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Every life has its turning points. Crucial events or decisions determine the path one will ultimately follow and the detours one must take, for better or for worse. Some turning points can be successfully overcome or reversed. Others cannot be altered; they shape and define the rest of one’s life, transform one’s actions and responses and result in unanticipated consequences.

William C. Oates, like so many other field officers of the Civil War, knew nothing about military tactics or leading men into battle when he assumed command first of a company and later of the entire 15th Alabama Regiment. But he was a born fighter. Raised in the backwoods of Alabama’s wiregrass country, Oates learned from an early age that fighting was a means to survival. As a teenager, he fled his home state believing he had killed a man in a brawl; he then spent several years letting his violent streak get him into trouble in Louisiana and Texas. He avoided the law’s clutches, however, and returned to Alabama, where he straightened out his life, became a lawyer and published a newspaper in Abbeville. After the war broke out he organized a hometown militia company that shortly became organized into the 15th Alabama.

Oates saw action with the 15th in Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s army in the Shenandoah Valley and with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Peninsula campaign, at Second Manassas, at Fredericksburg, in the Suffolk campaign and on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. In the latter fight he commanded his fellow Alabamians in an unsuccessful attempt to take the hill from Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Infantry.

For Oates, an intrepid and fairly impetuous commander, Gettysburg was the great turning point of his life. Just as he believed the battle was the momentous turning point of the war, so too was it the most pivotal event in his experience. Something in him was missing after Gettysburg, a vital flame, an air of wild indifference, the special gleam in his dark eyes.

He had lost none of his nerve, however. To be sure, he was still—and would remain—a brave and fierce warrior. Pugnacious to a fault, he continued to show aggressiveness in his leadership of the 15th Alabama and his behavior on the battlefield. But his disillusionment with the Confederate cause after the defeats of the summer of 1863, and his own inability to pull out of the depression caused by the death of his younger brother John, a lieutenant in the 15th who had fallen mortally wounded on the slopes of Little Round Top, left him morose, argumentative and righteously indignant. Behind his annoyance at the world, however, there seemed no real passion. All in all, he appeared increasingly to others like a fire with heat but no light.

Depression often results in errors of perception and judgment, and in Oates’ case it seems to have affected his conduct on the battlefield in the months following Gettysburg. Whether or not his despondency was the sole cause of his poor command performance in the fall of 1863 cannot be determined, but the fact is that Oates did not function in combat as he had in the past—he continually made mistakes, both from the tactical perspective and from that of the welfare of his men. While it is true that every soldier has bad days, and officers would not be human without making some mistakes, Oates’ actions on the field in the aftermath of Gettysburg were surprisingly lackluster, muddled and inept.

His blunders are in evidence at Chickamauga in late September 1863. Earlier that month two of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s divisions—Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ and Maj. Gen. John B. Hood’s—had been transferred west from Virginia under Longstreet’s personal command to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee and halt the Union advance on Chattanooga, Tenn., of Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. Outflanked by the Federals before Longstreet could arrive, Bragg had withdrawn his army to northern Georgia, south of Chattanooga, where he concentrated his forces and made plans to hit separate columns of Rosecrans’ army piecemeal.

Without baggage, tents, artillery or ambulances, Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law’s Brigade—including Oates and his regiment—arrived in Atlanta on the morning of September 15, having endured an arduous rail journey south. After waiting more than a day for adequate rolling stock to carry them north to Bragg’s army, Longstreet’s reinforcements were transported to Ringgold, where they took to the dry roads to complete their rendezvous with Bragg. Meanwhile, having failed to defeat Rosecrans’ separate columns as he had planned, Bragg learned that the Union general was bringing his forces together again north of Chickamauga Creek. On September 18, Bragg ordered his army to secure the crossings at the creek, a dullish stream with an ominous name meaning, as some said, “River of Death” in Cherokee, located a little more than 10 miles south of Chattanooga.

The battle began on the morning of September 19, when Union infantry accidentally ran into Confederate cavalry at Jay’s Mill on the west side of the Chickamauga. As the fighting heated up, each side began throwing in more and more reinforcements. The thick woodlands and dense battle smoke turned the engagement into a blind fracas, with officers and enlisted men completely unaware of what lay in front of them.

