FORGET THE REDWOODS, LET’S ADMIRE PALM TREES

Before there was a “Redwood Highway” there was a proposal for a grand boulevard running the length of Sonoma County, both sides of the road lined with those damned palm trees.

(RIGHT: Undated postcard, probably c. 1905-1910. Courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)

Such a plan was offered to the Board of Supervisors in 1911, and the Press Democrat reported the Supes were “charmed with [the] suggestion.” No surprise, really; landscapers all over California in that era loved palm trees, despite the drawbacks of them sucking up enormous amounts of water and that they made swell homes for rats (try a Google search for “palm tree rats:” About 1,170,000 results). Like many places, Santa Rosa lined some streets with them, as seen here, and homeowners in the early 20th century often planted one or a few in their yards. You can still spot a survivor or three on probably every block in the older parts of town.

It takes some doing to imagine driving the route we now call Old Redwood Highway from Marin to Mendocino and seeing shoulder-to-shoulder palm trees in the countryside. Combined with the “grand boulevard” mention in the article it sounds like they expected the highways would simply replace the old farm roads with something more like paved city streets, but no one really knew – no state had yet created a highway system for automobiles.*

These years around 1910 witnessed a swift and amazing leap into the modern world for Sonoma County. There were opportunities to watch hometown aviator Fred J. Wiseman and his associates fling themselves into the air, risking death in frequent crashes. Downtown Santa Rosa suddenly came alive with three (sometimes four) movie theaters and vaudeville houses. The Russian River resorts became the Bay Area hotspot after electricity came to the region and new trains made it easier to reach from San Francisco. And with one of those newly-affordable automobiles, anyone anywhere in the county could participate in these new adventures.

Autos themselves were both familiar and foreign; for example, there was still no convention on what to call the owner of the machine. Prior to 1908  anyone behind the steering wheel was called a “chauffeur” in the Press Democrat but in the 1911 article transcribed below the paper can be found experimenting with “automobilists” and “autoists.” While the state was preparing to spend an empire’s fortune building those highway-things there was no driver’s license exam to show an automobilist knew how to operate the vehicles using it. In a hilarious item below, the PD reported on its front page that 20 year-old Hilliard Comstock had purchased one of the finest handmade cars available in 1911 and drove it all the way back to Santa Rosa from Sausalito in high gear, apparently not knowing how to use a gearshift. “Although Mr. Comstock had had no previous experience in handling an automobile, he brought his new car up from San Francisco without difficulty and without assistance,” the paper noted kindly, “as the machine can be throttled down to four or five miles an hour without shifting the gears.”

It was also nice that the Sonoma County Automobile Association that year officially disapproved of running down pedestrians, even though some autoists apparently felt anyone on the streets was fair game:

…The Association placed itself squarely on record in the matter urging respect for all law and letting it be clearly understood that it does not stand for protecting the auto owner any more than for the protection of other people walking or driving along the highways, recognizing that each have equal rights. While many autoists do recognize these rights there are others who bring odium on the whole body by their disregard of the laws.

This was the final Association meeting with James Wyatt Oates as president, ending his two years of leadership. His retirement was announced with a cartoon in the Press Democrat shown here. In his hand is the ever-present cigar; his beady eyes glinted with the piercing gaze seen in all three known portraits. The cartoon is decorated with stock thumbnails of fishing and recreational motoring (both actual passions of Oates) but note in particular his “elevator” shoes. From the 1892 voter registration records we learn his distinguishing features were a scar on the left side of his head and that he was exactly five feet, seven and five-eights inches tall – the only voter to specify his height with such exact precision. As his shaving mirror in Comstock House seems designed for a person of somewhat shorter stature, we can presume he reached that particular altitude only with the boost of those remarkable heels.

*Voters in 1910 approved the State Highways Act with blind faith that a highway system could be built and would bring progress (and maybe palm trees). They also believed those roads would be coming, pronto. Alas, much to the frustration of Sonoma County boosters and dreamers of boulevards, it would be 1913 before Sonoma County saw its first few miles of highway construction and it would be over a dozen years more before the North Coast’s patchwork of old stagecoach turnpikes were improved and linked to become the Redwood Highway (“Redwood Empire” was coined in 1925, both springing from a regional civic association).

