Hearing History’s Requiem
By Glenn W. LaFantasie
Near the High Water Mark on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, a massive white building shaped like a drum sits flat on the eastern slope of the ridge, obscured partially by a grove of fruit trees. Almost exactly in the center of the lines that Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac occupied during the second and third days of the battle in July 1863, the ultra-modern building is called the Cyclorama Center. Designed by the famous architect Richard Neutra, it was completed in 1961 as the Gettysburg National Military Park’s visitor center just in time to be open for the commemoration of the Civil War Centennial. Some people think the huge structure, which still houses the epic 1883 painting of Pickett’s Charge by Paul Philippoteaux (now undergoing restoration), is a monstrosity, an eye-sore, and a historical anachronism and I must confess that it does look like a white oil tank, the kind one sees near refineries and along the New Jersey Turnpike.
Today, the Cyclorama Center’s days are numbered. The National Park Service, which administers the battlefield, plans to raze the building after it finishes a new visitor center about half-a-mile away. The plan to sacrifice one of Neutra’s most significant structures to the wrecking ball has miffed his numerous admirers, but it seems the architecture lobby has little pull with the National Park Service.
I first saw the Cyclorama Center as a young man soon after it opened in the early 1960s, and I remember standing on an observation deck atop a low extension of the building in the spring twilight. Hardly any tourists were around, and the battlefield—once a scene of blood, horror, and death—was tranquil and silent. The only sounds one could hear were the soft cadences of songbirds settling down for the evening and the gentle rustle of the wind.
All at once, the stillness was broken by muffled chimes coming from the very top of the building. I quickly determined that the bells were ringing out the melodies of Civil War songs, the same tunes that had been sung over and over by the boys who fought in the surrounding fields a century before. A chill ran up my spine for I had not expected my emotions to be tugged as I stood looking over the battlefield in the fading light. As day turned slowly to night and the monuments on Cemetery Ridge became ghostly silhouettes on the landscape, I felt for those few minutes in the advancing dusk that I was in touch with something beyond myself, perhaps beyond even my soul. It was an evening I will long remember.
Several years later, when I returned to Gettysburg I went to the Cyclorama Center late in the day hoping to hear those chimes again. I was disappointed to learn that the chimes no longer ring over the battlefield. So, I stood in the soft twilight and watched the sun dip behind the purple peaks of South Mountain in the distance reflecting on an experience of my youth that can never be repeated again.
Over the years, I have spent many hours beneath the observation deck of the Cyclorama Center researching two books—including my latest, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates—and numerous articles about Gettysburg. Below the observation deck, in the “office wing” of Neutra’s building, the Park Service maintains its library. It was there, while researching Pickett’s Charge, the climatic encounter between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac on July 3, 1863, that I stumbled upon a fairly thick bound volume of letters and other documents pertaining to William C. Oates, a colonel who commanded the 15th Alabama Infantry on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Although an obscure figure when I came upon his letterbook, Oates has since gained some notoriety—although not real fame—among Civil War historians and enthusiasts as the man who led his regiment unsuccessfully against the far more famous colonel, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in the struggle for Little Round Top in the late afternoon of July 2, 1863. Chamberlain’s star has risen and continues to shine brightly since he was featured in Ken Burns’s splendid documentary, The Civil War, and in Ted Turner’s theatrical movie, Gettysburg. Oates’s star, which blazed in Alabama after the Civil War, when he became a leading politician in the state, has since faded and nearly died out.
Almost all of the correspondence in Oates’s letterbook at the Cyclorama Center library concerned his unsuccessful attempt to raise a monument on Little Round Top to the 15th Alabama and to his younger brother John, an officer in the regiment who fell in the battle. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Oates lobbied for a memorial to be erected near the location of a stone monument that had been dedicated in the 1880s to the 20th Maine Infantry. Probably what excited me most, besides reading the voluminous letters between Oates and the park officials that documented his campaign in extraordinary detail, were a few other letters in the bound book demonstrating conclusively that he and Chamberlain had corresponded with one another more than forty years after their fierce fight on Little Round Top. The old veteran couldn’t stop fighting the battle long after the last shots had been fired.
My research was not limited to poring over manuscripts, old files, newspaper clippings, and dusty books. I took to the field as well. On a drizzly day in May, I kept my youngest daughter Sarah, who was fourteen at the time, out of school and took her with me to Gettysburg for a father-daughter outing. I announced to her that we would follow the route William Oates and the 15th Alabama took in their approach to Little Round Top on July 2. Doing so, as she soon discovered, involved walking across sodden fields, jumping fences and stone walls, crossing a rickety bridge over a chilly stream, and climbing over rocks and fallen trees up the very steep slopes of Big Round Top, just as Oates and his Alabamians had. We were exhausted when we reached the summit of Big Round Top, where Oates and his men rested for ten minutes before plunging down the hill to attack Little Round Top to the north. While we caught our breath, I read passages to Sarah from Oates’s account of the battle as published in his book, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and Its Lost Opportunities, published in 1905. Sarah, who remained a good sport for our entire expedition, showed all the appropriate interest in Oates and the battle. As we retraced history’s footsteps, we both began to feel much closer to the past—a feeling not unlike the one I had had so many years earlier listening alone to those chimes floating over the battlefield.
Together we explored the past and found it in the mist at Gettysburg. To this day we both recall that day as something special not only because it helped convince me to write a biography of Oates, but because it made me realize how closely the present is linked to the past; how much a part of it Sarah and I were; and how—in our own relationship as father and daughter—we discovered something we had not expected to find that day.
Researching the past can sometimes be a dry undertaking. Dust on books and manuscripts, hours spent in repositories that inevitably seem too cold or too hot, depending on the season, the solitary pursuit that inevitably must follow all the excitement of the research quest—all these things don’t necessarily suggest high adventure. But standing on the field at Gettysburg, whether listening to a requiem of bells or hiking doggedly along paths once followed by young soldiers as they rushed into battle, has given me a better understanding of the times and trials of William Oates and the men who fought and died at Gettysburg. Alone in the twilight at the Cyclorama Center or sitting in the mist on the crest of Big Round Top with my young daughter, I came to experience how the past can unexpectedly collide with the present and send us down roads not known, roads not anticipated, roads not charted on any map. Following those roads, we get to hear every once in a while the very faint echoes of history’s soulful requiem.
Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates.