Stephen B. Oates, Prize-winning Civil War Historian and Biographer, Emeritus Professor of History at UMass Amherst, Dies at 85
AMHERST, Mass. – Stephen B. Oates, Civil War historian, biographer, and emeritus professor of history at UMass Amherst, died peacefully surrounded by loving family on August 20, 2021 at his home in Amherst after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 85.
Oates authored biographies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Clara Barton, John Brown and William Faulkner with captivating storytelling and historical accuracy, which were among his 16 books and numerous scholarly and popular essays.
Filmmaker Ken Burns tapped Oates for the epic PBS documentary The Civil War. “Stephen was an extremely valuable advisor to our Civil War series and an informed and passionate participant,” Burns recalls. “He knew the bottom-up story as well as the top-down one, but more importantly, he knew and appreciated the huge stakes for the United States and indeed the world in a Union victory.”
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights acknowledged Oates by granting its 1983 book award to him for Let The Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Stephen Oates was an early recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book Award. He set the bar high with Let the Trumpet Sound — his account of Dr. King's lifelong commitment to social justice and civil rights,” Kerry Kennedy, president of RFK Human Rights, notes. “Stephen had a talent for bringing history to life. The characters and events he chronicled come off the pages to live in our imaginations and fuel our understanding of our history.”
The Civil War Round Table of Chicago granted Oates the Nevins-Freeman Award for lifetime achievement with Civil War scholarship and biographies.
“Biography appealed to me as the form in which I wanted to write about the past,” Oates observed in Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art, “because the best biography – pure biography – was a storytelling art that brought people alive again.”
Oates served as a professor of history and the Paul Murray Kendall Professor of Biography at UMass Amherst from 1968 to 1997. He was a semifinalist and silver medal winner in the national Professor of the Year competition, sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. UMass Amherst awarded him its Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981, the Chancellor’s Medal for Outstanding Scholarship in 1976, the Chancellor’s Certificate of Recognition in 1983, and the UMass Presidential Writers Award in 1985. Undergraduates — as many as 500 filling lecture halls — repeatedly sought out his classes.
“Stephen Oates had a profound and lasting impact on people's understanding of history and how it informs our ability to grapple with the most fundamental questions of human existence,” acknowledges Lynn C. Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “He was a cherished Five College colleague when I served as president of Mount Holyoke College. Inside and outside of the classroom, as a teacher, scholar and public intellectual, Stephen changed lives through the transformative power of education. I am deeply saddened by his passing.”
“The Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has lost one of the leading teachers and writers in its history,” affirms department Chair Brian W. Ogilvie. “We are proud to honor and continue his commitments to undergraduate teaching, and to bringing first-rate historical scholarship to a broad public outside the academy.”
“A Civil War Quartet”
Oates authored lives of Brown, Turner, Lincoln, and King, which he termed “a Civil War quartet.” He said, “They humanize the moral paradox of slavery and racial oppression in a land based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. All four were driven, visionary men, all were caught up in the issues of slavery and race, and all devised their own solutions to those inflammable problems. And all perished, too, in the conflicts and hostilities that surrounded the quest for equality in their country.”
Among other attainments, Oates originated a first-person, participatory narrative of the coming and prosecution of the Civil War, a literary and historical first with publication of The Approaching Fury: Voices Of The Storm, 1820–1861 and The Whirlwind Of War: Voices Of The Storm, 1861–1865. He wrote the chapter on Abraham Lincoln for C. Vann Woodward’s Presidential Misconduct from Washington to Today to provide historical context for the Watergate investigations. As editor, with Paul Mariani, of Commonwealth Classics in Biography for the University of Massachusetts Press, he advanced biography. American Heritage, The Nation and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications, commissioned and published his essays. His two-volume survey of American History educated a generation of college students.
Video interviews of Oates can be viewed at: https://www.c-span.org/video/?80568-1/the-approaching-fury and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPFgl9mLLjk
Oates’s contributions to American biography and history afford recurrent enrichment. His son and screenwriter Greg Oates is carrying the torch through initiatives of his own based on his father’s books on the coming of the Civil War, Nat Turner and Clara Barton. “Fresh media technologies, formats, and platforms enable new generations to access my father’s living legacies,” Greg Oates states.
Stephen Oates was born to Steve Theodore and Florence (Baer) Oates on Jan. 5, 1936 in Pampa, Texas. He is survived by his son, Greg, and his wife, Kenda Kroodsma; daughter, Stephanie, who cared for him during his illness; and four grandchildren, Stefan, Alex, Henrik, and Ben. He was pre-deceased by Helen (Perry) Oates, 1939-2019, a former wife.
Oates attended the University of Texas at Austin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1958, a master’s degree in 1960 and a Ph.D. in 1969.
Funeral services are private. Williamsburg Funeral Home hosts a memory page for those wishing to share remembrances. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners consider donations to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, Washington, D.C. A memorial service is planned at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in spring, 2022.