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.
A VETERAN OF TWO WARS
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