15th Alabama Regiment

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 "I am now a Yankee General, formerly a Rebel Colonel, and right each time!" William C. Oates upon appointment to general during the Spanish-American War

Colonel William C. Oates
Colonel William C. Oates.jpg
15th Alabama Infantry Regiment

On the gray afternoon of July 2, 1863, as daylight began to wane and the shadows disappeared, Colonel William C. Oates led the 15th Alabama regiment in a series of desperate charges up the rough slopes of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Although Oates's opponent that day, Colonel Joshua L.  Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Volunteers, would become widely known for the victory that he and his men won against the intrepid Alabamians that day, Oates's own story deserves to be told. William Oates was an American original, and his biography reads like something scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter.

(Above) Photograph of Oates as colonel of the 15th Alabama Infantry, from a photo taken in March 1864. Photo Courtesy War Between the Union & Confederacy.

Oates was born on November 30, 1833, in Pike County, Alabama, the son of William and Sarah Oates, poor farmers who struggled to survive in the wiregrass country where nothing grew quickly except one's debts. His formal education was paltry, and he sporadically attended school during his childhood, but most of what he learned was self-taught. As a child, he liked practical jokes and rigorous play. He and a younger brother, John, would pretend to be stump preachers giving rousing sermons under the trees near their father's cabin.

Life in frontier Alabama was precarious and violent, and Oates was a pure product of his environment. At seventeen, he left home and fled to Florida, convinced he had killed a man in a brawl. The man survived, however, Oates didn't know, and he was at least correct in suspecting that the Pike County authorities were looking for him. For the next few years, Oates wandered throughout the southwest, dallying with women and getting himself into trouble and assorted fistfights. Eventually he made his way to Texas, where he got into one brawl after another and became, as he later explained, "much addicted to gaming at cards."

His quick temper and violent tendencies got him repeatedly into tight fixes, although he always managed to outfight his opponents or get out of town before they had a chance to best him. On one occasion, a decision to "pocket" an insult kept him from facing down a known gunman on the streets of Waco. Always he stayed one step ahead of the law; miraculously he avoided killing anyone or getting himself killed at the hands of his enemies. William Oates was a tough customer who seemed unable to control his outbursts of anger or his swinging fists. As a hallmark of his fighting style, he liked to press his thumbs into his opponents' eyes. The technique worked without fail to disable his adversary and give Oates the victory.

Oates remained in Texas only for a year or two. His younger brother, John, who had dispatched by the family to find William and bring him home, ran into him by chance in the town of Henderson, Texas, and persuaded him to return to Alabama, despite the arrest warrant that was still pending in Pike County. The two brothers traveled back to the Chattahoochee Valley together, where William Oates settled down by enrolling in an academy, teaching school, and studying law. He stayed out of Pike County, though, and managed to avoid the local authorities. For a while, he even attended church in Eufaula, a prosperous trading town on the Chattahoochee River, but for the most part organized religion and Oates could never quite see things eye to eye.

By the late 1850s, Oates had successfully turned his life around, rather miraculously leaving behind his lawless, violent ways, and embracing a professional career as an attorney (he passed the Alabama and Georgia bars in 1858) and the owner of a weekly newspaper in Abbeville, the county seat of Henry County in southeastern Alabama. He had experienced a personal awakening that owed little to any religious conversation and a great deal to his own determination to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Oates was now a changed man, a pillar of the community. His metamorphosis may have been influenced by his mother, a pious woman who seems to have been something of a clairvoyant. But it was Oates himself who turned his life around and who realized that in following his former ways, he was never going to amount to anything good. Together, he and his brother John opened a law practice in Abbeville and became well respected.

When the Southern states began to secede in 1860, Oates--who bitterly opposed Lincoln's election--wanted his state to move cautiously and avoid following the Fireeaters into rash action. When Alabama joined the Confederacy, however, he threw his full support to his state and his new country. Nevertheless, he did not rush off and join the army without giving the whole matter due consideration. He told a friend that he was worried about his law practice, for his brother had gone off to war and left him alone to handle their business affairs.

