Even though his brother was 76 year-old, James Wyatt Oates was shocked to learn the old man had died that afternoon in 1910. He had always seemed invincible; countless times he cheated death during the Civil War, despite being on the front lines of some of the bloodiest battles – the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Chickamauga, Gettysburg. He was wounded six times, the last injury costing him his right arm. Still, it was nothing short of a miracle that he survived his last bout of combat at all; when that lead minie ball destroyed his arm he was facing a hail of enemy gunfire, waving his sword and urging his troops to fight even though the battle was clearly already lost. Confederate Colonel William C. Oates always fought hardest when he was on the losing side.
William and James Wyatt grew close, but not until after the Civil War. William was 17 years older, more like a father or uncle than a sibling. He was hardly around at all while Wyatt was a child, and was approaching middle age before he apparently developed any kind of bond with his youngest brother. William had already lived a full life to that point, having spent his youth brawling and gambling before settling down to be a successful Alabama lawyer, then Civil War warrior, then lawyer again. He was unmarried until he was 48 (although he was the father of two boys, one of them born to a slave who was his domestic servant), but there always was one constant in his life – his brother, John.
There was only two years difference in age between John and William. They were inseparable as children, each other’s best friend. They even looked alike, although John was always a few inches shorter. John also read for the law and joined William’s practice in Abbeville and when the war came they both were patriots in the Confederate vein. John was quick to enlist and became a private; William delayed a few months to raise a company from among the local men, with himself as captain. They were apart only a few months in different regiments before John was posted to his brother’s company and promoted to 2nd lieutenant.
The 15th Alabama Regiment saw action in the following year of 1862, but luck followed them; even at the Battle of Antietam – the bloodiest day of the entire war – fewer than ten of them were killed. Morale remained high. John’s health was beginning to deteriorate, however. Sleeping on frozen ground during the winter of 1862-1863 had caused him to develop acute rheumatism in his right hip and leg that was getting worse by the week. In the spring of 1863 he even requested a desk job as it had become painful to simply take a step.
By the time they arrived at Gettysburg on July 2nd, he was in particularly bad shape. They had just marched all night, making 28 miles in eleven hours; John fell behind and William sent back his spare horse for his brother to ride. Besides his constant pain and exhaustion, John had a high fever, yet still defied William’s order that he report to sick leave. “I will go in with my company though I know it may cost me my life,” he said, according to William’s history. It would be the last time the brothers’ spoke.
William had been given command of the 15th Alabama Regiment only about two months earlier, and this would be his first time leading them into battle. He was respected by his troops for always being in the front of the fighting, but his habit of not faithfully following and/or understanding orders along with his lack of any military education repeatedly led them into trouble that day. While under an artillery barrage, Oates sent 22 men off in search of water, leaving the regiment short-handed (and without canteens) when the order to advance came. He disobeyed direct orders to advance towards a position on the Confederate line, instead fruitlessly chasing Union sharpshooters up a steep hill covered with boulders, both further exhausting his men and wasting valuable time. When an officer caught up with his regiment and found them on the wrong hill, Oates tried to argue he thought there was a strategic advantage in staying put. Oates’ regiment was ordered to follow orders, now greatly delayed with the afternoon shadows were growing longer. Meanwhile, Union troops had beaten Oates in taking command over the nearby hill called Little Round Top. (The battle for Little Round Top was introduced in an earlier essay about William’s 1905 visit to Santa Rosa, and can be explored in great depth at many Civil War history websites, such as this one.)
Artist’s rendering of Col. Oates and the 15th Alabama at Little Round Top. Image courtesy U.S. Army CECOM Historical Office (artist credit not given)
For purposes here, let’s summarize that Oates’ many delays resulted in his regiment fighting uphill on Little Round Top, another rocky slope. The combat was bloody and continued for over an hour. On word that Union troops were also approaching from the rear, Oates ordered a retreat and his men began withdrawing for the night. Suddenly the Yankees locked bayonets and made a screaming charge down the hill, causing the Rebels to panic – “we ran like a herd of wild cattle,” Oates later wrote with remarkable candor. Left behind were their dead and wounded, including John Oates. William did not know if his beloved brother was captured or dying or dead.
