Col. William C. Oates
of the
15th Alabama

Message left on "Oates' Rock"

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Last updated 2/7/97


As well as being a "gallant man", Oates was also a fugitive from the law, escaping to Florida, having fractured a man's skull in a fight in Alabama in 1850. He remained in Florida for a number of years. He became a housepainter's assistant and a crewman on a schooner. In Louisiana, he had another warrant issued for him due to choking and hitting (eight or nine times) his employer in the face with his fists. Moving on to Marshall, Texas Oates became a gambler (as well as a house painter). In a fight in Texas over insulting remarks, Oates nearly gouged out the eyes of his opponent and got himself another warrant. This time he moved on to Waco. While in Waco he became a shingle cutter and later a witness to a murder. Not wanting to be questioned by the law, Oates made ready to slip out of Waco but got involved in another altercation first. Deciding not to meet his opponent in a gunfight, Oates slipped out of

Moving to Bastrop, he won a bunch of money from his fellow workers and decided to move again. Landing in Port Lavaca he fell in love but moved on again to Henderson, Texas (right up the road BTW). While in Henderson, he met his brother and they went back to Alabama. En route, he got involved in another card game resulting in a fight were he tried to gouge the eyes out of his opponent (again).

In Alabama, he still had the original warrant open for his arrest so he couldn't go back to his home county. He moved nearby and became a school teacher. Later he read law in Eufaula (really going down hill here :) Hi Eric) and passed the bar soon afterward. Now a lawyer, he also became a newspaperman man. He joined the Confederate Army and went to Little Round Top (we're picking up the pace now). At Chickamauga, he was accused of having his regiment fire a volley into the 19th Alabama (by mistake of course and I'm not going to call it friendly fire cause I just HATE that term). He denied it but it stuck with him. He got caught up in a political injustice whereas he lost command of the 15th Alabama and found that his appointment to Colonel had never been confirmed. After the war, he went back to Alabama, practiced law and was elected to Congress (now he's really really going down hill). He was elected as Governor of Alabama, unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate and received a political appointment as Brig. General by President William (go getum some coffee at Antiteum) McKinley (Hi Ben). Brian, I may be wrong but to my knowledge, he spent the Spanish American War at Camp Meade, Pennsylvania commanding training brigades.

Anyway, thought the group would like to hear a little more on Oates. Certainly an interesting character!



....well I will choose to focus on the gallantry rather than the peccadillos -- many a rake became a hero when confronted by the stern necessities of War -- Napoleon's Army was full of them -- but their gallantry was nonetheless valid.

Brian Pohanka

From: (Alexander Cameron)

Hi Brian,

Interesting approach. I like to "focus" on the whole issue, I think it is important to do so. I'm not sure I would characterize almost killing several people as "peccadillos" but regardless it seems to me that the more you know about these characters, the better you can interpret what they have written. That's what this string was about BTW. We were talking about what Oates wrote. Seems to me the more you know about the man the better off you are. I didn't need to talk about the gallantry, you already did that. I just thought it would be nice to add a little balance. I think if you are going to mention his gallantry and his Spanish American War service in the same sentence, it would be alright if I mentioned that the service was sitting in a small camp in Pennsylvania. I think that makes a difference. I can't imagine that when it comes to information, that more is not better.

Having said that, I question someone who writes that he gave an order to retreat but "did not undertake to retire in order". I also wonder when he wrote that the retreat was on a signal and the men were advised ahead of time to "run in the direction from whence we came". It is also interesting that he does not mention the charge of the 20th Maine at all in this paragraph (I'm using the S.H.S.P. version but I have the book version also). What he does mention is that "long blue lines of Federal infantry were coming down on my right..." and "Federal reinforcements had completely enveloped my right". I think there is a good chance that when the 20th Maine charged led by Chamberlain or Melcher or whoever, the command to retreat was given and they took off. Retiring in "good order" was important in Civil War tactics for a number of reasons. It did not create panic in the contiguous units and it save soldiers' lives. Having not attempted that suggests to me that the retreat was spontaneous and not premeditated. Now all of that may be absolutely wrong but at least I have presented a case (same case as in my original post to Terry). You've just made a declaration that Oates was a "gallant man who served both the CSA and later the US in the Spanish American War. He was also quite honest in his telling of events."