At about 10 a.m., Oates and the 15th Alabama crossed the Chickamauga and went into battle line without breakfast, their rations having been depleted the day before. In the afternoon, when orders came up to advance, Law’s Brigade stood covering a gap in the line, with the former brigade of Brig. Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson (who had been promoted to division command) on the left of the 15th Alabama. Around 3 or 3:30 p.m., Colonel James L. Sheffield, in command of Law’s Brigade (Law was temporarily commanding Hood’s Division), led the Alabamians forward. The Confederates encountered brisk artillery fire and light musket fire as they stepped off for the assault. The Federals withdrew as Law’s Brigade moved ahead, but the Alabamians found it difficult to keep the brigade lines tightly joined. Without warning, the brigade was hit by a bristling enemy volley out of nowhere. In the resulting melee, Colonel William F. Perry’s 44th Alabama became detached from the rest of the brigade and advanced toward the source of the Federal musket fire. Perry could not keep up with the 44th, which eventually was repulsed by Union artillery fire, and General Law mistakenly came to believe that Perry had led the rush of his regiment to the rear.

In the meantime the rest of the brigade drove ahead, but an artillery shell exploded near Sheffield’s horse, which threw him to the ground. Badly injured and unable to resume command, Sheffield had no way of informing Oates that leadership of the brigade had fallen to him, since Perry, the only other officer in the brigade who ranked Oates, could not be located. Oates soon learned that he was in command when one of Law’s aides found him on the battlefield. He took over the brigade, led it through the tangled woods to the west, and came out of the trees to the south of the Brotherton house, where he halted the Alabamians in a field on the La Fayette Road. Oates could not see any Federals to the west, where he expected to, but rifle fire to his left, where Johnson’s old brigade (now under the command of Colonel John S. Fulton) was taking heavy fire from the enemy, warned him that the serious threat was on his flank, not in his front. Soon Fulton’s men retreated back across the road, and Oates immediately—but a little too impetuously, as it turned out—ordered his men to about face and pour enfilading fire down on the Federals.

Oates had failed to act quickly enough, however, and his shouted order attracted the attention of the rolling Federal line, which fired a deadly volley into the ranks of the Alabamians. Attempting to get his men out of this inferno, Oates withdrew the brigade to the road, but the blazing Federal volleys were too much for them, and they panicked. In the heat of the moment, he instructed his officers “to draw their pistols and shoot any man who crossed it [the road] without orders.” Luckily the men halted without being fired on by their own officers, and Oates restored order in the ranks, maneuvered the brigade into a new battle line and managed, despite all the chaos, to throw out skirmishers and effectively beat back the flanking Federals. Oates later led the brigade to the safety of the woods, where the Alabamians spent the night sleeping on their arms.

The men were hungry. After dark, Oates managed to get rations for his regiment from the quartermaster’s stores. “I was in as bad a condition in this respect as any of the men,” he explained, for none of them had eaten anything over the past 24 hours. “If anything will make a man hungry it is hard fighting.” Around midnight, Colonel Perry appeared, and Oates gratefully turned command of the brigade over to him. In the morning, said Oates, the men of the 15th Alabama “were as game as ever and ready for the fray.”

There was no doubt the battle would be continued on the new day, Sunday, September 20. When Law learned that Perry had assumed command of the Alabama brigade, he insisted that Oates should lead it, for he still believed that Perry had acted dishonorably during the previous day’s fight. Fully convinced that Law was in the wrong, Oates—ever the courtroom attorney—went to the general and argued Perry’s case. He persuaded Law to let Perry retain command that morning, but Law instructed Oates to keep on eye on Perry, adding, “and if he goes to flickering today, you assume command of the brigade at once.”

A blanket of cold fog covered the thick woods and brambled fields near the Chickamauga that morning. Oates and his Alabamians expected to attack sometime after dawn, but the morning hours dwindled away before they heard the echoes of rifle fire piercing through the mist from their right. Shortly after 11 a.m., Longstreet moved his divisions forward. As luck would have it, the Confederates struck a portion of the Union line where practically no Federal troops were in position. Rosecrans had mistakenly moved one of his divisions to plug a gap in his line that didn’t exist; in so doing, he had created a very real gap a quarter-mile wide.