It was nearly two full months before William learned that John had been wounded by no less than six bullets. He survived for 23 days in a Union field hospital near the battleground before dying of blood poisoning. He was buried in his own casket in his own grave on the site, with a wooden headstone. By the time William revisited Gettysburg after the war, the marker was gone.
Through all the accomplishments that followed – four terms as a Congressman and two years as governor of Alabama, appointment as a brigadier general in the Spanish-American War – William Oates was haunted by Gettysburg and the fate of his brother. Biographer Glenn W. LaFantasie wrote in Gettysburg Requiem:
…[H]e was tougher than most men his age. What weighed on him, though, and sapped his strength…were his memories of Gettysburg, of the death of his young brother, of the ghost-like images of his comrades falling on Little Round Top, and of the lost opportunity that the battle represented for the Confederacy and for him personally. Oates could not escape the vise grip Gettysburg had on him, a grip that prevented him from ever gaining any real peace in his old soldier’s soul.
He hungered to know every detail of what happened to John after Little Round Top and what happened to his remains. After much sleuthing, he found the Union doctor who treated John and was heartened to learn that the doctor’s family was drawn to John and his last words were, “Tell my folks at home that I died in the arms of friends.”
William became morose every July 2 and December 24, the latter being John’s birthday. On Christmas Eve, 1900, he wrote a letter to his 17 year-old son attending West Point. “The night recalls to me the fact that one whom you never saw but who was dear to me was born on Christmas Eve night.” On these anniversaries, he wrote to Willie, the memories of their last conversation flooded back, and how he had failed to convince John to stay out of the battle. That John had died a prisoner of war sickened him. “He was a noble young man and died for his country and in a just cause as he and I both saw it.”
For the last fifteen years of his life, William fought to have a monument built on Little Round Top commemorating the 15th Alabama regiment. “[W]hen I am dead and gone, I want to leave a little stone on the spot where my brother and others were killed,” he wrote in his application. He wanted the marker to include a wordy plaque that mentioned John twice:
To the memory of Lt. John A. Oates
and his gallant Comrades who fell here
July 2nd, 1863. The 15th Ala. Regt.,
over 400 strong reached this spot, but
for lack of support had to retire.
Lt. Col. Feagin lost a leg.
Erect 39th Anniversary of battle,
In early 1909, he happened to discover John’s body had been exhumed in 1872 and sent with the remains of eleven other Confederates to Virginia for reburial. Excited that he was at last about to find a grave where he could place a marker he sought more details, only to find that John’s general burial spot was again unmarked and lost somewhere amid a large section designated only as “Gettysburg Hill” in a Richmond cemetery.
Hearing that news, “Oates became seriously ill and bedridden,” according to biographer LaFantasie, not specifying what his ailment was. His doctor suggested the cool mountain air in North Carolina might make him feel better, but he soon turned back home and returned to bed. Exactly two months after learning that John’s grave had forever disappeared, William Oates passed away quietly.
You could say he simply lost his will to live, and surely that would be hard to dispute.
Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates by Glenn W. LaFantasie, 2006
The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and its Lost Opportunities by William C. Oates, 1905
John A. Oates: No Brothers Loved Each Other Better by Rosemary Pardoe
The Inimitable William C. Oates by Glenn W. LaFantasie
GENERAL WM. C. OATES DIES AT ALABAMA HOMEWas One of Most Beloved Men of the Entire South
General William C. Oates, a brother of Judge James W. Oates of this city, died at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Friday. Not only did the news cause great sorrow in the Oates household here, but it will cause sorrow and genuine regret to many Santa Rosans who had met the courtly southerner in his several visits to Santa Rosa, where he was the guest of his relatives, Judge and Mrs. Oates.