Your honest view of Oates, warts and all, is certainly part of the story, and I tend to agree that in his prewar predeliction for embroglios of various kinds is a part of his character, that is important to an understanding of the fight for LRT. But I also appreciate his bravery as a soldier, and his postwar efforts to sort out the confusion and misconceptions of that battle of July 2. It is a shame that the monument he proposed was never erected.




Many thanks for adding some balance to the subject of Oates. Too often the media, Hollywood and well meaning authors tend to gloss over the shady pasts of some of our CW 'heroes'. We need a touch of reality every now and then to put things in their proper perspective. As Eric stated, "Dan Sickles was no choirboy" either. All wars and battles, even our beloved Gettysburg, had its share of the "Dirty Dozen" .

Eileen Murphy

From: (Scott Hartwig)

This may be a better topic for Sallie Jesse or Oprah but a lot of the less pleasant side of William Oates may very likely be rooted in his difficult childhood. Evidence suggests (but does not confirm) that Oates and his brother John were raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and while I am not raising the Menendez defense here, or trying to justify his actions, I think our modern consciousness of these issues may help us to better understand the man and his highly interesting, if not tumultuous life.

Perhaps the best study of Oates will find its way to print in the reasonably near future when group member Glenn LaFantasie completes his study. One would be hard-pressed to find someone with greater knowledge of the Oates family (past and present) so here's hoping Glenn finds time to press on with his work (sorry Glenn).

As to the moment of decision at the spur and whether he ordered a

retreat, I offer a few kernels...

In light of circumstances such as these, I doubt anyone heard a coherent command and if they had it would have been impossible to follow in any sort of orderly fashion. Finding fault for the "wild cattle" retreat seems very very hard. I reckon I would have put my heels to running myself.

your obdt. servant, &c &c,

Tom Desjardin

From: (Alexander Cameron)

Hi Tom,

Thanks much for the insight on Oates. Also, I apologize for failing to mention yesterday that the source for most of what I wrote about Oates was Glenn's work. He shouldn't be blamed for my hurried and sloppy rendition but he is the source of the information.

As to finding fault with the "wild cattle" retreat, my point in all of this has not changed one bit. The point is that I think Oates has put a positive "spin" on the retreat when he wrote about it. I really believe he did. Doesn't mean that it is the end of the world but I've presented an argument that the Oates' version was protective of Oates. I did it because Terry was upset because folks are quoting only part of the sentence and not mentioning the signal to retreat or the fact that they ran through the "dismounted calvary". Got to remember the original point when we go on and on with one of these subjects. I also wrote that almost every time a battery commander lost his guns or a regimental commander had his regiment run, they explained it away in their report or post-war writings. Now I know that it is an oversimplification but it is basically true.

Here is my interpretation of what Oates is trying to get us to believe. Captains Hill and Park came to him and suggested that he order a retreat. He replied "return to your companies; we will sell out as dearly as possible". Then Oates tells us that he did order a retreat but "did not undertake to retire in order". He then gives us the impression that he passed the word ("advised") that at the signal, the men should run back in the direction they came from. In my words, he order the "wild cattle" retreat and executed it on a signal. I don't believe it. My point on "retiring in order" is that if he was going to order a retreat and execute it on order, I think he would have attempted to retire in order. I know that he was tired, that he had made incorrect intelligence assumptions based in some cases on bad information, and that he fainted shortly thereafter. We are all reading from the same accounts. I just don't believe that he ordered a "every man for himself" retreat and gave a signal to execute it. Like you, I'm not sure that they could have heard a signal. I think the "wild cattle" retreat was spontaneous. I think that Terry was upset because folks are quoting the "ran like wild cattle" without mentioned that it was premeditated and executed on signal. While I agree that we ought to be quoting the whole sentence, I don't believe that it happened quite the way Oates is telling us.

I believe that he was a gallant officer, I also believe that he had a difficult childhood but I still believe that he put a positive "spin" on his story. Again, not the end of the world.