Back toward the rear of the deep Confederate lines, Oates and the 15th Alabama waited for their turn to rush forward in the advance. Up ahead of them, the fighting was heavy and deadly. By the time Oates and his men crossed the La Fayette Road at the double-quick, so much dust had been raised by Longstreet’s attacking Confederates and so much battle smoke clung to the ground that Oates could not see the other regiments of the Alabama brigade to his right or anything of what lay ahead of them in the dark woods. “I soon discovered,” he wrote after the war, “that my regiment was not connected, right or left, with any other command.”

Off toward his left and front he could see some fighting going on, and, realizing that he and his regiment were now fully cut off from their brigade, he decided without orders to advance toward the “hard fight” in which he thought “the Federal troops seemed to be getting the better of it.” Enemy artillery fire caught the Alabamians full force as they advanced, and Oates was hit in the left hip by a huge piece of shrapnel that cut a hole in his coat as large as his hand and knocked him to the ground. His leg went numb, but he limped along with his men anyway and called out, “Don’t fire, Fifteenth, until you are ordered!” In reply, the men raised a shout. Wounded men fell from the ranks, and the remaining soldiers became impatient, readying their muskets to fire; seeing this, Oates warned them again to hold their fire.

No one will ever really know what happened next. Oates later maintained that members of his regiment did not open fire until they passed beyond the Confederate forces to their left and advanced to within 80 yards of the enemy. But Colonel Samuel K. McSpadden, commanding the 19th Alabama, later declared in his official report that Oates’ men opened fire on his troops from the rear. When McSpadden realized that the 15th Alabama was enfilading his lines, he “ordered my colors back to the edge of the open field, and waving them, discovered to the Fifteenth Alabama their error, upon which they came up by a left oblique march in fine order” and linked with McSpadden’s lines for the assault on the enemy’s guns.

Oates vehemently denied that his men had fired on friendly forces, stating that McSpadden’s regiment was actually prone in the grass on the hillside, trying to take cover from the Federal fire, when the 15th Alabama approached from the rear. Just about anything, of course, was possible in the dust and smoke that covered the field. Having been left behind by his regiment, Oates could hardly tell what his front line was doing as he limped along trying to catch up to his men. It is possible that some of the 15th Alabama’s front ranks let off a few shots before Oates could order them to hold their fire. For his part, Oates seems to have been completely unaware of the incident until he learned that the 15th had been accused of friendly fire in McSpadden’s battle report.

As the 15th moved up, the entire Confederate line rushed forward and drove the Federals from their position up the slope of what later became known as Lytle Hill, named for Union Brig. Gen. William H. Lytle, who fell mortally wounded as his command abandoned the hill to the wave of Alabamians who swept over it. With his hip aching, Oates found it difficult to keep up with his regiment, which had succeeded in capturing a Federal gun and turning it on the retreating enemy, so he tried to mount a horse standing near General Lytle, who was dying. Seeing that the horse was badly wounded, Oates left it behind, but he went to the Union general and dragged him out of the blazing sun and into some shade.

Oates hopped along trying to catch up with his regiment, which had been carried along with the Confederate tide of Longstreet’s legions as they crumbled the Union right and drove the fleeing Federals toward Snodgrass Hill, to the northwest. He finally found his men on a hillside, resting and “panting like dogs tired out in the chase.” Despite his bruised hip, he ordered the men to fall in and led them back to where they had started their assault. He then spied Johnson, who had been separated from his division but who ordered Oates and the 15th to march northward through a field where there had been hard fighting that morning.

Eventually the Alabamians came upon Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade halfway up the slope of Snodgrass Hill, and Oates led them into position to fill a gap between the 7th and 3rd South Carolina regiments. In doing so, he neglected to inform Kershaw of his actions, and he compounded the problem when he noticed three Federal regiments advancing toward Kershaw’s line. Oates immediately found the commander of the 3rd South Carolina and asked him to move his troops forward to connect with Oates’ left flank. When the South Carolinian refused to do so, Oates ordered him to redeploy his regiment, but the stalwart colonel refused to obey any order from an unknown Alabama officer. “I bestowed upon him a few encomiums,” Oates recalled years later, “and returned to my regiment and extended my line by placing the men in one rank.”

