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Biography From the Bottom Up: Part Three

by Glenn W. LaFantasie

Historical discovery, like love, happens when you least expect it. The Winslow search had turned into a cold-case file for me. I finally gave up my search for the missing Oates letter to Chamberlain, although the fact that it existed somewhere in the infinite universe was an occasionally nagging—and frustrating—thought. Then, almost two years to the day since my search had foundered, I was about to deliver a paper on Joshua Chamberlain to the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and I was standing in a huge modern auditorium near the center of the campus. Moments before my introduction, while I waited in the wings, a young man—someone I didn’t know or recognize—approached me and handed me a plain manila envelope. “Tom Desjardin told me to give you this,” the young man said mysteriously and walked quickly away.

I wish I could tell you that Thomas A. Desjardin worked for the C.I.A. or the F.B.I., just to heighten the suspense in my story, but he is actually a fellow historian who was then employed as a ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. Tom is also the author of a fine study of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, published in 1995. He and I had become friends over the years and shared numerous sources that came to light during our separate investigations of Chamberlain and Oates. Usually we mailed photocopies to one another or described our discoveries—and our seemingly endless research frustrations—by e-mail. I had never told Tom, however, that I was looking for the Winslow letter. I wasn’t holding anything back from him, since it had become fairly evident that the document Winslow had once owned no longer could be found. To tell Tom about the Winslow letter would have been to offer him nothing at all.

I opened the envelope. Inside was a crisp, thick photocopy of a document written in a handwriting I immediately recognized. At the top, the letter was dated March 8, 1897, and I knew instantaneously that Oates’s long-lost letter to Chamberlain—the Winslow letter—had suddenly, miraculously, been found. I felt like something more than serendipity was happening to me as I stood there trying to read the contents of the letter. The scholarly paper I was about to present explicitly mentioned Chamberlain’s letter to Oates of February 1897, and now, as if manna had been delivered from heaven, I held Oates’s reply in my hands. When, later, I came to that portion of my paper mentioning the correspondence between the two men, I explained as an aside what had just happened to me and that the Oates reply—stupendously, wondrously—had been just located, waving the photocopy above my head. The audience burst into applause. I suppose I must have conveyed, without fully realizing it, how much finding this document really meant to me.

When I later caught up with Tom Desjardin (no, not in a dark Washington parking garage), he told me how—as best as he could piece things together—the Oates letter had materialized. A few days before my appearance at the Civil War Institute, he said, an elderly couple from Michigan had shown up at the Gettysburg National Military Park Library, while Tom was actually out of town, and had simply dropped the photocopy off, figuring the park would be interested in having it for its research files. No one bothered to get their names. The photocopy was stamped by the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and I later confirmed with the staff there that the original letter is located in the library’s famous Schoff Civil War Collection. How it ended up there no one is quite sure, for the document’s provenance is less than complete. But clearly this was the same letter Arthur F. Winslow had owned in the 1940s, the letter I had spent countless hours searching for over the course of several years, the letter that revealed to me how thoroughly engrossed and how emotionally invested I had become in my quest to know William C. Oates.

What was so important about the Winslow letter? Not very much, as it turned out. In it, Oates recounted for Chamberlain his own version of what had happened during their struggle for Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. Later, Oates even claimed to have forgotten writing this letter to Chamberlain. But the document held more subtle importance than its contents. It revealed, in fact, how much of Gettysburg Oates still carried in his head and his heart more than thirty years after the battle. Mark Twain once observed: “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, not those other things, are his history.” Oates’s letter to Chamberlain was not a Rosetta stone that unlocked all of his inner secrets to me. It did give me some clues, though, as to the grist that his brain’s mill was grinding. When he wrote it was important for him to set forth his understanding of the battle to his former enemy. Later, it was important for him to deny the letter’s existence and thus its relevance. All this brought to mind a comment made by Lewis Mumford’s in an essay published during the 1930s called “The Task of Modern Biography”: “This eye for the little, this fine sense of infinitesimally small quantities, this perception of the significance of the insignificant, is one of the distinguishing marks of modern science, and the hormones in physiology, the vitamins in diet, have their equivalent in the writing of modern biography.” The Winslow letter was, in many respects, more important to me as Oates’s biographer and as a researcher than it was to Oates himself.

Biography is more than research, more than scholarship. It is more than lining up facts of a subject’s life and recounting them in their proper order. It is more than the interpretations one uses to give those facts meaning. Biography involves something of the heart, some intangible and almost irrational connection to the past that intimately links the historian to his subject and, as a result, makes him part of what he is studying. There is no escaping it. It happens to every biographer, although not every practitioner of the art is always entirely conscious of it or willing to admit its prevalence or force. Some biographers—the cave dwellers of the profession—even deny its existence. But it’s no use. The emotional attachment is there, carrying you farther into the past and into the lives of the people you are examining than you might even care to go, like a drill into the earth’s crust that will not stop its spiral, and it ultimately takes you down deeper and deeper until it—and not you alone—defines the scope and breadth of your exploration. As James Atlas, the renowned editor and biographer, has put it so well: a biographer must inhabit the subject’s life.

Searching for the Winslow letter became not only a pursuit for a missing piece of Oates or just another part of my effort to reconstruct his life from the bottom up. It was also a hunt for what felt like a missing piece of me.

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Professor 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. Read part one of this essay and part two also, 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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