Even still, Oates soon decided that the South's great cause was more important than his law practice, and in the late spring of 1861, he raised a company of volunteers, called the Henry Pioneers. He became captain by an acclamation of the men in the ranks. The company was later incorporated into the newly formed 15th Alabama regiment, which served with General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Little Round Top in July 1863.
Little Round Top.jpg
(Library of Congress)

After remaining inactive in the Confederate camps surrounding Centreville, Virginia, during the winter of 1861-1862, the 15th Alabama was assigned to General Isaac Trimble's Brigade and participated in the famous Shenandoah Campaign of 1862. It was not until the battle of Cross Keys, however, that the regiment was fully engaged in combat; it was this battle, the prelude to Jackson's victory at Port Republic, which gave Oates and his men their first taste of battle. Later the regiment fought with distinction at Gaines' Mill, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chantilly, Sharpsburg (where Oates was on sick call at the time of the battle), and Fredericksburg. In the spring of 1863, the regiment was transferred to Evander M. Law's brigade of Longstreet's corps and saw action in skirmishes around Suffolk, missing the Battle of Chancellorsville in May.

Oates rose in rank from captain to colonel. He was a solid officer--a stern disciplinarian, but fair to the men. What he lacked in military knowledge and bearing, he compensated for in sheer courage. In battle, Oates was leading his men, urging and encouraging them onward, although he admitted in his later years at being scared to death going into a fight. As he confessed in his later years: "We were not all of us as brave as Caesar, nor were men with few exceptions, at all times alike brave. Much depends on the nervous system at the time."

His men liked him and respected him, though some thought him too audacious. He was, said one man in the ranks, "too aggressive and too ambitious but he usually was well to the front and did not require his men to charge where he was unwilling to share the common danger." Overall, the men were grateful for his leadership and for his good judgment, both on and off the field. Said one of his soldiers to his parents: "I have a good captain to attend to me."

15th Alabama battles the 20th Maine .jpg
(War Between the Union & Confederacy)

(Right) Oates' 15th Alabama battles the 20th Maine at the southern base of Little Round Top on July 2. Photo courtesy War Between the Union & Confederacy.

In the spring of 1863, Oates assumed command of the regiment, but his promotion became entangled in red tape and mired in controversy. His commission as a full colonel was delivered to Lee, but for reasons that are not known the Confederate Congress failed to confirm the promotion, which technically meant that Oates never reached a rank higher than lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army. Nevertheless, he claimed for himself the rank of colonel for the remainder of his service.

He was proud of his regiment and fiercely loyal to its men and its reputation. Years later, he declared that "there was no better regiment in the Confederate army." At Gettysburg in July 1863, on the rocky slopes of Little Round Top, Oates was in command of his regiment for the first time in the Battle of Gettysburg. Along the extreme left of the Union line, the 15th Alabama crashed into the solid defenses of the 20th Maine regiment, and with iron nerve attacked up the slopes of the formidable hill. Forty years after the battle, Oates wrote about the engagement in a combined history of the 15th Alabama and his Civil War memoirs:

"Vincent's brigade, consisting of the Sixteenth Michigan on the right, Forty-fourth New York, Eighty-third Pennsylvania, and Twentieth Maine regiments, reached this position ten minutes before my arrival, and they piled a few rocks from boulder to boulder, making the zigzag line more complete, and were concealed behind it ready to receive us. From behind this ledge, unexpectedly to us, because concealed, they poured into us the most destructive fire I ever saw. Our line halted, but did not break. The enemy was formed in line as named from their right to left. . . . As men fell their comrades closed the gap, returning the fire most spiritedly. I could see through the smoke men of the Twentieth Maine in front of my right wing running from tree to tree back westward toward the main body, and I advanced my right, swinging it around, overlapping and turning their left."

