes. Prior to becoming a resident of Montgomery, he resided in Eufala, Alabama, where he was born.

General Oates had many times been honored by the people of his native state with public office. In 1870 and the two years following he was a member of the state legislature; in 1875 he was chosen a member of the state constitutional convention; in 1880 he was elected to represent his district in Congress, and remained in the national legislature for the following fifteen years; at the end of that time he resigned to accept an election as governor of his state. He served as governor for two years, and then declined re-election. In 1897 he was again chosen a member of the state constitutional convention.

At the beginning of the Spanish-American hostilities the war spirit in the southerner again arose and he was appointed a brigadier general in the army, and he served until the close of the war.

Five years ago General Oates was given an appointment by President Roosevelt that was a fitting close to his activities of his earlier life. He was made a United States commissioner to locate and mark the graves of Confederate dead, who had died in Union prisons. He was busily engaged in this task almost up to the time of his death and to him it was a pleasant duty to seek out the graves of former comrades in a great struggle and see that they were given proper recognition.

For some time past it had been realized that the health of General Oates had been failing, but it was not believed the dread end was near. A short time ago he went to the springs at Asheville, North Carolina, but no change for the betterment taking place in his condition, he returned to his beloved Alabama to pass his remaining days. The news of his death was a great shock to Judge and Mrs. Oates here, for they had believed that their beloved relative was improving. They had intended making a journey to Alabama early in the coming spring to visit with General Oates and his family.

Four times General Oates and his wife and only son William C. Oates, Jr., crossed the continent to this city. They met many residents of this city and all of the people here who met them formed close friendships for the visitors.

Judge Oates is an only brother of the deceased, but three sisters survive, Mrs. M. J. Long of Abbeville, Ala.; Mrs. A. E. Linton of Galveston, Texas; and Mrs. L. Hickman of Jacksonville, Fla., In addition to these the devoted widow and son mentioned above also survive.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  September 10, 1910

The news of the death of General Oates, former Governor of Alabama, came as a shock to Colonel James Wyatt Oates, the Governor’s brother. Governor Oates is very pleasantly remembered by many Santa Rosa friends who had the pleasure of meeting him here when he visited his brother. He was a fine man, possessing all the qualifications of the courteous, hospitable Southern gentleman. He was an eminent scholar and a distinguished soldier. Many sympathetic messages will be forwarded to the family from Santa Rosa.

– “Society Gossip,” Press Democrat, September 11, 1910

Read More