15th Alabama commander William C. Oates could never get over his younger sibling’s death on Gettyburg’s Little Round Top.
War often leaves invisible wounds. Casualties don’t always take place on the battlefield, and even when they do, they might not come from bullets, shells and shrapnel. Sometimes wounds live in the veterans’ unconscious, nightmares that come creeping in the darkness long after combat has ended. Sometimes they break through into the world of consciousness, blurring the past with the present in the form of terrifying flashbacks years after the fighting is over. Injuries like these can be hidden and deeply emotional, made all the more invisible because the soldier carries the burden of pain and sadness alone. As a result, veterans of all wars often shy away from talking about their experiences. They dislike displaying their wounds, inner or outer. Yet every soldier who has seen the horrors of combat longs for his or her wounds to be healed.
Civil War soldiers were no exception. Some, like William C. Oates, the commander of the 15th Alabama who fought against Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, bore the heavy weight of an emotional wound that he received during the battle for the rest of his life. But unlike so many soldiers, Oates managed—entirely due to fortuitous circumstances—to put his wounds and the memory of his wrenching war behind him, finding a sense of closure and relief toward the end of his life, at a point when he least expected it. For William Oates, the worst day of his life took place that second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. But 47 years later, he came upon the means by which his broken heart could at last find peace. He stumbled upon what so few soldiers ever find: an end to his own private war within himself.
Oates is best known for the role he played at Gettysburg. Although he and his men failed in repeated attempts to dislodge the 20th Maine from its defensive position on Little Round Top and then fell victim to Chamberlain’s famous bayonet charge down the hillside, Oates and his Alabamians gained the respect of their fellow Confederates for their endeavors that day. Despite the defeat of his regiment at Gettysburg, Oates served the Confederacy for three long and arduous years—from the summer of 1861, when he personally raised a company of men, the Henry Pioneers, in Henry County, Ala.—to August 1864, when the loss of his right arm near Petersburg sent him back home to southeastern Alabama. Oates built a successful law practice in the postwar years and entered local politics. Elected to Congress in 1880, he served seven consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before resigning in 1894 to become a one-term governor of his state.
In 1898, after the Spanish-American War broke out, Oates volunteered his services and received a commission as brigadier general in the U.S. Army. Though disappointed at not receiving a combat command, he was still proud of having served in both the Confederate and U.S. military. During the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, in which he served as an at-large delegate, Oates earned the ire of his fellow white Alabamians by suggesting that African-American males should be given the right to vote. When his plea led to political ostracism, he returned to his law practice, which flourished in the capital city of Montgomery. For several years, from the end of the Spanish-American War to 1904, Oates unsuccessfully tried to erect a monument to his regiment, the 15th Alabama, on the slopes of Little Round Top. He failed when the Gettysburg National Military Park Commissioners, who administered the park for the War Department, refused to approve his request. In 1905 he published a massive book, The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and Its Lost Opportunities, which combined his own memories of the conflict with a regimental history of the 15th Alabama. It also contained a full muster and brief biographical sketches of every member of the regiment, including his younger brother, John A. Oates, who was mortally wounded at Little Round Top and died in a Union field hospital after the battle.
“No brothers loved each other better,” William wrote of John long after the battle. He could never forgive himself for leaving his wounded brother behind on the Gettysburg battlefield. He blamed himself for John’s death and every year dreaded the arrival of July 2, the anniversary of the day his brother was wounded, and December 24, the anniversary of his brother’s birth. Oates wrote to his son on Christmas Eve 1900 to tell him how that night brought forth the perennial ache in his heart. He could feel nothing but “sad over his fate,” he wrote, adding, “Had he been killed outright, “it would not have been so sad[,] but he fell into the hands of the enemy and died a prisoner of war.” He concluded, “He was a noble young man and died for his country and in a just cause as he and I both saw it.” The fact that he never knew where his brother had been buried bothered William more and more over the years, but he didn’t know how he might go about locating John’s final resting place.
In December 1907, in an unrelated development, Oates was appointed Commissioner for Locating and Marking Confederate Graves in the North by President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft. He had not asked for the position, and in fact didn’t seem to know of the commission’s existence before receiving the appointment. Realizing that he had little to lose politically in Alabama, given his involuntary retirement from public life, Oates took the job without worrying about possible political ramifications. As it turned out, he seems not to have suffered any decline in his community standing as a result of holding a Republican appointment while remaining a loyal Democrat.