Realizing that his flanks were exposed, however, Oates went to the 7th South Carolina, found a captain in command, and ordered him to move the line up a ridge to Oates’ right, which the captain refused to do without Kershaw’s approval. Frustrated and angry, Oates mounted a log and, speaking directly to the South Carolinians in the ranks, “made an appeal to the State pride of the regiment, and asked the men not to go where I directed merely, but to follow me.” A solitary captain stepped forward and said: “Colonel, I will follow you with my company.” With that, the entire 7th South Carolina moved with the 15th Alabama to the advance, but as soon as the enemy opened fire, the South Carolinians “fled ingloriously,” or so Oates claimed. Nevertheless, the captain who had volunteered his company stayed on through the fight.

Laying down a devastating enfilade volley, the Federals succeeded in turning Oates’ flank. The Alabamians could no longer take the pounding and broke ranks for the rear. Oates ran among the panic-stricken men, yelling: “Halt, halt, men! About face and return to your position! Is there no officer who will set the example?” A lieutenant from Company I sprang forward, and the men began to rally. The Alabamians attacked the hill once more, and this time they surprised the Federals and raked them with rolling volleys. Overwhelmed by this counterattack, the Union troops fell back, crumbled and ran in confusion. With his ammunition running low, Oates kept his regiment in a ravine, which afforded protection from the Federal fire that poured down on them from farther up the slope of Snodgrass Hill. He held that position for some time, stretching out his ranks into a single line once again so his flank would not be unprotected.

As the Alabamians exchanged sporadic musket fire with the Federals on Snodgrass Hill, Oates walked up and down his line trying to keep spirits up and strengthen his defenses. He passed by 16-year-old Tom Wright, a cross-eyed youngster whose face was black with grime and powder. The boy was firing steadily and taking aim with each shot. Oates slapped him on the shoulder and said: “Give it to them, Tommie, my boy; I will remember you.” Wright looked up, smiled and replied: “All right, Colonel.” Oates continued down the line, and when he returned less than two minutes later Wright lay dead on the ground, a bullet in his head. “I could not repress my tears,” Oates remembered, “and in the heat of battle I shed a few in passing as a tribute to the sublime courage of that child.” No doubt the sight of the dead boy brought back all the pain and sorrow of his brother John’s death. “I have never felt ashamed of those tears,” Oates admitted. He believed that it was not “unmanly to shed tears of commiseration or sympathy for worthy objects.” Justified or not, Oates’ tears revealed how raw and tender his emotions were in the months following Gettysburg. As the bullets whistled around him, and as men fought and died on Snodgrass Hill, Oates wept for the loss of a boy just a few years younger than his own lost brother.

By late afternoon, Oates and his men were practically out of ammunition, and he breathed a sigh of relief when Law’s adjutant, Leigh Terrell, rode up and ordered the 15th Alabama to rejoin Law’s Brigade in the woods next to Dyer field. Just as Oates brought his men up, Law’s Brigade moved forward in an assault on the Federal line, but it quickly became obvious that there was no enemy to attack—the Union troops had withdrawn.

The Battle of Chickamauga was over, but the miseries it caused were not. Wads of burning paper from discharged musket cartridges set the grass and woods on fire, and when the flames spread over the battlefield Oates could hear the harrowing screams of the wounded as the fire enveloped them where they lay. Oates sent out some litter bearers to help the desperate men, who were mostly Union soldiers, but the detail soon became a target for Federal sniper fire, and Oates ordered his men back into line. It was time to assess the day’s damage, and Oates saw that the regiment had lost heavily at Chickamauga: 11 killed and 121 wounded, out of approximately 450 men who went into action.

That night, recalled Oates, “I never felt happier.” Had he reflected on the numerous mistakes he had made during the battle, he might not have felt so jubilant. In camp he visited each of the companies in the regiment, praising the men for their courage and their part in helping win the day. There was plenty to be thankful for, he believed. “We had gone through another great battle and the lives of many of us were spared, and we were victorious,” he said.

The next morning, Oates and his men expected to be ordered forward in yet another attack on the enemy lines, but such an order never came. Bragg decided not to push his luck any farther than he had already, and he kept his army where it was rather than throw it into a pursuit of the defeated Union forces. Oates was shocked. “The victory at Chickamauga,” he wrote after the war, “was rendered barren by the inaction and lack of enterprise of the commanding general.” The 15th Alabama went into camp about a mile or two from Snodgrass Hill.