Five times or more Oates and his Alabamians surged forward trying to dislodge Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and his men from their line along the ledges. Oates remembered painfully the scene on the hillside as the battle raged:

"I ordered my regiment to change direction to the left, swing around, and drive the Federals from the ledge of rocks, for the purpose of enfilading their line, . . gain the enemy's rear, and drive him from the hill. My men obeyed and advanced about half way to the enemy's position, but the fire was so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk against a strong wind, and then slowly, doggedly, gave back a little; then with no one upon the left or right of me, my regiment exposed, while the enemy was still under cover, to stand there and die was sheer folly; either to retreat or advance became a necessity. . . . Captain [Henry C.] Brainard, one of the bravest and best officers in the regiment, in leading his company forward, fell, exclaiming, 'O God! that I could see my mother,' and instantly expired. Lieutenant John A. Oates, my dear brother, succeeded to the command of the company, but was pierced through by a number of bullets, and fell mortally wounded. Lieutenant [Barnett H.] Cody fell mortally wounded, Captain [William J.] Bethune and several other officers were seriously wounded, while the carnage in the ranks was appalling. I again ordered the advance, knowing the officers and men of that gallant old regiment, I felt sure that they would follow their commanding officer anywhere in the line of duty. I passed through the line waving my sword, shouting, 'Forward, men, to the ledge!' and promptly followed by the command in splendid style. We drove the Federals from their strong defensive position; five times they rallied and charged us, twice coming so near that some of my men had to use the bayonet, but in vain was their effort. It was our time now to deal death and destruction to a gallant foe, and the account was speedily settled. I led this charge and sprang upon the ledge of rock, using my pistol within musket length, when the rush of my men drove the Maine men from the ledge. . . . About forty steps up the slope there is a large boulder about midway the Spur. The Maine regiment charged my line, coming right up in a hand-to-hand encounter. My regimental colors were just a step or two to the right of that boulder, and I was within ten feet. A Maine man reached to grasp the staff of the colors when Ensign [John G.] Archibald stepped back and Sergeant Pat O'Connor stove his bayonet through the head of the Yankee, who fell dead. . . . There never were harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine men their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat."

Soon Oates realized that he could not hold his forward position, that the regiment's ammunition was running low, and that Union reinforcements might be advancing on his regiment's rear. All around him, he could see that his men had already paid a dear price in the fight for this hill: "My dead and wounded were then nearly as great in number as those still on duty. They literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle."

Oates ordered a retreat, sending the word down the line as best he could for the men to withdraw at his signal. At the very moment that Oates gave his signal, and the men of the 15th Alabama slowly began to abandon their positions, the 20th Maine came steam-rolling down the hill at them in a headlong charge that caught the Alabamians completely by surprise. "We ran like a herd of wild cattle," Oates explained in his later years. Many Confederates were captured as they attempted to flee the field, but many--including Oates--ran up the slopes of Big Round Top and eluded the pursuing Federals. In the rush of retreat, Oates had to leave behind his younger brother John, who later died as a prisoner-of-war in a Union field hospital.

Gettysburg became one of Oates's worst memories--a nightmare he could never forget. For the rest of his life, he mourned the loss of his brother on the slopes of Little Round Top. But he also regretted the lost opportunity that the battle for the hill represented to Lee's army, the Confederate cause, and his own pride as an officer. "If one more Confederate regiment had stormed the far left of the Army of the Potomac with the 15th Alabama," Oates later asserted, "we would have completely turned the flank and have won Little Round Top, which would have forced Meade's whole left wing to retire." He concluded, philosophically, that "great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs."

Although Oates's men praised him as "a handsome and brave leader," some believed he was far too impetuous on the battlefield for his own good or for theirs. He displayed those traits at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia on September 20, 1863, when, after becoming separated from his brigade, he tried without proper authority to order South Carolina troops into the battle. The 15th Alabama was also accused of accidentally firing on other Confederate troops; a charge Oates claimed was "untrue."

Oates and his men were in the thick of the fighting in other battles, too, including Brown's Ferry and Lookout Valley near Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. As commander of the 15th Alabama, he served with pride and grew fond of the brave men in the regiment's ranks. "There was no better regiment in the Confederate Army than the Fifteenth Alabama," Oates later declared, "and when properly commanded, if it failed to carry any point against which it was thrown no other single regiment need try it." He could have been thinking about Little Round Top when he wrote those words.

