Mattie and James Wyatt Oates surely expected the autumn of 1908 would be a season for farewells. The woman who was like a godchild to them, Anna May Bell, was to be married that October in Southern California, which would mean the end of her long summer visits with the Oates and the grand Santa Rosa parties always held in her honor. Before the wedding, however, the Oates were to have other visitors: former congressman and governor William C. Oates and family. The old general was now 72, unlikely to be able to make any future treks from Alabama to visit his baby brother Wyatt. And, in fact, he died exactly two years following his Santa Rosa trip.

Unlike the fuss over his 1905 visit, there was little mention this time of the family’s presence in town. Apparently there were no parties for them, no newspaper interviews. They arrived quietly, stayed about two weeks, and left, with Mattie and Wyatt following them as far as San Francisco. Mattie’s mother went along to their train departure, making her first visit to the city since the earthquake.

It might be worth noting that William’s son, “Willie,” arrived in Santa Rosa only a few days before his parents would leave, having spent most of his western vacation hunting in Colorado. In the original draft of his will, James Wyatt Oates left almost everything to his nephew; but three weeks before he died, he wrote a codicil that completely disinherited Willie, for reasons unknown. Perhaps if Willie had spent a little more face time with his notoriously mercurial uncle, Santa Rosa today would have an Oates House and not a Comstock House.

Former Governor and Mrs. W. C. Oates of Alabama, who are visiting at the James Wyatt Oates home on Mendocino avenue, are enjoying their stay in the City of Roses very much. A number of old friends have called to see them.

– “Society Gossip”, Press Democrat, September 6, 1908

William C. Oates, Jr., is expected here either tonight or tomorrow to join his parents, General and Mrs. William C. Oates, who are here for a visit with Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates. The young man has been enjoying a hunt in the mountains of Colorado.

– “Society Gossip”, Press Democrat, September 13, 1908

General and Mrs. Oates left here on Friday morning for the metropolis, and from there will start for their home in Montgomery Alabama. They expect to make several stops en route east, and will reach home about October 1. They were accompanied as far as the metropolis by Mr. and Mrs. James W. Oates and Mrs. Solomon. This is the first time Mrs. Solomon has been in San Francisco since the great fire. Many years of her life were spent there, and up to this time she has refused to go and see the ruins.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1908

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Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and politicians, even retired ones, gotta hear themselves talk, even when they know nothing more than Average Joe. And thus an editor at the Santa Rosa Republican found himself recording for posterity what General William C. Oates thought about foreign trade.

The general and his family were in town visiting his baby brother James Wyatt, who held a party in William’s honor as the formal housewarming at his home, which later would become known as Comstock House.

William C. Oates served seven terms in the House and was a one-term governor of Alabama. He was a “general” indeed, although he actually never ranked above lieutenant colonel on active duty, and even that wasn’t official; technically he was a captain, at best. As the Spanish-American War appeared on the horizon in 1898, W.C. Oates petitioned President McKinley to appoint him a Brigadier General. The White House approved the commission for the 64 year-old Oates, as it did requests from several other ex-Confederate officers (and even more Union vets). But the old man did little but bivouac and march in a few parades, and authorities in Washington must have thought him a crank for insisting that he was entitled to lead troops into battle.

In the Civil War, Oates lost an arm. He also lost his brother John, which would haunt him the rest of his life. He also lost a battle that just might have changed the course of history.

Captain Oates was commander of the 15th Alabama regiment. With the rest of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Oates and his men invaded Pennsylvania in July 1863. Outside a town called Gettysburg and on a rocky hill called Little Round Top, it is not hyperbole to say that they all met their destinies.

During the second day of combat at Gettysburg, Oates was given a direct order to position his troops for a coordinated attack with other units. En route to that specified location, Union snipers began firing at Oates’ regiment. Oates ordered his troops to turn around and fight the sharpshooters, chasing them up a steep and heavily wooded hillside. At a top ledge, Oates and his men rested, but were soon confronted by an officer who galloped up the hill on horseback, and demanded to know why Oates had disobeyed orders. William argued that this was the highest spot in the valley, and if Confederate cannons could somehow be hoisted up to the top, they could command the battlefield. As author Glenn LaFantasie wrote in the definitive biography, Gettysburg Requiem, his idea “revealed his lack of artillery training, his poor assumption that high ground necessarily meant superior ground, and his wishful thinking.”

