Colonel William C. Oates One Very Brave Man !
The Inimitable Colonel William C. Oates 15th Alabama
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 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.
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 attended school off and on throughout his childhood, but most of what he learned came from teaching himself. As a child, he liked practical jokes and rigorous play, although a younger brother, John, and he 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, but Oates didn't know it, and he was at least right 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."
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, and 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.
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 battle. 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:
The Battle of Little Round Top part 1
The Battle of Little Round Top part 2
The Battle of Little Round Top part 3
"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. . . .
The Battle of Little Round Top part 4
Gettysburg Movie the Charge
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."