But his command of the 15th Alabama was taken from him when Alexander A. Lowther, a bitter rival, won enough political support in Richmond to be placed at the head of the regiment in July 1864. To appease Oates, the Confederate leadership offered him command of the 48th Alabama instead. Realizing he had no other choice, Oates accepted command of the 48th, but he did not serve long as its leader. At Fussell's Mills (near Petersburg, Virginia), while commanding the 48th Alabama, Oates lost his right arm to the "hard blow" of a Yankee minie ball on August 16, 1864. During the entire war, he had been wounded five additional times, but in the past he had always recovered enough to rejoin his regiment. Now, with his arm gone, his final wound was slow to heal, and he lacked the strength to resume his command. William Oates was out of the war for good.

Back in Alabama, Oates recuperated and resumed his law practice; soon he became involved in state and national politics. Running as the one-armed hero of Henry County, he served in 1868 as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. From 1870 to 1872, he won election to the Alabama House of Representatives. He took a seat in 1875 as a delegate to the state constitutional convention. And, in 1880, he was elected from Alabama's Third District to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served seven consecutive terms. In Washington, he made a name for himself, rubbing elbows with Democratic Party leaders and with President Grover Cleveland. Oates's wife, Sarah Toney Oates, a beautiful woman whom he had married in 1882 and who was half his age, became known for her social graces and her splendid parties. He resigned from Congress in 1894 and ran for governor of Alabama in a contest that became infamous for its double-dealing, dirty politics, and corrupt bargains. He won the election, but he kept a campaign promise to serve only a single two-year term as governor.

After leaving the governor's office in 1896, Oates hoped to run for the U.S. Senate but he failed to win his party's nomination. Instead, the Spanish-American War gave him an opportunity to serve his country. In 1898, he received a brigadier general's commission from President William McKinley, and he commanded three different brigades during the short war. "I am now a Yankee General, formerly a Rebel Colonel, and right each time!" he exclaimed with delight. He served diligently and patiently in Georgia and Pennsylvania, all the while hoping to command Alabama troops and be placed in combat, but the war ended before any transfer to the theaters of war could be enacted.

In politics, he was known as "a conservative among conservatives, and a party regular par excellence." Oates was a fierce opponent of immigration, organized labor, and Free Silver. Like other Southern Democrats, he detested the Populists and approved the use of fraudulent tactics to defeat them at the polls. His racial views were typical of the patrician class in the South, despite his own humble origins, and he fully believed that African Americans were racially inferior to whites. Nevertheless, he asserted that "there are some white men who have no more right and no more business to vote than a Negro and not as much as some of them." He thought that conservative black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, should provide a model for African American self-improvement and personal advancement. At the Alabama constitutional convention of 1901, Oates served as a delegate and spoke out strongly against "grandfather clauses" and other measures that were aimed at disfranchising black voters. His most humanitarian appeal during the convention came when he denounced lynchings and other acts of racial violence that whites were inflicting on blacks. The new Alabama constitution, however, effectively eliminated black suffrage in the state (and the votes of poor whites, too), and while Oates disliked the new document, he decided not to oppose its ratification.

During the final decade of his life, he practiced law and concentrated on his real estate ventures--activities that made him a wealthy man. In 1902, Oates and his wife, accompanied by their only child--William C. Oates, Jr., who had been born in 1883--traveled to Europe on a grand tour, and his letters about their journey provide an entertaining glimpse of the Continent through his very Southern and American eyes. His son later became an attorney and joined his father's practice in Montgomery.

For all his remarkable experiences and adventures, the Civil War remained for Oates the pivotal event of his life, and his memories of Gettysburg were particularly vivid and anguished. From 1902 to 1905, he could not convince the Gettysburg National Military Park commissioners to approve a monument on Little Round Top to honor the deeds of the 15th Alabama and the memory of his fallen brother. That defeat proved especially bitter for him, for he resented the fact that his regiment and his beloved brother were nowhere mentioned on that famous battlefield.