Having said all of that, I just can't wait until our discussion of your book. I've heard so much positive stuff about it. Does Morningside have it? I tried to call the other number the other day and couldn't get through. I'm going to order it Monday.


From: John Kelly

Excellent posting, Tom!! One other thing which should be noted and that was that Oates was also growing up and living in a very tough era. Frontier Texas, where he caused a certain amount of damage durinbg his residence, was not a wild country in the 1830-1850 time span and beyond. Fighting usually ended with one or both of the antagonists unable to press charges because of a serious case of death. Lesser spats were settled by "rough-and-tumble" which could be fatal, but usually ended with eye-gouging, biting, and other unpleasantries. So, I find his escapades not so terrible, considering the environment and mores of the time.

Jack Kelly

From: "John A. Leo"

I encountered Oates book about 5 years ago at the Library of Congress. I enjoyed it but I never bought my own copy. The recent references to the misidentification of the one or two dozen 2nd USSS raised an interesting issue in my mind. And now of course I'm stuck without the book.

Why did Oates explicitly identify his opponents to his right flank as cavalrymen? Obviously no horses were to be seen. Is it possible or likely that Oates could tell that the rifles targeting him were rapid fire breachloaders (52 cal sharps for most of the sharpshooters, telescopic target rifles for one company in each of the two regiments) that kept up a fast rate of fire that could be misinterpreted as triple the number of men flanking him? I'm sure (I think) Oates knew that Federal cavalry had breechloaders.

Also the uniforms of the Sharpshooters were quite different from the rest of the infantry that Oates was encountering.Captain Stevens, the historian of the USSS, describes the uniforms as" a dark green coat, light blue trowsers (later green ones), and leather leggins". Did this uniform sugggest to Oates that the Sharpshooters were obviously not dressed as Federal infantry, and therefore must necessarily be calvary?

What other reasons might explain why this experienced leader have misinterpreted the nature and numbers of the flanking force on his right?

AND more generally,

A common thread through many of the postings for the last few days especially calls into question the accuracy of memories of the recollectors, even, for example, to the point of questioning the sanity of those involved and responsible for the "Countermarch". I just wonder if simple, possibly even trivial reasons to us with our more complete knowledge of what was happening at the time can explain why seeminingly unexplainable behaviour made perfect sense at the time.

Does any of this make sense, and if so, is this example a plauable explanation or just an excuse?

Do we assume that the actors we are examining minutely had information (or biases) that we don't have now (or that we now know to be incorrect - say for example Longstreet's flanking sweep to the right where WE know few Federal troops were located)? Or do we explain away actions that we don't understand as the natural behaviour of idiots blindly following inept West Point tactics?

Thanks for giving this some thought. Replies are very welcome. I really think that some of these "unspoken assumptions" cause some of us to talk past one another on some issues. WHAT DO YOU THINK?

From: (Alexander Cameron)

Hi john,

Darn good question! I think that Oates' "cavalrymen" were mostly from Company B, 20th Maine but there were some sharpshooters with them. My memory tells me about 12 but I haven't looked it up. As to why he thought they were cavalrymen, I imagine Tom has a good answer but it's late so I'll engage in a little guessing. You already made a case for the weapons and different uniforms. I would add that Oates encountered the sharpshooters on the way in near BRT. He may have know that there was cavalry screening between Emmitsburg Road and the Round Tops during the morning. Because he encountered them in that area he may have mistaked them for screening cavalry at that time. When he saw them again, he continued to assume that they were cavalry. Usually I try to have something to support my post but this is just a wild %#@* guess.


From: Tom Desjardin

Saving the details for the discussion, Oates once claimed he questioned the cavalrymen and that's how he discovered what branch they were. The three men he describes (their circumstances, that is) seem to indicate that they were the three captives lost from Company B. It would hardly be the first time captives lied.

Tom Desjardin GNMP


Dear Mr. Leo,

I do not believe that Col. Oates elaborated on the "cavalrymen" that were taken prisoner during the retreat of the 15th AL Reg. from Little Round Top. He does not do so in his 1878 article 'Gettysburg- The Battle on the Right' (Southern Historical Society Papers) or in his 1905 book. I have thought for some time now , like you, that he must have been describing some 2nd US Sharpshooters. They were there in the path of the retreat. Tom Desjardin's book list three 20th Maine soldiers that were captured but I don't think Oates was making reference to them.