WOULD MAKE ON GRAND BOULEVARD
Supervisors Charmed With Suggestion That Road Through Sonoma County Be Beautified

An endeavor was made Wednesday to interest members of the Board of Supervisors in a scheme to make the ride through Sonoma county, from the Marin to the Mendocino line, additionally attractive by the planting of date palms on either side of the county road at proper distances apart.

Mr. Lawrence, a landscape gardener, talked over the matter with individual members of the board, and his description of the pleasure such a boulevard would be quite fascinating. In other sections of the state Arbor Leagues have been formed and are being formed to plant shade trees along the county roads and something very picturesque has resulted.

It is understood that the palms and the planting, etc., would probably cost $5,000, if the Supervisors should carry out the suggestions made by Mr. Lawrence.

– Press Democrat, April 6, 1911
HILLYARD COMSTOCK HAS FINE NEW KLINE-KAR

Hillyard [sic] Comstock has purchased a handsome 1911 fore-door [sic] Kine touring car, similar to the one on exhibition at the Press Democrat office. It is a classy machine, and attracts much attention.

In every respect Mr. Comstock’s beautiful car is a duplicate of the one to be given away by the Press Democrat on May 20 to the most popular lady contestant, and he is a beauty and runs like a top. Although Mr. Comstock had had no previous experience in handling an automobile, he brought his new car up from San Francisco without difficulty and without assistance. He did not find it necessary to shift his gears once on the trip, but made the entire distance from Sausalito to this city on the “high.” The construction and ease of control make this entirely feasible with the Kline, as the machine can be throttled down to four or five miles an hour without shifting the gears.

– Press Democrat, March 25, 1911

RETURNED WITH HUP FOR COLONEL OATES

Colonel James W. Oates and Shirley D. Burris went to San Francisco on the morning train Friday, and they returned to this city in a pretty Hupmobile, which has been purchased by Colonel Oates from the Santa Rosa garage. Colonel Oates will use this machine for short trips and personal pleasure for himself and Mrs. Oates, and with his large machine will entertain their friends with delightful trips about the country. The Hup is a royal blue, for two passengers only, is fully equipped and has twenty horse power engines. It is capable of splendid speed and will make a nice roadster for Colonel Oates.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March, 17, 1911
AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION CONDEMNS SPEEDING
Annual Outing Held in Knights Valley on Sunday

In the beautiful sunshine of a June day over two hundred people members of the Sonoma County Automobile Association and friends and many others gathered amid all the picturesqueness of the Knights Valley Ranch formerly owned by the late Calvin H. Holmes and now the property of his heirs, the site most favored for the location of the new State Trades and Training School, to enjoy the annual outing and picnic of the Association on Sunday. The day was ideal for such an event, and into its pleasures all entered with zest.

The shady trees, the waterfalls, the vineyards, the valley and mountain scenery and the other delights of the open air at this time of the year, lent much attraction to the outing. Well filled luncheon baskets were brought by the automobilists, and the contents enjoyed at noon in one of the loveliest spots imaginable. An additional attraction was the presence and music by the Healdsburg band, accompanying the large delegation from that city and sections. All part of Sonoma county were represented and the entire outing, unmarred by any accident, was voted a splendid success.

His Excellency Governor Hiram W. Johnson was invited to be present, but many engagements following his southern trip prevented his acceptance of the courtesy. He sent a neat acknowledgement of the invitation.