In the years just before his death, he served as the Commissioner for Locating and Marking Confederate Graves in the North, a federal appointment he received from President Theodore Roosevelt. When Oates died on September 9, 1910, he was remembered in Alabama and around the nation for his military and public service. At his graveside in Oakwood Cemetery, located on the outskirts of Montgomery, various artillery, cavalry, and infantry companies, dressed in khaki uniforms of the day, bowed their heads in quiet tribute to this soldier of two nations, the Confederate and the United States of America.

"A great figure in our history has passed," reported a Birmingham newspaper, "for he made his record on the battlefield, in the capitol at Washington[,] and in the historic state capitol in Montgomery." But there was something else about Oates that people who knew him well could not fail to recall. Another newspaper obituary strikingly encapsulated in one sentence all the robust energy Oates had brought to living his life: "He was full of pluck!"

By Glenn W. LaFantasie

Glenn W. LaFantasie has studied the Gettysburg Campaign for many years and authored numerous works on the subject. His works, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life of William C. Oates, and Twilight at Little Round Top are cherished additions to my library. They may be purchased below.

Recommended Reading: Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates. Description: William C. Oates is best remembered as the Confederate officer defeated at Gettysburg's Little Round Top, losing a golden opportunity to turn the Union's flank and win the battle--and perhaps the war. Now, Glenn W. LaFantasie--bestselling author of Twilight at Little Round Top--has written a gripping biography of Oates, a narrative that reads like a novel and that reveals, for the first time, the compelling and sometimes astonishing dimensions of this remarkable individual. Continued below...

Oates was no moonlight-and-magnolias Southerner, as LaFantasie shows. Raised in the hard-scrabble Wiregrass Country of Alabama, he ran away from home as a teenager, roamed through Louisiana and Texas--where he took up card sharking--and finally returned to Alabama, to pull himself up by his bootstraps and become a respected attorney. During the war, he rose to the rank of colonel, served under the commands of Stonewall Jackson and Lee, was wounded six times and lost an arm. Returning home, he became wealthy investing in land and cotton, married a woman half his age, and launched a successful political career, becoming a seven-term congressman and ultimately governor. LaFantasie shows how, for Oates and many others of his generation, the war never really ended--he remained devoted to the Lost Cause, and spent the rest of his life waging the political battles of Reconstruction. Yet in one of the final acts of his political career, Oates championed the cause of suffrage for black Americans, delivering an impassioned speech at his state's constitutional convention. Here is a richly evocative story of Southern life before, during, and after the Civil War, based on first-time and exclusive access to family papers and never-before-seen archives.

Recommended Reading: Twilight at Little Round Top: July 2, 1863, The Tide Turns at Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: "Few military episodes of the Civil War have attracted as much attention as the struggle for Little Round Top on the second day of Gettysburg. This judicious and engaging book navigates confidently through a welter of contradictory testimony to present a splendid account of the action. It also places events on Little Round Top, which often are exaggerated, within the broader sweep of the battle. All readers interested in the battle of Gettysburg will read this book with enjoyment and profit." —Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Confederate War. "Here is the real story of the epic fight for Little Round Top, shorn of the mythology long obscuring this pivotal Gettysburg moment. A vivid and eloquent book." —Stephen W. Sears, author of Gettysburg. Continued below…

"In his beautifully written narrative, Glenn LaFantasie tells the story of the battle for Little Round Top from the perspective of the soldiers who fought and died in July 1863. Using well-chosen quotes from a wide variety of battle participants, TWILIGHT puts the reader in the midst of the fight—firing from behind boulders with members of the 4th Alabama, running up the hillside into battle with the men of the 140th New York, and watching in horror as far too many men die. This book offers an elegy to the courage of those men, a meditation on the meaning of war, and a cautionary tale about the sacrifices nations ask of their soldiers and the causes for which those sacrifices are needed." --Amy Kinsel, Winner of the 1993 Allan Nevins Prize for From These Honored Dead: Gettysburg in American Culture

