Historian Mark Perry discovered a secret about an Alabama governor's past that helped him understand the delusions about the Old South

Historians in the News
tags: Confederacy



Mark Perry’s book on William Oates and Joshua Chamberlain, Conceived In Liberty, was published in 1997. 

In the late spring of 1996, in the midst of writing the last chapters of a book about the lives of two Civil War colonels, I came across a hole in my research so crucial that I’d had no choice but to get in my car and drive to Montgomery, Alabama—home of that state’s historical commission. The gap had to do with the life of Col. William Oates, a self-taught lawyer who’d commanded the 15th Alabama infantry regiment, which had fought in some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles—at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Thirty years after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, Oates was elected Alabama’s governor.

That was the problem. There was plenty of information on Oates’ early life, and his service in Lee’s army was well documented. There was also good information on Oates’ postwar political career, when he’d used his war service (and the empty right sleeve that resulted from it), to gather votes. But there was hint, just a hint, of scandal to Oates’s life during his time as governor that involved his marriage that I’d been unable to unearth. The information lay somewhere in his personal papers. And so off I went.

I have thought about this Montgomery trip many times in the years since, but most especially during this summer’s debate about the lowering of South Carolina’s Confederate battle flag. Like Ulysses S. Grant in Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, I had assumed the flag controversy would be “intimate, and ugly,” with crowds of angry southerners arrayed against a line of state policemen. It hadn’t happened. The only time we saw the police was when they escorted the flag to its grave, while crowds of Charlestonians stood by in silent assent. And so, or it seemed to me (and despite the fact that the flag is ubiquitous at anti-Obama events), the South had moved on and the Lost Cause, so much a part of its history, had lost its luster. Has it?

My drive to Montgomery, back in 1996, included a visit to the Chickamauga battlefield in northern Georgia, where I checked in at the research library. What I found there didn’t help, but I came across two historians who were writing a book about Alabama’s role in the Civil War. When I mentioned the Oates scandal, they smiled. “You’re not going to get much help in Montgomery,” they said. “The issue is just too sensitive.” What issue? I asked. The two of them looked at each other, before turning back to me: “Check out a book by Virginia Foster Durr,” one of them said. “She talks about Oates.” And he left it at that....

On page 160 of that book, in the midst of talking about her Alabama forbearers, there is the following entry: “In his will, Colonel Church [a family friend] left some of his property to his black children and named my grandfather the executor and their guardian. That was the first time I had realized that all these relationships had existed. Some of the white men did protect their black children and educate them. In Alabama when Governor Oates was running for governor, men got up in the legislature and said, ‘Well, what about those nigger children you’ve got in the backyard?’ And the governor got up and said, ‘What about them? I feed them. I clothe them. I house them and I educate them. What do you do about yours?’ He got elected.”

That was the great secret I wasn’t supposed to discover. ...




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