Ordered to follow orders, Oates and his troops trekked down and off to positions at the base of the smaller, adjacent hill, Little Round Top. But his pursuit of the snipers (who had melted away into the woods) and musings about having a Civil War equivalent to The Guns of Navarone had meant a critical delay in their arrival; by then, Union troops were already entrenched at the top. Oates and the men of the 15th Alabama would be in the unenviable combat position of charging the enemy uphill.

The fighting between Oates’ Alabama troops and the 20th Maine volunteers, commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, was fierce and close. For over an hour the battle went back and forth with many dead, particularly among the Confederates. Both commanders wrote books about the experience with memorable quotes: “The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks” (Oates) and “At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men” (Chamberlain). The battle is the dramatic climax of the first half of the movie, “Gettysburg.”

As the sun was going down and as Oates saw his troops were exhausted, out of water and low on ammunition, he ordered a retreat. But as they were starting to pull back, Chamberlain did something completely unexpected: He ordered his men to lock bayonets and charge screaming down the hill. The Southerners panicked and fled (“we ran like a herd of wild cattle,” Oates later wrote), leaving their wounded behind, among them Oates’ brother, John. Although William C. Oates is not portrayed or mentioned in the film, those are supposed to be his men that mustachioed actor Jeff Daniels (Chamberlain) is chasing.

The importance of the battle of Little Round Top became the sort of topic that Civil War buffs love to debate. In another book, Twilight at Little Round Top, Glenn LaFantasie argues that it was the key part of the battle of Gettysburg, and with it, hinged the War Between the States. Perhaps if Oates had not exhausted his men with the fruitless chase up that other hillside, or had arrived at Little Round Top just a few minutes earlier and thus before the Union forces had settled in, the outcome could have gone the other way, and General Lee might have had a wider range of options available on the final day of fighting. (Obl. Believe-it-or-Not sidebar: It was also the battle of the governors-to-be, as Oates became governor of Alabama, and Chamberlain became governor of Maine.)

In Santa Rosa forty-two years after that terrible battle, William was a mess of conflictions. To W. C. Oates and his ilk, race and slavery still had nothing to do with the Civil War, and the South had not “lost,” but merely had been “overwhelmed” by Yankees. To him, the core Confederacy “principles” — namely that blacks deserved to be enslaved because they were somehow lesser humans and that the Constitution granted absolute superiority to state’s rights — were never defeated, and someday, someway, the romantic ideal of Dixie would rise up again.

“He firmly believed in Southern institutions and ideas, such as white supremacy and black inferiority. Like many other white southerners, he seemed untroubled about keeping African Americans in subservient roles while exploiting them for personal gain and even sexual pleasure [Wm. Oates had a child with a house slave]…his heart was constricted by his hard attitudes toward blacks, immigrants, Northerners, Republicans, Populists, and practically anyone who was unlike him. He was, as one Alabama historian describes him, ‘a conservative among conservatives.’ In many respects, that’s putting it mildly,” LaFantasie wrote in the forward to Gettysburg Requiem.

His claim in the interview below that he “immediately advocated the gradual emancipation of the negroes” when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation is not exactly true. In his first foray into national politics, Oates went to the Confederacy’s capitol a few weeks after Lincoln signed the Proclamation and lobbied that the Confederate army’s shortage of soldiers would be solved if slaves were allowed to enlist, with a promise that they would be given their freedom after the war. “Oates journey to Richmond produced shock, disbelief, and impolite sneers,” noted author LaFantasie.

As for Oates’ optimistic views on contemporary race relations in the South, (“we are getting along pretty smoothly”), on the same day that William met with the Santa Rosa newspaper, Edward Lewis and “Kid” George were lynched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, just two of the 57 blacks known to have been lynched that year. One week later, a black man named Tom Williams was burned alive “before an immense crowd of excited citizens” in Texas, according to a New York Times item. Doubtless the families of these murdered men did not share Oates’ cheery outlook.