"Little Round Top has become iconic in Civil War literature and American memory. In the emotional recollection of our great war, if there was one speck on the landscape that decided a battle and the future of a nation, then surely this was it. The story of the July 2, 1863 struggle for that hill outside Gettysburg goes deeper into our consciousness than that, however. The men who fought for it then and there believed it to be decisive, and that is why they died for it. Glenn W. LaFantasie's TWILIGHT AT LITTLE ROUND TOP addresses that epic struggle, how those warriors felt then and later, and their physical and emotional attachment to a piece of ground that linked them forever with their nation's fate. This is military and social history at its finest." --William C. Davis, author of Lincoln's Men and An Honorable Defeat

 

Recommended Reading: Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground (Hardcover). Description: The Civil War generation saw its world in ways startlingly different from our own. In these essays, Glenn W. LaFantasie examines the lives and experiences of several key personalities who gained fame during and after the war. The battle of Gettysburg is the thread that ties these Civil War lives together. Gettysburg was a personal turning point, though each person was affected differently. Continued below…

Largely biographical in its approach, the book captures the human drama of the war and shows how this group of individuals--including Abraham Lincoln, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, William C. Oates, and others--endured or succumbed to the war and, willingly or unwillingly, influenced its outcome. Concurrently, it shows how the war shaped the lives of these individuals, putting them through ordeals they never dreamed they would face or survive.

 

Recommended Reading: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, by James M. McPherson (Crown Journeys) (Hardcover). Review From Publishers Weekly: The country's most distinguished Civil War historian, a Pulitzer Prize winner (for Battle Cry of Freedom) and professor at Princeton, offers this compact and incisive study of the Battle of Gettysburg. In narrating "the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere," McPherson walks readers over its presently hallowed ground, with monuments numbering into the hundreds, many of which work to structure the narrative. They range from the equestrian monument to Union general John Reynolds to Amos Humiston, a New Yorker identified several months after the battle when family daguerreotypes found on his body were recognized by his widow. Indeed, while McPherson does the expected fine job of narrating the battle, in a manner suitable for the almost complete tyro in military history, he also skillfully hands out kudos and criticism each time he comes to a memorial. Continued below...

He praises Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, but also the 140th New York and its colonel, who died leading his regiment on the other Union flank in an equally desperate action. The cover is effective and moving: the quiet clean battlefield park above, the strewn bodies below. The author's knack for knocking myths on the head without jargon or insult is on display throughout: he gently points out that North Carolinians think that their General Pettigrew ought to share credit for Pickett's charge; that General Lee's possible illness is no excuse for the butchery that charge led to; that African-Americans were left out of the veterans' reunions; and that the kidnapping of African-Americans by the Confederates has been excised from most history books.

 

Recommended Reading: The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (928 pages). Description: Coddington's research is one of the most thorough and detailed studies of the Gettysburg Campaign. Exhaustive in scope and scale, Coddington delivers, with unrivaled research, in-depth battle descriptions and a complete history of the regiments involved. Continued below...

This is a must read for anyone seriously interested in American history and what transpired and shaped a nation on those pivotal days in July 1863.

 

Recommended Reading: General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse. Review: You cannot say that University of North Carolina professor Glatthaar (Partners in Command) did not do his homework in this massive examination of the Civil War–era lives of the men in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Glatthaar spent nearly 20 years examining and ordering primary source material to ferret out why Lee's men fought, how they lived during the war, how they came close to winning, and why they lost. Glatthaar marshals convincing evidence to challenge the often-expressed notion that the war in the South was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight and that support for slavery was concentrated among the Southern upper class. Continued below...

Lee's army included the rich, poor and middle-class, according to the author, who contends that there was broad support for the war in all economic strata of Confederate society. He also challenges the myth that because Union forces outnumbered and materially outmatched the Confederates, the rebel cause was lost, and articulates Lee and his army's acumen and achievements in the face of this overwhelming opposition. This well-written work provides much food for thought for all Civil War buffs.

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