Terry Jackson

From: "Glenn W. LaFantasie" Hello everyone:

Thanks for the plug, Tom. I do hope to finish my work on Oates at Little Round Top in the near future, perhaps by the end of the year, and then I am planning to do a full-blown biography of Oates. Fact is, though, that Oates is a pretty well-known fellow now, which was not the case just a few years ago. Many things have helped him to gain visibility and popularity, including the movie (though he's not mentioned), Ken Burns's documentary, all the recent hype about Chamberlain, and--Tom--your good research and writing as well as your presence at GNMP in recent months. It's getting much harder to say anything original about Oates.

William Oates was not only a colorful character with a shady--and very violent--past; he was also a very complicated fellow who struggled, in his later years when he wrote several different accounts of Gettysburg, with the notion of truth and with his sometimes conflicting memories of his own experiences. He was forthright and honest to a fault. But he was also proud and boastful. When he wrote that his men ran like a herd of wild cattle, I believe he meant precisely what he said. I don't think there's much room to interpret his words out of context. But he also wanted to let the world know that he had given an order to withdraw just moments before the 20th Maine swept down on his men. Like Tom and Brian, what I find so appealing about Oates is his honesty, and his ability to describe combat in credible terms. It does not do a disservice to the 15th Alabama to say that they ran like a herd of wild cattle. Oates knew his men were brave; but he also knew they had been driven from the slope of that hill by a great, overwhelming force. HIs reference to captured cavalrymen, which is clearly a mistake, has never really bothered me very much. Oates said often that it was impossible to remember the details of any battle perfectly, and in that admission he was articulating an understanding of what we today understand as "the fog of war."

What I find most intriguing about Oates is that for all his accomplishments, mentioned by several posters, he could never leave Gettysburg behind. Oates's significance, in fact, probably has less to do with whether or not he was hero on that battlefield (he, most certainly, would admit he was not), or even whether or not he was able to turn the Union left flank on the second of July 1863, than it does with a point that Amy Kinsel--in a posting that Dennis forwarded to GDG from the H-CivWar listserv-- raises about the symbolic importance of the Gettysburg battlefield. Oates wanted to erect a monument to the 15th Alabama on the slopes of Little Round Top because he wanted his men--and his dead brother John--to be remembered for what they had done there. Oates's struggle over the confused and conflicting details of the battle--orders to retreat and the charge of the 20th Maine; captured cavalrymen and regiments closing up on his rear, ledges conquered and boulders mounted--all of these details were important if posterity was to understand the importance of what had taken place on Little Round Top. More to the point, Oates wrestled with trying to figure out what Gettysburg and the Civil War meant for him personally. He never much liked the answers he reached repeatedly--that it was a lost opportunity, that he and his men might have done more to take that hill, that one of his greatest losses took place there (the death of his beloved brother), that history, as he points out so poignantly, sometimes turns on small events. Since that bloody afternoon, Oates could not stop turning Gettysburg over and over again in his mind, almost as if he thought that the outcome might be different if he could just grasp--once and for all--what it all really meant. He never could, just as today we all try desperately--this group more than most people--to understand what Gettysburg meant to those who fought it and what it really means to us today.



> Glenn,

Thanks for responding to my post regarding Oates' efforts to monument Little Round Top and the Confederate graves in federal prison cemeteries. Oates' photograph does appear on the trail marker as you say but there is scant or no mention I believe regarding his post war career. Most of that marker's text is devoted to Col. Chamberlain. He deserves it but all history is worth telling; I just wish there could be more balance in it. It's unfortunate for all of us that Gettysburg was not monumented like the Chickamauga, Georgia National Battlefield Park.

Have you visited Oates grave in Montgomery? I visited the cemetery last year but it became dark before I could locate his plot.

