William M. Robbins, William C. Oates, and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg

William M. Robbins, William C. Oates, and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg

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In late July 2020, the United States House of Representatives passed an Appropriations Bill, HR 7608, which required the National Park Service to “remove from display all physical Confederate commemorative works, such as statues, monuments, sculptures, memorials, and plaques.”[1] Though the bill would not pass the United States Senate, many in the Civil War preservation community were shocked that the House would require the removal of monuments, memorials, and plaques from national park sites. They argue rangers and guides offer interpretation of the causes of the war, the individual battles, and the aftermath on the local communities. The plaques and tablets on battlefields differ from the Lost Cause monuments erected on courthouse lawns, as they provide contextual information of historic sites. Historian Karen L. Cox notes that southerners erected Lost Cause monuments in public spaces (efforts often spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy) in an effort to establish a “Confederate Culture”: that is, the racist white supremacist belief in the rightness of the Confederate cause. However, historian Gary W. Gallagher argues that the presence of Confederate monuments on battlefields, while upsetting, was “a price worth paying to protect a valuable and instructive memorial landscape.” Though steeped in Lost Cause language and imagery, Gallagher contends that historians should create a “memory tour [that] would illuminate controversies relating to secession, slavery, and reconciliation” utilizing the 200 Confederate monuments, memorials, tablets, and plaques at Gettysburg.[2]

Yet, the memorialization of Gettysburg, from the earliest days of federal government control, isolated the Confederate cause from that of the overall story of the Union war effort, the Union cause, and the interpretation of the battlefield. Confederate veterans complained of bias by the commission and argued that their regiments deserved more prominent memorial positions than the outskirts of the battlefield. By limiting Confederate memorial access to the battlefield, the commission attempted to take the narrative of the battle and the war away from the Lost Cause.

Preservation of Civil War battlefields began before the war had ended.  Soldiers often memorialized their comrades and their achievements before leaving the battlefield.  After the war, memorialization represented an act of reconciliation, one that sought to bring the nation together in order to create a stronger Union. Beginning in 1890, Congress established the first national military parks and, in doing so, the War Department created three-man commissions (two Union veterans and one Confederate veteran in a nod towards reconciliation) charged with maintaining and preserving the battlefields. Historian Timothy B. Smith labels the 1890s as the “golden age of battlefield preservation,” a time when veterans groups and the federal government allied to preserve the memory of the Civil War and to insure that the citizens of the United States would not forget the enormity of the struggle. In the middle of this movement, Confederate veterans unhappy with the preservation of Gettysburg focused their ire on one of their own: Confederate commissioner and southern Redeemer William M. Robbins [3]

Historic portrait of William M. Robbins
William M. Robbins, former member U.S. House of Representatives and member of Gettysburg Battlefield Commission. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Robbins was a former officer of the Fourth Alabama Infantry Regiment, and a veteran of Gettysburg. In 1894, Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont asked Robbins, the former member of Congress from North Carolina, to serve on the Gettysburg commission, a position he reluctantly accepted.[4] Though commission chairman John P. Nicholson maintained control over all decisions regarding the battlefield, he left Robbins to conduct much of the day to day business, fielding complaints from veterans.[5]

Many Confederate veterans took issue with the commission’s insistence of placing brigade markers at the original lines of battle for both armies. The commission established a Confederate Avenue on the battlefield and placed all Rebel brigade markers along this line. As the Confederate troops began miles away from the actual fighting and the Union troops were mostly entrenched along a continuous line on the second and third days of the battle, Confederate veterans felt that they were being unfairly pushed off of the battlefield. They also had an issue with the commission’s ban on monuments to individual soldiers. Confederate veterans pointed to the numerous monuments and markers to dead Union soldiers that populated the battlefield as evidence of an obvious bias on the part of the commission. Robbins countered that previous associations placed those monuments and markers on the battlefield prior to the commission and that neither army would place a marker to an individual moving forward. Besides, he noted, the commission did not want veterans’ groups placing markers and monuments “hither and tither” around the battlefield. There was a design in place.[6]