Following the luncheon the business meeting was called to order by the President Colonel James W. Oates of this city. Colonel Oates Spoke of the work of the past year, and of the great help the automobilists represented in such organizations the Sonoma County Automobile Association could be the campaign for good roads. He welcomed everybody to the gathering on Sunday…

…The by-laws were amended so as to make women eligible for membership in the Association. This was a wise move as there are scores of enthusiastic women automobilists in Sonoma County who are deeply interesting in the aims of such an organization…The Association also passed resolutions upholding the laws and ordinances against “speed burning…”

…The Association placed itself squarely on record in the matter urging respect for all law and letting it be clearly understood that it does not stand for protecting the auto owner any more than for the protection of other people walking or driving along the highways, recognizing that each have equal rights. While many autoists do recognize these rights there are others who bring odium on the whole body by their disregard of the laws. It is the latter type that The Association does not uphold. At the same time a gentle reminder is also given to drivers or vehicles who sometimes pre-empt more of the highway than they require to be more generous and aid in bringing about a better feeling all the way around…

– Press Democrat, June 6, 1911

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THE PECULIAR WAYS WE WERE

Let’s go hunting for the “peculiar” items in the 1910 Santa Rosa newspapers – the offbeat or odd or just damned strange. This time the theme is mostly advertising; Gentle Reader might also want to check out “Did’ja Hear About…” which covers other odd news stories for the year and “The Peculiar is What is Missed Most,” which is the roundup of similar articles from 1909.

Before getting to the funny stuff, some housekeeping is necessary, as this is the final entry for the year 1910. By this time the Comstocks were well settled in to Santa Rosa, as described in a separate item. Also covered previously was the death of Maria S. Solomon, the mother of Mattie Oates, whose demise three weeks into January must have cast a shadow over their fine house on Mendocino avenue. Hints also appeared in the society columns that Mattie’s health was beginning to fail. In April she and Wyatt spent a month in Southern California, where they made auto trips with close friends Mrs. Dorothy Farmer and her daughter Hazel. On their return the Press Democrat gossip columnist remarked “she is well and strong again.”

The new year had started cheerfully for the Oates; on New Years’ Eve, he served as master of ceremonies at a large card party at the Saturday Afternoon Club. There he handed out prizes for events such as the “gentlemen’s noise contest,” where undertaker W. B. Ward’s drum won out over a state assemblyman’s cow bell and the former mayor’s bread pan. Other than that, it was another quiet year for the semi-retired lawyer (he was 60, she was 52). They also spent a week at the ranch of friends near Duncan’s Mills and as was their custom, hosted an extended visit by an ingenue of marriageable age, this time the niece of famed judge Amos P. Catlin. Their other houseguests were the Farnhams, a San Francisco couple often mentioned in the city papers. Mrs. Farnham was a prominent clubwoman and Dr. Daniel C. Farnham was an osteopath and a leader in the “National League for Medical Freedom” – a special interest group set up to fight the creation of a national public health bureau on the claims that it would hamper “individual rights.” As this was completely out of step with the Progressive Era they were widely condemned as tools of the patent medicine makers, who funded their prolific amount of advertising. Whether or not the Oates’ agreed with these aims is unknown, but the connection with the Farnhams could have been long-standing; at a 1911 rally, Dr. Farnham was introduced by Barclay Henley, Oates’ first law partner in Santa Rosa.

Our first 1910 peculiarity is the clever ad above for Joseph Tarzyn, a Russian-born tailor whose shop was at 406 Fourth street. (And no, his name had nothing to do with the popular Tarzan character, whose first story would not appear until 1912.) To the right is another advertisement for Professor Whittier, exhibition roller skater; we met the good professor earlier in another bizarre photo where he seemed to be staring down a row of mismatched kitchen chairs. His “coast to death” involved jumping through fire and here he exhibits “clubfoot skating,” which was surely every bit as offensive as it sounds.

Out at Bodega Bay there was another type of jumping and awkward movement reported as Mrs. John Turner, fed up with being cussed out by her neighbor, pulled out a gun and began making him dance in the manner familiar to anyone who has watched a Yosemite Sam cartoon. “He at first demurred,” the Press Democrat dryly noted, “but when the gun was brought into play he changed his mind, and as one shot followed another, he danced faster and faster, until finally a bullet hit him in the hip which ended the dance.” The cusser was not seriously injured; the cussee discussed the matter with a judge a few days later and was released on parole.

