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Biography From the Bottom Up: Part One

by Glenn W. LaFantasie

Most biographies tell us about people we already know—historical luminaries, corporate giants, presidents, movie stars, rock stars, sports figures, and other celebrities, past and present. Some biographies, though, deal with decidedly lesser lives: ordinary people who are, at the biographer’s behest, introduced to us for the first time. Yet biographers are a little squeamish about calling any life “lesser,” especially after spending years of research and writing in an effort to reconstruct that life from scraps of historical records.

Biographers are also bothered by the stigma attached to declaring that any life is less important than another.

Surely George Washington was more important to the formation of the United States than, say, Jeremiah Greenman, a lieutenant who fought in Washington’s army during the War for Independence, suffered two wounds, and lived to become a sea captain in Rhode Island and a farmer in Ohio, where he died in 1808. But who can say that Greenman, one of the unsung heroes of the Revolution, did not make a worthy contribution to the making of the American nation? Without soldiers like Greenman who stuck to the American cause, the War for Independence might have been lost, no matter how brilliant a leader Washington was. So biographers try to stay away from value judgments about the worthiness of a life. “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography?” asked Virginia Woolf.

A lesser life is not necessarily an uninteresting life, as I discovered writing the biography of William C. Oates, a Confederate officer during the Civil War and a prominent politician in Alabama after the war. Indeed, Oates was quite a character. In his youth, he fled from his home in Alabama because he believed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that he had murdered a man in a brawl. He went to Texas and got mixed up with gamblers, freeloaders, gunmen, and loose women. Eventually he returned to Alabama, where he pulled himself up by the bootstraps and became a successful attorney and the publisher of a small-town newspaper. When the Civil War broke out, he raised a company of men and became a captain in the 15th Alabama regiment. Later he rose to the rank of colonel and commander of the entire regiment. In 1864, he lost his right arm in battle, which took him out of the war. Returning to Alabama, he took up his law practice, entered local politics, and succeeded in winning election as a U.S. congressman in 1880. He served in Washington for seven terms and then became governor of Alabama for a single two-year term. When war erupted between the United States and Spain, Oates volunteered at once, and President William McKinley commissioned him a brigadier general in the U.S. Army. Although he did not see any combat during the war, Oates was proud of his service. During the war, he declared: “I am now a Yankee General, formerly a Rebel Colonel, and right each time!” Shedding his blue uniform, he went back to his law practice in Montgomery, served with distinction and controversy as a delegate to the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, and died a wealthy man in 1910.

Oates is best remembered, when he is remembered at all, as the commander of the Confederate regiment that faced off against Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. The fight between these two regiments—which took place on Little Round Top, a hill that has become famous in the annals of American warfare—was a particularly bloody affair. Oates lost nearly half his regiment in the engagement; worse, he lost his younger brother, who fell mortally wounded and died three weeks later in a Union field hospital. After several attempts to take the hill, Oates and his regiment were forced to retreat when the 20th Maine came barreling down the slopes in a fierce counterattack that has become the stuff of Civil War legend. For the rest of his life, Oates could not put Gettysburg behind him. He later told his son that he dreaded two days in every calendar year: July 2, the day his brother was struck down at Gettysburg, and December 24, his brother’s birthday.

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This is piece one of three by Professor LaFantasie, check back tomorrow for part two. LaFantasie is 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. Be sure to read his other essays on our blog, Authors Don’t Own Their Books, Hearing History’s Requiem and Our Distant Civil War.

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