No case encompasses the weight of this issue than the commission’s fight with William C. Oates of the Fifteenth Alabama. Oates fought at the battle of Gettysburg on Little Round Top, alongside his brother John, attempting to push Joshua Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine Regiment off the hill.  Oates and his men were unsuccessful, and during the fighting his brother John died. In 1900, Oates, then Governor of Alabama, was an utterly unreconstructed Confederate. As historian Caroline Janney notes, no former Confederate was more vocally against reconciliation than Oates. He referred to “Yankees and their ‘aggressive fanaticism,’” as causing the Civil War, and he decided, regardless of the rules, to erect a monument to the Fifteenth Alabama, and notably, his brother John on Little Round Top. Though they were hesitant to do so, Robbins and Nicholson initially worked with Oates on the creation of a design for his memorial.[7]

Oates articulated the main disagreement of many Confederates toward the commission when he claimed that Robbins had misidentified the Fifteenth Alabama’s location on Little Round Top during the fighting. “[Oates] seems to think he was far off to himself in the fight there,” Robbins groused in his journal.[8] Oates took his complaints above the commission to the Secretary of War in June 1903, prompting Robbins to write to Oates “reminding him that he ought not to lay blame on [Robbins’] shoulders.” But Oates responded that he believed Robbins was the main obstacle to his proposal since Nicholson deferred all Confederate matters to him, an assertion that annoyed Robbins, who felt that Nicholson could easily relay to Oates that it was a decision made by the whole commission. Eventually, the commission bent the rules and allowed Oates to submit plans.[9] Oates agreed to an onsite visit where he walked the grounds with the Robbins, but erupted when he discovered Chamberlain disagreed with his proposed placement of the monument (that the Fifteenth Alabama had not made it so far up Little Round Top). This was exactly the type of personal aggrandizement that the commission was hoping to avoid.[10] Robbins’ death in 1905 essentially meant the end of Oates’ chance at ever getting a monument at Gettysburg. Robbins’ replacement, Lunsford L. Lomax of Virginia, provided no assistance for Oates and the matter faded away (there is no Fifteenth Alabama Monument at Gettysburg still today).

As the lone Confederate veteran on the commission, Robbins was straddling the line between supporting the park’s regulations while placating his fellow Confederate veterans’ hurt feelings over the perceived “Union bias” of the park. Robbins incorporated the reconciliation feeling into the golden age of battlefield preservation, choosing to support the federal government’s plan to keep Gettysburg from becoming a monument garden to dead Confederates.

Robbins chafed at the charge he had participated in the destruction of the Confederate memory at Gettysburg. Rather, he believed he was providing an accurate depiction of the battlefield and an educational experience. At the same time, Robbins worked to provide a park that would be a monument to reconciliation. Through this reconciliation, southerners would later erect monuments to the Lost Cause, especially the Mississippi and South Carolina state monuments. The 2020 House Appropriations bill fails to consider the historical context of the memorialization of the battlefields versus the Lost Cause memorialization of courthouse lawns across the South. Battlefield monuments and markers, like those at Gettysburg, are different, contextually, from the courthouse monuments erected by Lost Cause Southerners. As the episode between Robbins, Oates, and the commission illustrates, in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the War Department erected the contextual markers and regimental monuments to better explain the experiences of the battle rather than to placate the whims of the Lost Cause. A telling argument for the historical context of these early markers is this: of the eleven southern state memorials at Gettysburg, eight were erected decades after the battlefield commission folded, not surprisingly during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

[1] House Resolution 7608, Section 442, 116th Congress, 2nd Session, July 30, 2020.

[2] Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 1-2; Gary W. Gallagher, “LEAVE THEM STANDING: Confederate monuments must remain at Gettysburg to help interpret the Civil War’s causes and consequences,” August 2020, accessed August 9, 2020, https://www.historynet.com/leave-them-standing-confederate-monuments-must-remain-at-gettysburg-to-help-interpret-the-civil-wars-causes-and-consequences.htm.

[3] Timothy B. Smith, The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 1.

[4] William M. Robbins Journal, March 14, 1894, p. 3, William M. Robbins Papers, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

[5] See: Robbins Journal, March 14-1894 to June 30, 1898, UNC.

[6] William C. Oates Correspondence, October 1902, GETT 41139, Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP), Box 1.

[7] Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 197; Oates Correspondence, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1; Glenn W. LaFantasie, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 263-265.

[8] Oates Correspondence, February 19, 1903, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1

[9] Robbins Journal, February 23, 1903, June 20, 1903, pg. 51, 84; Oates Correspondence, June 20, 1903, July 4, 1903, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1.

[10] Robbins Journal, July 11-12, 1904; Oates Correspondence, April 14, 1905, GETT 41139, GNMP, Box 1.