The Exclusion Act comments refer to an announcement made earlier in 1905 that China intended to boycott American-made products because of the U.S. law that mandated openly racist discrimination. In response, President Teddy Roosevelt clarified that the ban only applied to “Chinese of the coolie, or laboring class” and not to businessmen, diplomats, or students. The boycott ended a few months later.

Interesting talk with Gen. W. C. Oates, of Alabama, who is visiting in Santa Rosa

One of the most distinguished men of the New South, General W. C. Oates of Alabama, is being entertained by his brother, Colonel James W. Oates. He is accompanied by his wife and son, W. C. Oates, Jr. They like Santa Rosa very much and are meeting many friends with whom they became acquainted on a former visit. General Oates is a former Governor of Alabama and ex-Congressman, having represented his district with distinction at Washington and is a leading member of the legal profession of his State. During the Spanish-American War he was a brigader-general, serving with the same fearless loyalty with which he fought for the South in 1861-1865. He is the author of “The War between the Union and the Confederacy and its Lost Opportunities,” a work in which the subject is discussed in a way possible only to one possessing complete and intimate knowledge of the same.

General Oates is tall and soldierly in bearing, has the southerner’s easy grace of manner and is very entertaining in conversation. He was interviewed yesterday afternoon by the Republican in regard to the labor conditions in the South, as concerned with Oriental exclusion, and said:

“If there is anything this country is sensitive about it is its trade interests, and all this talk about modification of the Chinese exclusion Act is the result of an apprehension that its rigid enforcement, perhaps unreasonably rigid, may result in harm to American commerce.

“I think the proposed modification of the Exclusion Act will amount to very little. It will probably soften the rigidity of it, but very little, and will not increase the immigration of that people to this country to any very great extent. The statements to that effect and all the talk have grown out of the declaration of the President in response to the expressed apprehension that China would boycott trade, and my opinion is that the President only intends such modification as to meet the excessive rigidity, in some places, of the exclusion.

“Now, in the Southern States, the cotton States prosper, there is no particular demand for Chinese and Japanese laborers. Owing to the lately inflated prices and disturbance, or scarcity of labor in those States, there has been and is now going on considerable agitation in favor of the installation of white labor from European countries. The negroes, who constitute the chief laborers in the cotton States, are becoming less satisfactory — I think largely for the reason that it is so easy for them to get an abundance of money for their support by a limited amount of labor. They are not as a rule provident people who want to lay by something for a rainy day, but usually expend their earning as soon as obtained.

“From life-long experience and observation my opinion is that negro labor is the best adapted to the climatic and other conditions of the cotton States of any that is obtainable.

“The political agitation of the last three years, urging the negro to seek fields of industry in other countries, has had a very disturbing effect upon labor in many localities, but I think agitation in most of the States where there is a large negro population has resulted in the respective rights of the races becoming well defined. As these conditions become more settled and acquiesced in my each race, their relations will be more harmonious than now.”

As an indication of the very strong religious sentiment of the colored race in the South the General related a story of a planter friend of his, who managed the free negroes on his three plantations with very noticable success. When asked about it he said:

“If I am any more successful than my neighbors in dealing with negroes it is because when I hired them I found out what denomination they belonged to, built them a little church and provided them with a preacher.”

While many negroes go North to work in the large cities the larger wages they receive are really no better in the end. General Oates says, than those paid in the South, where house servants, especially, are exceptionally well treated, always receiving their board and room free. It is quite evident that General Oates has a strong liking for the colored people, and his desire that they should be given justice in every regard is apparent from the fact that, he is willing and anxious to see the race improve, and that he sees no reason why the intelligent negro should not have business and even political ambition. In Alabama the negroes have practically the same advantages as the whites, as the constitution which requires that there be a large sum used for educational purposes provides that the same amount per capita be used for colored schools and white.

It certainly might be said that General Oates was ahead of his time in his manner of thinking when the war began, because when Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation was made he immediately advocated the gradual emancipation of the negroes.