Alas, the papers did not report what happened in the case (as far as I can tell) but it’s likely she only paid the customary fine of $5 for each shot fired; gun violence was not viewed with special concern – recall the 1907 shootout where a member of the Carrillo family did not spend a day in jail after shooting a man in the chest, yet his wife was behind bars for 30 days for public drunkenness in the same incident. And anyway, profane and vulgar language in the presence of a virtuous woman or child was considered as serious as physical assault, so the court may well have viewed Mrs. Turner’s “dance music” as a kind of self defense.

Handguns were also routinely carried and handled without modern concerns about safety – accidents of men shooting themselves through a pants pocket or coat were so frequent I stopped keeping track. That many people were routinely packing heat may or may not seem unusual today (depending upon your politics) but the ad below certainly falls into the peculiar pile. The “Yellow Kid,” an impoverished but cheerful waif, was the best known and best loved cartoon character of the day; using his image to sell firearms is a bit like Colt or Remington licensing the image of cowboy Woody from Toy Story to endorse real shootin’ irons.

The downtown hardware store presented the Yellow Kid in another firearms ad that similarly used a dash of funky speling for whimsy (“You Cant Miss It” his nightshirt read as he carried a shotgun while waving a revolver in the other hand). Unfortunately, someone with the Epworth League of Santa Rosa’s Southern Methodist church didn’t understand a little of that schtick goes a very long way, and their entire notice about an upcoming dance was written in a mock childlike Swedish-Irish (?) patois that was nearly inkomprehensibl:

YU AIR AIST TU A POVERTY PARTY
SEPT. 23, 1910

That us folks of the Epwurth Leeg of the Methodist church, South, air goin to hav in the Leeg rume. If you kant finde it kum tu the church on Fifth an Orchurd streets.

These air ruls wil be enforced tu thee leter:

1. A kompetant cor of menergers an aids will be in attendunce.
2. The hull sassiety wil interduce strangers an luk after bashful fellers.
3. Fun wil begin tu kommance at 8 o’clock.
4. Tu git into the rum yu wil hav to pay tin sents; tu git enything tu eat yo wil hav tu pay 5 sents.

Kum at Kandle lightin’ an stay until bedtime. No obstreprus er bad boys permitted.

Signed. The Kommity.

But the most peculiar ads of all that year were the campaign ads for a man running for County Surveyor, the sort of political job that usually draws hardly any attention at all. The fellow apparently covered the town with so many little posters it became a newsworthy item for the Press Democrat: “A unique little ‘paster’ is being used by J. C. Parsons, the Democratic nominee for County Surveyor, to further his campaign. It shows Mr. Parsons in action, and was gotten up by him personally. The little pasters are everywhere, and one is produced here for the benefit of our readers.” But it was his big ad in the PD, shown below, that has to win some sort of award for strangeness. (“Worst. Ad. Ever,” as the Simpsons’ character Comic Book Guy might say.) The unphotogenic Mr. Parsons lost by a landslide to the incumbent surveyor George H. Winkler, who promptly died. It was bad enough to lose after spending quite a pile of coin on the ads but as it was apparently known that Winkler had been quite ill for some time, it must have truly stung that the voters still preferred a nearly-dead candidate.

The last peculiarity of 1910 concerns Doc Summerfield, the town’s veterinarian. One evening after supper he pulled a bottle off the shelf and popped down a “digestive tablet.” To his horror he realized that he had picked the wrong jar and had swallowed a mercury bichloride pill instead, “enough to kill several persons,” according to the Santa Rosa Republican.

Let us pause for a moment and contemplate what sort of idiot would keep identical bottles next to each other when one contained a terrible poison and the other had an old-fashioned version of Tums. Let’s also wonder why he had mercury bichloride anyway, which was mainly used in tiny doses to treat syphilis, and ponder further if that meant he was still operating his side business – in 1908 he was mentioned as one of several upstanding Santa Rosans who was a landlord for a brothel on First street.

