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.”
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.