“I was only a young fellow then,” said the General, “‘and nobody paid any attention to me, but if they had, there would have been none of the horrors of reconstruction.”

After all the dismal newspaper and magazine articles about the race problem in the South, General Oates’ optimistic view of condidtions there is a welcome change.

“Race problem? Just let it alone,” he said, “we are getting along pretty smoothly and it will take care of itself.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1905

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The midsummer weeks of late July and early August, 1905 could have been the happiest time for Mattie and Wyatt Oates in the house, with every room filled with their near and dear. The 28 year-old Anna May Bell, virtually a daughter to the family, continued her summer visit. But both papers mentioned with excitement the imminent visit by Wyatt’s distinguished older brother, former congressman and governor, General W. C. Oates.

Anna May had not one, but two more big parties before the end of summer, the last with nearly 300 (!) guests. The first was organized by the same-age Zana Taylor, who lived about four blocks down the street at her family’s “city” home. Gaye LeBaron tells the story of the Taylor family, their mountain, and the White Sulphur Springs resort in an August 28, 2005 column available in the Press Democrat archive (no permanent link). The September sendoff, held two doors down at the magnificent Paxton house, was hosted by the creme de la Santa Rosa creme.

Before big brother William and his family left for the Portland exhibition, Wyatt gave them an auto tour of the area, with none other than speedster Fred J. Wiseman behind the wheel. “Returning to this city, Colonel Oates gave orders to turn the auto loose, and Wiseman complied in a manner which shook the party up.”

Distinguished Alabaman Will Visit City of Roses

Judge and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates are looking forward with great pleasure to a visit from General W. C. Oates of Alabama. The local attorney recently received a letter from his brother, stating that he expected to come to the City of Roses and spend the summer with his relative. While not [sic] date has been set for his coming, Judge Oates would not be surprised to have him walk in upon him at any time. The visitor from Alabama is one of the best known men of the southland, and has previously visited here, where he has many warm friends. He was Governor of his State, served fifteen years in Congress as its representative, was a Colonel in the Confederate Army and a General in the Spanish-American War. Few men have such a record of public honor and service as General Bell. [sic]

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 27, 1905

Ballroom Handsomely Adorned With Flowers and Greenery — Party a Success in Every Way

Miss Zana Taylor’s dancing party last night at Woodmen’s hall in honor of Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia who is here spending the summer with Colonel and Mrs. Oates was a decidedly pretty and successful function.

The hall was transformed into an ideal ballroom. It was brilliant with floral embellishments and color effects which gave it a fascinating appearance. Baskets of pink roses and greenery were used here and there in the decoration scheme with much taste. Overhead streamers of pink and white radiated from the centre chandelier and were caught up gracefully at each end of the room.

The fair young hostess was assisted in receiving her guests by her mother Mrs. John S. Taylor, Mrs. James Wyatt Oates, Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton and Mrs. M. S. Solomon. The music for the dancing was furnished by Parks’ orchestra. The musicians were stationed behind a bamboo hedge, a pretty creation.

The dance program will be kept as dainty souvenirs of the party. They were “bell” shaped. Supper was served shortly before twelve o’clock and dancing was resumed afterwards. The party was a delightful affair in every way and guests entered fully into the spirit of the occasion.

– Press Democrat, July 28, 1905


Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates will hold a reception at their residence on Healdsburg avenue this evening in honor of their guests, General and Mrs. W. C. Oates of Alabama. A large number of invitations have been issued.

– Press Democrat, August 8, 1905

As a usual thing there are not many social happenings at this time of the year, but the week just passed was marked by two events of importance — the reception in honor of General and Mrs. W. C. Oates of Alabama and the dance in Miss Anna May Bell’s honor. General and Mrs. W. C. Oates, and their son, W. C. Oates, Jr., and Miss Bell are guests of Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates.