Summerfield ran to Hahman’s drug store downtown and was given an emetic plus some sort of antidote “hypodermic.” There is no clear definition of what that might have been; medical literature published the following year stated colloidal silver seemed to work best, although the drawback was that large doses might turn the patient’s skin a shade of metallic blue-grey known as Argyria. Three doctors rushed to the pharmacy to attend Dr. Summerfield but there was little they could do except observe (perhaps they all whipped out their pocket revolvers and were taking bets as to whose gun metal would soon match his complexion). By the following day the Doc was doing fine and presumably reorganizing the shelves in his office.

DR. SUMMERFIELD TAKES POISON

Mistook it for Digestive Tablets; Close Call

A mistake that might have been fatal was made by Dr. J. J. Summerfield Friday evening just after he had eaten his supper. Only his presence of mind and promptness saved him from death. He took a tablet containing bichloride of mercury, thinking that it was some of his digestive tablets which he had been taking after each meal.

It was about 8 o’clock when Dr. Summerfield went into the room which adjoins his stables and hospital on First street and in the dark he took down a bottle which he supposed contained his digestive tablets, and took one of them. As he returned the bottle to the shelf he noticed that he had gotten hold of the wrong bottle and that he had taken a mercury tablet, which contained about seven and a half grains of the poison, enough to kill several persons. He immediately ran to the Hahman drug store on Exchange avenue and there told them what he had done and asked for an emetic. Physicians were also called and it was not long before Doctors Cline, Bogle, and Bonar were at the doctor’s side.

Before Dr. Summerfield arrived at the Hahman drug store, a messenger more fleet of foot had preceded him and announced what had happened. Paul T. Hahman had an emetic ready and also gave him a hypodermic. This counteracted the effects of the poison, and later the physicians reached the patient. J. Walter Claypool and Dr. J. H. Rankin remained with Dr. Summerfield  until long after midnight and he was resting easy at the time.

On Saturday Dr. Summerfield was doing nicely, and all danger from the poison he had taken had entirely passed away. It was only the fact that the doctor knew what a deadly poison the stuff was and the promptness with which he went to the drug store for antidotes that he owes his life. Dr. Summerfield  is also a very big, strong man and has a good constitution, which also helped him throw off the effects of the poison.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 26, 1910

I heard of a “patent medicine” party the other night. The idea was carried out not in the administering of medicines to the guests but in the adornment of the rooms with all sorts of advertisements. Prizes were awarded those who proved the most proficient in the guessing contest that located the advertisements with the medicine to which they belonged. It afforded much merriment.

– “Society Gossip”, Press Democrat, June 19, 1910

FORCED TO DANCE TO THE TUNE OF WHISTLING BULLETS AS MUSIC

Mrs. John Turner of Bodega Bay created considerable excitement on the bay shore Saturday when she compelled Captain Hart, a pioneer of that section, to dance on the beach by firing shots at his feet and between his legs to emphasize her commands.

The trouble is one of long standing. The Turners, husband and wife, reside on the country road, near Bodega Bay, while Captain Hart is a neighbor. They have had considerable trouble of various kinds at various times, so that when the Captain pulled a plank out of the water Saturday and left it on the beach and returned later discover that it had been thrown back into the water by his enemy, he could stand it no longer.

According to the story which reached here Monday, the Captain, in addressing Mrs. Turner, used language far more expressive than polite and better fitted for use on sailing vessels than in polite society on land. When he had exhausted his vocabulary and stopped for breath, Mrs. Turner took a turn at telling the Captain what she thought of him, and then ordered him to dance. He at first demurred, but when the gun was brought into play he changed his mind, and as one shot followed another, he danced faster and faster, until finally a bullet hit him in the hip which ended the dance.

Mrs. Turner was taken before Justice Cunninghame Monday, and after some discussion, she was allowed to go on parole until Wednesday, December 14, when the case will again be called in court. Meanwhile it is expected that Captain Hart will fully recover from his wound.

– Press Democrat, November 29, 1910

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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 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

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.

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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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