Reconciliation sentiment lay behind the existence of the federal commission. Fostered by feelings of soldierly camaraderie among veterans of the blue and gray, a rising tide of reconciliation swept the land in the 1880s. Reconciliation was also boosted by the Lost Cause ideology, which held that the Confederacy had been defeated only because of the North’s superior numbers and resources. In other words, both sides could claim the virtue of courage— which soldiers, even deadly enemies, always share. In placing courage at the center of the Civil War experience, it became easy for Americans to forget the root cause of the war—slavery—and push away any earlier concerns that might have focused on the welfare of freed slaves or the racism that continued to beset American society.
Reconciliation came at a cost, but the highest price was paid by black people who had been given little more than freedom, while their civil rights were purposely and systematically denied. In the meantime, Civil War veterans tried to extend kindnesses to their former enemies to prove that no bitterness remained and that both sections had amicably reunited into one nation, blessed by unity and fervent nationalism that Northerners and Southerners exuberantly articulated on patriotic holidays. During the first few years of the 20th century, Confederate veteran organizations began advocating a uniform system of federal care for all Confederate graves in Northern cemeteries, especially those in or near POW camps in the North. In March 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law a statute by the president that provided for “the appropriate marking of the graves of soldiers and sailors of the Confederate Army and Navy who died in Northern prisons and were buried near the prisons where they died.”
Oates was laid low in the winter of 1908 with pneumonia, but he took over as commissioner the following spring. He tried to spend as much time in Washington as possible, traveling there two or three times a year for extended stays. His assistant, L. Frank Nye, son of a hardware merchant and a graduate of Georgetown University, was a dedicated worker without the fussiness of most bureaucrats. Nye did most of the research, kept the details and files straight, handled correspondence and generally kept the commission moving forward. Oates and Nye worked well as a team, with Oates providing leadership and political savvy.
Oates was more than happy to have Nye push paper in whatever direction it needed to go, and the former fighting man developed an amazing command of the details behind nearly every aspect of the commission. The clerk had a talent for monitoring expenses, making sure the government was not cheated and getting bills paid. Oates also became fond of Nye and trusted him to do what was right.
Despite his advancing age (he was then in his mid-70s) and painful rheumatism, Oates traveled throughout the North to visit cemeteries and examine the work that had been done—or still needed to be done. In June 1908, he journeyed to Lexington, Ky., and Alton, Ill.; that autumn, he went to Kansas City, Mo., and Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. In May 1909, he and Nye together visited cemeteries in Baltimore, Frederick and Point Lookout, Md.; Philadelphia, Chester, Shohola and Harrisburg, Pa.; Brooklyn, N.Y., and Finn’s Point (Salem), N.J.
There was an advantage to this new assignment that the former commander could never have foreseen. Reading his predecessor’s files, Oates discovered he had visited Gettysburg and learned that Confederate graves there had been mapped and marked by Dr. John W.C. O’Neal of Gettysburg, and that two other local men, Samuel Weaver and his son Dr. Rufus B. Weaver, had worked with ladies’ memorial associations in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia in the early 1870s to exhume the Confederate dead on the battlefield and reinter them in cemeteries in those Southern states. In February 1909, Oates corresponded with O’Neal and Rufus Weaver and explained his quest to find where his brother had been buried.
Oates soon learned that John had died at the Union army’s V Corps hospital set up on Michael Fiscel’s farm, located east of the Round Tops. Then Oates heard from Weaver precisely what he wanted to know about his brother’s remains. “It affords me great pleasure,” wrote Weaver, “to reply that my records of the removal of the remains of the Confederate dead show that, on Sept. 10th, 1872, the remains of Lt. J.A. Oats, 15th Alabama Regt., were shipped to Richmond, Va., and there interred in Hollywood Cemetery.” Weaver explained that John Oates’ remains could not be distinguished from the remains of 11 other Confederates buried at the Fiscel farms, so all 12 sets of remains were shipped together to Richmond in a box labeled with the letter A. Eight of the Confederates were unknown, Weaver said, but the remains of Lieutenant Barnett Cody—Bud Cody, Oates’ childhood friend—were also included in Box A.
Oates was elated. After all this time, after so many years of mourning for his brother, it appeared John Oates would be lost no more. In March 1909, Oates had Nye write to Bettie Ellyson, the recently installed president of the Ladies’ Memorial Association, which had been responsible for removing the Confederate dead from Gettysburg and was also helping maintain the graves in Hollywood Cemetery. Writing over Oates’ signature, Nye asked for the location in the cemetery of where Box A had been placed.
By July, Oates had heard nothing from Ellyson. He wrote once again to her, enclosing a copy of his earlier letter and begging her for a reply, explaining that he was “exceedingly anxious for the information asked for.” As the weeks passed, he repeatedly queried Nye to learn if he had received anything from Ellyson. Nye could only tell him that no word had arrived.