Respectfully yours,

Terry Jackson

From: "Glenn W. LaFantasie"

Terry and others:

Yes, I have visited Oates's grave in Montgomery. It is located in the Oakwood Cemetery on the edge of the city, where Hank Williams Sr. is also buried. Oates's grave is marked by a life-sized statue of him as he looked in the 1890s (i.e., during his term as govermor of Alabama), replete with a pinned sleeve where his right arm should be. Oates was a huge man, 6'2" tall, and his statue correctly portrays him as rather barrel-chested. Other members of the Oates family are buried in the same plot, including his very comely wife, Sarah Toney Oates, who was affectionately called "T" by Oates and her family, including her granddaughter, who is in her mid-seventies and lives in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, Oates designed his grave marker himself. He wrote a long inscription for it, which I don't have right at hand, but it delineates all of his achievements--Confederate "colonel" (actually never confirmed by the Confederate Congress), seven-term U.S. Congressman, one-term governor of Alabama, Brig. General, U.S. Army.

BTW, one of Oates's ceremonial swords from his days as Brig. Gen., and inscribed as such, was recently stolen from a family member in Montgomery. If any of you are collectors and come across this item, please be aware that it was purloined; I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who has news of the sword or any Civil War books inscribed by Oates (stolen during the sametheft) that suddenly appear on the market.



From: pauline s gidjunis

I have used a lot of restraint staying out of the Chamberlain discussion; as my bias towards him (favorable to put it mildly)is well know in some circles (yes Steve, I think you are right, there seems to be quite a few compuserve forum people here)!

Either talking about Chamberlain or Oates, or whomever - these were just men; not saints, not demons, just ordinary men who were put in extraordinary situations, and rose to the occasion!

Why is it that we want them to be totally perfect, and if we find a flaw, we then insist that none of what they did was heroic?? I think in the majority of cases, we don't have a black or white issue - it is an issue with many shades of gray(or blue, whatever the case might be )!

Yes we need to analyze and yes we probably want to know everthing exactly as it happened. But I think it's more important to know that these men did not shirk their duty and did the best they could, under the circumstances. To analyze what they did is one thing, but to fault them because it doesn't agree with our thinking,is somewhat unfair. Considering we have a better concept of the "big picture" than they probably did.

Paula Gidjunis

From: "Glenn W. LaFantasie"

At 00:38 3/5/96 -0500, you wrote:

>Mr. Glenn W. LaFantasie,

> >Regarding William Oates effort to place a memorial marker to his slain brother >and comrades on Little Round Top, it might be interesting to note that he was >simultaneously engaged in a larger commemorative effort. He had been appointed >as the Commissioner to carry out the provisions of the Foraker Act which was >passed by the US Congress in 1906. It provided for the placement of marble >markers on the Confederate graves at federal prison sites in the North. This is >mentioned in the Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol 38, p295.

> > >Respectfully yours,

> >Terry Jackson

> > Terry:

Thanks very much for the reference. Tom Desjardin is kind to call me "the" expert on Oates, but it's clear you know a good deal about him yourself, and I've been pleased to learn a few new things about him that have come out of the recent postings.

On another matter, I may be wrong, and maybe Tom can clarify, but I thought Oates WAS mentioned on the interpretive marker along the trail from Sykes Avenue to the 20th Maine monument. I seem to recall that his picture is used on the marker. I confess that I haven't bothered to stop and read the thing in years (I tend to head straight for Oates's Rock), so maybe my memory is fuzzy. Of course, this wouldn't take the place of a monument to the 15th Alabama itself, but it would at least place him on the modern hill. If Oates is NOT mentioned, then I think the Park Service should make sure that Tom is employed full-time and stationed on LRT year round so everyone who visits the hill can be sure to hear a reliable version of the Oates story in situ.

Glenn says:

Glenn and others in GDG,

Inspired by your recent description W.C. Oates tomb. I successfully located it last weekend in the Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery, AL. It was indeed rather impressive and it was framed by a rather imposing view of the Confederate section on the adjacent hillside. I copied the inscriptions on the tomb as well as that from a recently placed historical marker that may not have been there when you last visited. The inscriptions, caps and all, were:

The tomb s front inscription reads:



AND IN 1898-9, HE WAS

An inscription on the back of the tomb reads:


A historical marker recently erected within the Oates burial plot contains the following information:




I never could locate Hank William's grave but I did stumble upon the burial plot of Brigadier General Birkett Davenport Fry (1822- 1891) Anybody remember him from Gettysburg? BTW the battle flag of the 13th Alabama (minus it's impaling flagstaff) is currently on display at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Terry Jackson (Brian Bennett) says:

Jack Kelly wrote:

>I believe that the 20th ME and other LRT defenders actually built most of >their stone barricades during the night of the 2nd, after the fight. The >fight itself was pretty much a stand-up affair. Can someone verify my >recollection?