The deceased was a born leader of men, and all of his life has been in the forefront of progressive movements for his beloved south. He served from the start to the finish of the civil war, first under General Stonewall Jackson and after his death under General Longstreet. At the close of the war he had gained the title of colonel and was in command of a brigade of cavalry.
General Oates was probably the most beloved man of Montgomery, and one of the most prominent men of the entire south. Early in his eventful and energetic life he became a great favorite with the people there, and the close of his life found him receiving the admiration of all the people among whom he had lived so many years. Judge Thomas C. Denny of this city spent some days with General Oates and his estimable family during July, and he remarked when he returned to this city that he had never seen a people so united in the love and veneration of a man as were the residents of the southern city in their love and veneration of General Oates.
Thirteen times was General Oates wounded in the civil war, and in that eventful struggle he lost his right arm. As soon as he could recover from this wound, he was back at the front again, and the close of the great struggle found him fighting as aggressively as he did at the commencement of hostilities. General Oates enlisted with the Fifteenth Alabama Infantry Volunteers of the Confederate army, taking up arms early in 1861, and remaining with the army until the final close. He was in every fight in which the Confederate army of northern Virginia engaged from and including the first battle of Bull Run. In his thirteen wounds General Oates was twice severely wounded, one of these being the loss of the arm. Wounds had no effect on his valor and he would again go to the front as rapidly as he could recover and and fight aggressively. He was always a leader, and in every movement looking to the restoration and upbuilding of the south following the war, he was in the Vanguard. General Oates lost his arm in front of Petersburg in the fall of 1864, Death claimed him at the age of seventy-eight years that were crowned with many successes. Prior to becoming a resident of Montgomery, he resided in Eufala, Alabama, where he was born.
General Oates had many times been honored by the people of his native state with public office. In 1870 and the two years following he was a member of the state legislature; in 1875 he was chosen a member of the state constitutional convention; in 1880 he was elected to represent his district in Congress, and remained in the national legislature for the following fifteen years; at the end of that time he resigned to accept an election as governor of his state. He served as governor for two years, and then declined re-election. In 1897 he was again chosen a member of the state constitutional convention.
At the beginning of the Spanish-American hostilities the war spirit in the southerner again arose and he was appointed a brigadier general in the army, and he served until the close of the war.
Five years ago General Oates was given an appointment by President Roosevelt that was a fitting close to his activities of his earlier life. He was made a United States commissioner to locate and mark the graves of Confederate dead, who had died in Union prisons. He was busily engaged in this task almost up to the time of his death and to him it was a pleasant duty to seek out the graves of former comrades in a great struggle and see that they were given proper recognition.
For some time past it had been realized that the health of General Oates had been failing, but it was not believed the dread end was near. A short time ago he went to the springs at Asheville, North Carolina, but no change for the betterment taking place in his condition, he returned to his beloved Alabama to pass his remaining days. The news of his death was a great shock to Judge and Mrs. Oates here, for they had believed that their beloved relative was improving. They had intended making a journey to Alabama early in the coming spring to visit with General Oates and his family.
Four times General Oates and his wife and only son William C. Oates, Jr., crossed the continent to this city. They met many residents of this city and all of the people here who met them formed close friendships for the visitors.
Judge Oates is an only brother of the deceased, but three sisters survive, Mrs. M. J. Long of Abbeville, Ala.; Mrs. A. E. Linton of Galveston, Texas; and Mrs. L. Hickman of Jacksonville, Fla., In addition to these the devoted widow and son mentioned above also survive.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 10, 1910
The news of the death of General Oates, former Governor of Alabama, came as a shock to Colonel James Wyatt Oates, the Governor’s brother. Governor Oates is very pleasantly remembered by many Santa Rosa friends who had the pleasure of meeting him here when he visited his brother. He was a fine man, possessing all the qualifications of the courteous, hospitable Southern gentleman. He was an eminent scholar and a distinguished soldier. Many sympathetic messages will be forwarded to the family from Santa Rosa.– “Society Gossip,” Press Democrat, September 11, 1910