20 Chapters
Medium 9780253350718

5. Finding William C. Oates

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press ePub

Little Round Top was a place where heroes could be found in abundance on July 2, 1863, although in recent times it seems almost as if Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain fought on that hill by himself and against an amorphous foe. Yet, as I’ve shown, there were men engaged in that fight who did not agree with Chamberlain’s account of the battle, including men in the ranks of the 20th Maine as well as his adversary that day, William C. Oates, the colonel who commanded the 15th Alabama regiment at Gettysburg. Indeed, as a historian I was not attracted to the Little Round Top story by having first encountered Joshua Chamberlain and his exploits, but rather by having stumbled upon William Oates by accident. Sometimes historians and biographers find themselves traveling down roads they never intend to follow and discovering views of the past they never expect to behold. When I started to research and write about Oates some fifteen years ago, I did not know how enthralled I would become with his life, his times, and his family.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253011930

6. Feeling the Past at Gettysburg

Glenn W. LaFantasie INshort ePub

6

Feeling the Past at Gettysburg

Something that Bruce Catton wrote many years ago about Gettysburg comes to mind every time I visit the battlefield. “The battle was here and its presence is felt,” Catton said, “and you cannot visit the place without feeling the echoes of what was once a proving ground for everything America believes in.”1 Although I’ve long wondered about Catton’s curious choice of words (most people hear echoes rather than feel them), I think he meant precisely what he said.

Despite the garish commercialism that for years has threatened to overwhelm the now peaceful battlefield at Gettysburg, it is still possible to feel the past there. I collided with those feelings several years ago when my youngest daughter, Sarah, and I visited the battlefield on a cloudy and misty day in May to conduct a historical experiment in the style of Francis Parkman and Samuel Eliot Morison, two historians who insisted on visiting the places they wrote about. This was the dad-and-daughter outing I mentioned in an earlier chapter. My intent was that my daughter and I could trace the route Colonel William C. Oates and the 15th Alabama took in launching their doomed attack against Little Round Top. The day turned out to hold much more in store for us than I had imagined.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253350718

6. An Alabamian’s Civil War

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press ePub

For William Calvin Oates, as we have already seen, the Civil War lasted a very long time. It began for him, as it did for all Americans, with the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in April 1861. It reached its zenith on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, when Oates and his brave regiment failed to dislodge the 20th Maine from the slopes of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. His Confederate service ended in 1864 outside of Petersburg when he lost his right arm in a fierce fire fight. But Oates’s war did not terminate with his wound or with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Instead, as I have shown, it lived on for him in his thoughts, in his actions, and in his memory until the day he died. It remained part of his daily consciousness. William C. Oates never put the war behind him.

Today Oates is not widely known, although Civil War scholars and buffs readily recognize his name. Mostly he is remembered for having lost the fight for Little Round Top. This ignominious distinction was not the kind of fame Oates aspired to during his lifetime. But he never quite achieved the renown that he thought he deserved, not during his lifetime or after his death. Despite his own best efforts—which bear a striking similarity to Chamberlain’s—to elevate himself and his fame, Oates remains a Civil War figure who occupies a fairly low tier beneath the likes of Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253350718

3. Becoming Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press ePub

When it comes to Gettysburg heroes, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain out-shines all the rest. Although he was hardly the perfect soldier, modern Americans have come to see him as one. In the minds of many, he stands as the ultimate model of what a military hero should be. Yet Chamberlain’s reputation was made over time; it did not spring forth fully formed, complete in all its glory and honor, from the head of Zeus or on the field of battle. Indeed, Joshua Chamberlain was actually an unlikely hero. But once he accepted the mantle of a perfect hero, he wore it proudly and for the rest of his life.

Soldiers are made, not born. Nothing in Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s life prior to the Civil War suggested that he would one day become known as “the Hero of Little Round Top,” that he would earn a Medal of Honor, and that he would gain great fame and even celebrity with a following of devoted admirers in his own lifetime and in our own modern age. Nothing that he achieved prior to the outbreak of the war seemed to prepare him for his moment of truth on the hillside at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, when his quick thinking and iron determination enabled his regiment, the 20th Maine Infantry, to hold the left flank of the Army of the Potomac and throw back a fierce enemy assault. In fact, Chamberlain’s life during the antebellum years took him about as far afield of military matters and battlefield heroism as a man could get.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253011930

3. Memories of Little Round Top

Glenn W. LaFantasie INshort ePub

3

Memories of Little Round Top

If Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg not only brought forth a call for a “new birth of freedom,” but also set the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who died there within the emotional context of the nation’s “political religion,” it was the veteran soldiers who actually shaped how subsequent generations of Americans would comprehend what took place in the Civil War’s most bloody battle. Memories, sometimes faded and sometimes vibrant, would recall the actions of perfect heroes on both sides. Out of their memories, and sometimes using their remembrances as an instrument in the reconstruction of history (and thus of their own glory), the old soldiers forged a new meaning for the war and created its lasting legacies. Often these soldiers could not agree as to precisely what had happened to them and their comrades during the war or at specific places like Gettysburg; in other instances, old enemies, Union and Confederate, took up the fight again, battling over the meaning of the Civil War with words instead of bullets. As they looked to the past, the veterans sometimes softened their accounts, not wanting to upset delicate Victorian sensibilities, but just as often the harsh realities of war—its brutality, its inhumanity, its utter disregard for anything that lay in its path—came through with disturbing clarity. Over time, the veterans’ voices grew fainter, less audible, until they finally could no longer be heard at all. In time, too, the landscape of the Civil War changed, so that nothing in our modern world could be found that looked or sounded like it had when the perfect heroes had fought their great war and had given so much of themselves for their causes.

See All Chapters

See All Chapters