Except for the card party giving in Miss Bell’s honor a few weeks ago, where only young people were present, the reception was the first formal event to be given in the handsome new Oates home — and indeed the place was bewilderingly lovely. It was as much a treat to see the elegant reception rooms in their artistic furnishings as it was to see the handsome gowns that graced the occasion. Although the affair was a reception given an ex-Governor and a General of two wars, and formal in its nature, it was anything but formal as far as the clothes worn by the men were concerned. Having come west, with no idea of doing society, General Oates left his dress suit at home, so the gentlemen invited to meet him did the same.

The arrival of Miss Bell from Visalia is always the occasion for functions in her honor, not the least pleasant of which was the dancing party Thursday evening in Woodmen’s Hall. This enjoyable affair was attended by all of the members of the younger set who were in town and a number of young married couples. The party was arranged by a number of Miss Bell’s friends and admirers and was a success in every way.

– Press Democrat Society column, August 13, 1905
General Oates Seeing Beauties of Sonoma

Colonel James W. Oates and General W. C. Oates and W. C. Oates, Jr., took a trip to San Francisco today and spent the time enjoyably in sight seeing. Yesterday Colonel Oates took his brother through the pretty Gold Ridge section, where the Alabaman had visited twenty tears ago. He was agreeably surprised to note the improvement and prosperity which had come to the people there since his last visit. Twenty years ago, General Oates saw but a sparsely settled country at Sebastopol and today he finds it thickly settled, with every evidence of the abundant prosperity which had come to it in these years. Another enjoyable trip which was taken by the brothers was to Cloverdale, where General Oates was delighted with the beautiful country. A stop was made at Asti to see the wonderful sights at that place, all of which proved enjoyable. The trip was made in an auto, with Chauffeur Fred Wiseman at the throttle. This was the general’s first ride in an auto, and he is now partial to that mode of travel. Returning to this city, Colonel Oates gave orders to turn the auto loose, and Wiseman complied in a manner which shook the party up en route to this city. General Oates occupied a front seat on the machine and remarked when he reached the City of Roses that he had traveled about as fast as he wished to on the trip.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 18, 1905
General and Mrs. Oates Have Departed for Home

General and Mrs. W. C. Oates and W. C. Oates, Jr., departed this morning en route to their Alabama home, going by way of Portland and the Yellowstone Park. At Portland they will make an extended visit at the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates went to San Francisco to see them off on the northern trip, but were unable to accompany them as they had planned owing to important business which demanded the presence of Colonel Oates here. Colonel and Mrs. Oates had expected to have the pleasure of visiting at the fair with their relatives, but have had to forego the journey.


– Santa Rosa Republican, August 19, 1905


Elegant Paxton Home on Healdsburg Avenue Transformed Into a Veritable Bower of Beauty

The elegant Paxton home on Healdsburg Avenue was the scene of a brilliant reception Thursday afternoon in honor of Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia. Almost three hundred guests called between three and six o’clock to meet the popular girl in whose honor the affair was given.

Miss Bell is a relative of Col. and Mrs. James W. Oates of this city. She has spent much of the present summer here, where she has many friends. She is a charming girl with friendly, cordial manners that make her a great favorite wherever she goes and the reception of Thursday afternoon was one of the most successful of a large number of functions that have been planned in her honor this summer.

The house was a veritable bower of beauty. The decorations were entirely pink. The reception hall and parlors were decorated with La France and Duchesse roses and amaryllis blossoms. The dining room was fragrant with great clusters of beautiful pink carnations attractively arranged and placed where they showed to advantage. Master Marshall Paxton stood in the doorway and ushered the guests into the reception hall, where they were received by Mrs. Blitz Wright Paxton, the hostess, assisted by Mrs. J. W. Oates, Mrs. T. J. Geary, Mrs. M. H. Dignan, Mrs. Wm Martin, Mrs. Mark McDonald, Mrs. Frank Doyle, and Mrs. James Edwards. Mrs. Paxton looked charming in a handsome silk gown trimmed with heavy pearl lace. Miss Bess Riley, Miss Jessie Robertson, Miss Zana Taylor, and Miss Bessie Porter served ices and cakes in the beautifully decorated dining room. Music was furnished during the afternoon by C. Mortimer Chapin and Mrs. Berry.

– Press Democrat, September 15, 1905

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