Ryan Semmes

Ryan P. Semmes is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Congressional and Political Research Center at the Mississippi State University Libraries. He has been on the faculty at Mississippi State University since 2007 and has worked as an archivist with the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at MSU since 2009. Ryan completed his doctorate with the Department of History at Mississippi State University in 2020 where his dissertation examined the connections between foreign and domestic policy and the nature of citizenship during the Reconstruction era.

6 Replies to “William M. Robbins, William C. Oates, and Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg”

  1. A fine contextual piece. We can not wish away our history. We make ourselves the poorer for it when we try to do so while opening the door for others to create false narratives such as “The Lost Cause.” We must interrogate and interpret that history. We need for our generation and those to come to explain with honest candor how it came to pass that a portion of our nation having lost an election chose treason in the defense of slavery and what it cost the nation to defeat that treason and crush slavery. But then having won why the victory was flawed. These monuments are part of that narrative.

    1. “But then having won why the victory was flawed. These monuments…” existence is why the victory was flawed. Fixed it for ya.

      The victory will be less flawed only when those monuments are gone.

  2. Certainly hope this site isn’t deleting the words of Union veterans of Gettysburg. I’ll repost them – from Scott Hartwig’s 2010 paper – “T. D. Cunningham, who had served in the 56th Pennsylvania, expressed. “Simply mark the Rebel (notConfederate) lines of battle in the Gettysburg fight – But not one word of commiseration – not once sentence in praise of heroic deeds done in a bad cause.” J. L. Shook, writing from G.A.R. Post 88 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, wrote to Bachelder, “We are heartily in favor of marking the Rebel lines but we want the Government to do that work not Rebels. You know that they do not care for History when they erect their monuments it is to honor their dead and vaunt their Rebellious acts. We don’t propose to have that.” A. W. Fenton, who served in the 6th Ohio Cavalry, advised Bachelder that while he sympathized with the Confederate soldiers who had fought so bravely and could accept marking the positions held by their regiments, brigades and divisions, “but I trust that we shall never see a Confederate monument ever along their line.”

  3. Thank you so much for this excellent research. I appreciate the honesty revelation that most of the state monuments are more aligned with Lost Cause propaganda than with battle education. The inscriptions are especially telling though the artistry works to evoke misplaced feelings of loss, honor, majesty, and strength. The sooner they are removed, the better. Thank you.