That summer was difficult for Oates. In a letter to his son Will he complained that he could scarcely see. It is possible that the former commander’s loss of eyesight was the result of diabetes, a disease that he may have suffered for 20 years or more without a diagnosis. By the end of September, his vision had worsened, although Will told his sweetheart—Georgia Whiting Saffold, whom he would marry in 1911—that he thought his father’s condition was only temporary. The senior Oates then turned over all his cases to his son, and Will began handling the lion’s share of the firm’s business.
Meanwhile Oates grew ever more frustrated in his search for his brother’s grave. With still no response from Bettie Ellyson, he wrote her again in January 1910, pleading for some indication of where his brother might be buried in Hollywood Cemetery. He also instructed Nye to ask John R. Hooper, the Hollywood superintendent, if he could help solicit a reply from Ellyson. That tactic apparently worked; Ellyson finally responded to Oates in mid-February, apologizing for having been away from home and admitting she was not completely familiar with all the records concerning the Confederate dead from Gettysburg. She advised him: “The box marked A is on Gettysburg Hill in Hollywood in [the] Soldiers’ part, near the Monument the Ladies from Philadelphia erected in memory of our soldiers who were buried up there [i.e., in Gettysburg].” She also said if Oates wished to visit the cemetery, she would be glad to meet him “and show you about where your brother is buried.”
Oates sent Ellyson a speedy reply, thanking her and asking for clarification about the location of his brother’s grave. He was hoping to narrow it down to a single headstone in the cemetery. A few days later, however, he received disappointing news: The Gettysburg dead were marked not by individual graves, but only by granite blocks designating huge sections of the plot.
It is a mystery why Oates simply did not get on a train and go to Richmond himself. Despite his eye problems, he could easily have managed it. Instead he sent Nye to the Hollywood Cemetery. Ellyson was out of town when Nye visited, but he managed to find the section where she had indicated that Box A had been reinterred. Nye later wrote to Ellyson: “While I was not able to report to General Oates the exact location of the grave of his brother, yet I could tell him of the excellent condition in which this section of the cemetery is maintained.”
By mid-July, when Oates finally learned that there was no hope of ever finding his brother’s individual gravesite, he was seriously ill. He improved enough that August to accompany his wife Sarah, affectionately known as “T,” and Will to Asheville, N.C., where his doctors anticipated that the cool mountain air might do him good. He was once again stricken, however, and by the end of August it was decided that Will would take his father back to Montgomery while Sarah stayed on in Asheville a bit longer. Oates told his son he wanted to die at home.
On September 1, riding in a special Pullman car that Will had arranged, the ailing general and his son made the slow journey back to Montgomery. There he was examined by Dr. J.B. Gaston, who had been in charge of Howard’s Grove Hospital in Richmond, where Oates had been sent after the amputation of his arm 46 years earlier. Little could be done, and Oates continued to fail.
He was put to bed in the blue parlor at the front of their house on North Ripley Street. Will stayed at his side and summoned his mother home. On September 7, Will thought his father could not possibly survive the night, but Oates held on for two more days. Half an hour past noon on September 9, 1910, he died in his bed.
Will Oates made all the funeral arrangements for his father’s funeral. Sarah was overcome with grief. When she slept, she dreamed of her husband. Editorials praised him as “one of Alabama’s stalwarts” and “one of the most distinguished citizens of the state,” recapitulating his brilliant career as a soldier and statesman—“The One-Armed Hero of Henry County.” A Montgomery newspaper reported: “General Oates made a strong battle for life, but his 74 years told against his once rugged constitution, and he passed quietly to the great beyond.”
Oates was laid in state in the front parlor where he had died, and hundreds came to pay their respects. Officials, politicians, military officers, Confederate veterans all visited. Several chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sent huge floral arrangements or wreaths of evergreens.
At 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 11, the funeral procession—consisting of four National Guard companies and the cortege—formed in front of the Oates house. Fifty carriages with family, friends and pallbearers made their way to St. John’s Episcopal Church. When the service ended, the solemn procession down Montgomery’s streets was begun again. An artillery company fired a salute every minute for half an hour.
United Confederate Veterans members performed their burial rites and placed a Confederate battle flag at the head of Oates’ casket. Then a bugler sounded taps. Once the veterans dispersed, a unit of infantry fired three volleys over the grave. Then in the distance a battery delivered final salvos at twilight, saluting the “One-armed Hero of Henry County” in his final resting place.
Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University, is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Oxford, 2008), among other books.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.