Although he was pleased with himself for his conduct at Chickamauga, Oates found out later that others did not hold his actions in such high regard. For one thing, he had earned McFadden’s enmity for allegedly firing into the rear of the 19th Alabama. For another, Kershaw was furious with Oates for having led an assault without authorization. In his official report, written after the battle, Kershaw icily denounced Oates for having pushed his way into the affairs of the South Carolina regiments and for taking it upon himself to direct an attack on the enemy’s works. On the battlefield, Oates was becoming too impetuous, too unpredictable, too imprudent. In his youth he always fought best alone, one-on-one in a match with his opponent. As his emotional stamina seeped away in the months following Gettysburg, he reverted to his instincts as a brawler, fighting his own fight on the battlefield in his own way, rather than as a military officer cognizant of his responsibility for the lives of the men who must follow him into battle. It was Oates’ greatest deficiency as a commander, and it was one he would never quite overcome while he remained a field officer in the months to come.

With the fighting over, the Army of Tennessee possessed the battlefield while Rosecrans and his battered brigades took refuge in Chattanooga. Over the next few days, Longstreet moved his wing of the Confederate army closer to Chattanooga and took up a position along the siege line south of the city. Oates and his men occupied the line with the rest of Law’s Brigade between Chattanooga Creek and Lookout Mountain. Apart from fighting a heated skirmish over the possession of a corn field and its harvest, the 15th Alabama spent a relatively quiet time on the picket lines, trying to stave off the boredom that comes with excessive inactivity.

The investment of Chattanooga kept Oates busy, but his writing suggests that in his darker moments his thoughts turned to his brother John and the cruel fate the young man had met at Gettysburg. But Oates’ contemplative moments were not only filled with the past. He also gave some serious consideration to his own professional future, both in and out of the Army, and he took steps to put himself in the best possible situation. He was particularly concerned that his rival, Major Alexander Lowther, now back with the regiment, was attempting to displace him as colonel of the 15th Alabama by claiming seniority despite Lowther’s frequent absences from active service. In late September, Oates persuaded Law to submit a statement on his behalf to the War Department that dismissed Lowther’s claims and endorsed Oates’ commission as colonel and commander of the 15th Alabama. Law’s affidavit seems to have received little notice in Richmond, and Lowther’s efforts to assume command of the regiment remained a threat for Oates.

Attempting at the same time to have something to fall back on should Lowther succeed in taking over the 15th, Oates wrote to influential friends in Alabama and declared himself a candidate for solicitor of the Eighth Circuit Court, a position that would require his election by the state Legislature. The solicitor’s job, he explained in a letter to a fellow attorney back home, would involve little work while the war lasted, so if elected he could hire someone to do the work while he remained in the army, fulfilling what he considered to be “the most paramount duties a freeman owes to his native land.” After the war ended, he said, he would then have “a fine position—an office in the line of my profession, well suited to my tastes and which I feel that I could fill with credit to myself and my native State.” Nothing came of this effort.

Oates did receive an official certificate, signed by Secretary of War James A. Seddon and dated October 8, 1863, documenting his promotion to colonel and verifying that President Jefferson Davis had made the appointment. The Confederate Congress, however, had still failed to confirm his commission, and without that official confirmation Oates technically remained a captain on the books (although some rosters listed him incorrectly as a major). He seemed unable to get the confirmation from the Confederate legislature, and the lack of action by Congress both puzzled and frustrated him.

Given his experience leading the 15th in the heat of battle, caring for the men and efficiently carrying out the regiment’s administrative affairs, Oates felt he more than deserved promotion and command of the regiment. He was, however, uncritical of his own performance in combat, and he failed to see why anyone wouldn’t want to promote him or serve under him in the ranks.

Oddly enough, the fact that Oates was well liked by Generals Law and Hood, and known even to Longstreet as a capable officer, did not improve his standing or push his case along through the dim hallways of the Virginia State Capitol, where the Confederate Congress held its sessions. No one took up his cause, including James L. Pugh, one of his former law mentors from Eufaula.

It is possible that Oates’ own ambition got in his way, tripping him up and keeping him from receiving what he most wanted—recognition, acclaim and rewards. While Lowther, who had managed to miss most of the battles fought by the 15th Alabama, made progress in his campaign for advancement, Oates wondered why his own battlefield accomplishments had not won him more renown.

In the Army of Northern Virginia, William C. Oates was a trusted field officer. In Richmond, he was a forgotten soul.


Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and the director of the Center for the Civil War in the West at Western Kentucky University. This article is adapted from his latest book, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Cause of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.