  4. Ryan Semmes article provides useful context regarding Confederate monuments, memorials and tablets at Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) but it needs some clarification on certain points. Of the 200 monuments, memorials and tablets commemorating Confederate states or military units, the overwhelming majority are corps, division, brigade and battery tablets, written and erected by the battlefield commissioners working for the U.S. War Department, and meant to mark positions of units of both armies at Gettysburg. There are eleven Confederate state monuments (twelve if you include Maryland which commemorates Union and Confederate soldiers), and about ten regimental monuments or markers, most of which were erected long after the veterans had passed on. This means that approximately 90 percent of the tablets to Confederate military units were erected by the United States Government.
    Ryan does not discuss the role of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA), which preceded the U.S. War Department, but its history and mission are crucial to understanding the memorialization of the battlefield. The GBMA was formed in the late summer of 1863 and incorporated by the state of Pennsylvania in 1864 to preserve features of the Union victory at Gettysburg. In the early years of the GBMA the monument was the battlefield itself, but specifically, the part of the battlefield occupied by the Union Army of the Potomac. Since that army fought a defensive battle, its front lines incorporated most of the scenes of the heaviest fighting, including field works, and physical evidence of the battle in trees riddled with bullets. In 1879-80 Union veterans, led by John Vanderslice, took control of the board of the GBMA and this ushered in a dramatic change in philosophy toward the battlefield. Besides continuing to acquire more battlefield land, the GBMA now encouraged Union veterans to erect monuments to their units and began opening avenues to enable visitors to access them. The avenues followed the general line of battle of the Union army, so there was a system to them. Although the monuments inscriptions, location and materials had to be approved by the GBMA historian John Bachelder, there was considerable latitude on their location. This led to crowding of monuments near the Clump of Trees, where Pickett’s Charge was repulsed on July 3. By 1887 Bachelder feared that unless some system was adopted future visitors would be unable to understand the position of the Union army. After consultation with veterans and U.S. Army officers he recommended, and the GBMA adopted, a line of battle policy. This required any group wishing to erect a monument to their unit to place it in the position the regiment or battery occupied in the general line of battle on July 1 or July 2-3. Once this initial monument was placed, advanced position markers could be erected to show where the regiment might have advanced to. To bring everyone into adherence with the new policy all units that had already placed their monuments in advanced positions were required to move them to their positions in the general line of battle. In the case of the 19th Massachusetts this meant moving their monument back to the second line.
    Bachelder had long wanted to expand the battlefield to include the ground occupied by the Army of Northern Virginia, but the charter of the GBMA did not grant them any legal grounds to acquire land where that army was positioned. Bachelder lobbied vigorously with Union veterans and Congress to create a national military park which would enable the U.S. Government to protect the field into the future and add the Confederate lines to the park. The efforts of Bachelder and others were successful and in 1895 Gettysburg NMP was created. Two years before its creation, in 1893, the Federal government created a three-man commission, consisting of two Union veterans and a Confederate veteran, and an engineer, to begin the process of determining the lines of battle of the two armies. William Robbins was not the first Confederate veteran commissioner. That was William H. Forney, a Gettysburg veteran who served in the 10th Alabama, and U.S. Congressman for nearly twenty years. Forney died before he could assume his duties at Gettysburg and this led to William M. Robbins, who served in the 4th Alabama at Gettysburg, to appointed to fill his place. Robbins was unapologetic about his service in the Confederate army but he had moved on from the war. He took his work on the commission seriously and worked effectively at Gettysburg with both Union and Confederate veterans. Robbins wrote most of the Army of Northern Virginian tablets, which were erected primarily in the early 1900s. The purpose of the tablets for both armies was to explain the military activity of the particular unit “without praise or censure.” They were informational, not interpretive.
    There was no isolation of the Confederates by the War Department or pushing them to the margin of the battlefield, or limiting their access to erect monuments. The War Department continued the same line of battle policy of the GBMA. This meant that Confederate units needed to place their initial monuments where their attacks began, not where they suffered their greatest loss. Not surprisingly, there was not great interest among Confederate veterans in placing monuments where their attacks began. While there was grumbling from some Confederate veterans about being treated unfairly – one can always find grumblers – most were delighted with the War Department tablets erected to mark their unit positions. In short, there was no conspiracy to exclude Confederate monuments at Gettysburg by the government. They were never “pushed off the battlefield” since the front line of the Army of Northern Virginia was very much part of the battlefield. Where the War Department did draw a line was anything that promoted or glorified the Confederate cause. When the Virginia Memorial design was first submitted the color bearer on the monument was carrying the Confederate battleflag. The memorial designers were forced to change this to the Virginia state flag, even though that flag was not carried in the battle.
    In the case of William C. Oates, and his effort to erect a monument to his regiment, the 15th Alabama, and his brother, where they engaged the 20th Maine on July 2, his failure was not due to Robbins opposition, but rather to Oates himself and Joshua L. Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine. Robbins opposed Oates proposed monument primarily because it violated the line of battle policy of the national park. Robbins had already paid for a tablet to his own regiment, which was placed on South Confederate Avenue, and he was not about to support anyone who tried to skirt the rules. But Chamberlain nearly undid everything when initially he did not oppose Oates proposal for a monument on Little Round Top. Oates sacrificed Chamberlain’s support when he claimed that his regiment had driven the 20th Maine nearly to the summit of Little Round Top. Besides being untrue, Chamberlain would not allow this slight to his regiment’s courage to be allowed, and changed his mind about Oates’s monument. Chamberlain carried great political weight and his opinion killed Oates’s proposal.
    The monuments at Gettysburg that are the most controversial are the Confederate state memorials erected in the 1960s. It is safe to say that the War Department, when it was manned primarily by veterans, would never have approved the inscriptions on some of these. As offensive as the sentiments they express may be to many people, when I worked at GNMP I found them an excellent interpretive tool to discuss the causes, consequences, and memory of the war. As author Semmes points out, the 2020 House Appropriations bill failed to consider the historical context of the memorialization at Gettysburg, but it also did not take into consideration the nuances of that monumentation. Is the War Department tablet to Semmes’s brigade, for example, a Confederate monument? Is the small tablet to the 4th Alabama that William Robbins paid for out of his own pocket one? Perhaps, but there is not a word about the Confederate cause on either. These issues are always more complicated than we want them to be.
    D. Scott Hartwig,
    Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

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