The 140th NY certainly did not have time to construct any breastworks before engaging the enemy, as they were almost immediately put into combat once atop the hill. They reinforced the 16th Michigan down on the shelf on which the current marker sits, but after repulsing the Confederates were drawn up in a line higher up on the slope, probably very close to where the current day flank markers for the 140th sit, as no member of the regiment talked of any further line adjustments or movements.

Porter Farley does, however, suggest that the men took advantage of whatever cover they could, as did the men of the 20th Maine, if I recall correctly. Farley wrote: "Coming abreast of Vincent's brigade, and taking advantage of such shelter as the huge rocks lying about there afforded, the men loaded and fired, and in less time than it takes to write it the onslaught of the rebels was fairly checked, and in a few minutes the woods in front of us were cleared except for the dead and the wounded."

The rock walls built by members of the 140th (identified as such in one of the photos in Frassanito's "Gettysburg: A Journey in Time,") were built later during the evening of July 2, after the fighting had ended, as Jonas Esely, a member of Co. G, would write in 1911, when he penned his "Recollections and Reminiscences of Camp and Field During the War from 1861 to 1865." (unpublished, 64-page hand-written manuscript):

"We had to build some kind of breastworks for our protection the next day, there were plenty of stones there, both large and small, and as I had some experience in building walls or fence, the men brought me the stone and I built the breastworks which stand this day on the side of Little Round Top. We had loop holes in the wall to fire through, and by daylight when the enemy began to fire it was high enough to afford us fair protection."
(Spelling and punctuation corrected for clarity)

Farley also notes that the walls afforded them protection from Confederate sharpshooters during the evening of July 2 and the morning of July 3:

"but after the fight [of July 2] was over and we had secured pretty good shelter behind the rocks on the western slope their cannoniers [Hazlett's Battery] were much exposed and many fell by the bullets of the sharpshooters, who seemed swarming in the tree-tops and behind the rocks over in the direction of the peach orchard."
Brian Bennett (Glenn LaFantasie) says:


The accounts, in my estimation, are inconclusive about the 15th being directly engaged with the 83rd Pa. and the 44th N.Y. Under the circumstances that prevailed that day, it seems very unlikely, although I don't doubt that Oates BELIEVED he was tackling more than his share in Federal forces.

The key to understanding the fight on that south slope of LRT is to conceive of it as a melee rather than a straightforward encounter of any kind. The terrain ensured the fact that lines on both sides would be disrupted, but the fury of the fighting also defined the kind of combat that took place. Rather than being able to maintain cohesive lines (and this includes the 20th Maine as well), both sides broke up into clumps and pockets of troops, some of whom moved forward and backward at different times. From where Oates was, way over beneath (and later on top of) the ledge along the 20th Maine's left wing, he could not have known exactly what was going on over on his own left wing (that area that lay roughly between the modern parking lot at the foot of LRT and the intersection of Wright and Sykes Avenues in Vincent's Saddle. It's possible that survivors of the fight over on his left told him about breaks in the action, surges that left the flanks of the 83rd (and even the 44th) exposed to the 15th's fire up the hill, and it's even possible that Oates saw some of this for himself, for he seems to have been at different places at different times (and he did, after all, have a moment or two standing on the top of Oates's Rock).

More likely, everything that Oates wrote about LRT was not based on his seeing things for himself; he also assumed, like most Civil War soldiers--officers and enlisted men alike--that he was fighting more men than he had in his own ranks (including the 7 companies of the 47th Alabama). Tom Desjardin gives an excellent account of numbers in his appendix to Stand Firm. I think the fight on LRT was a jumble, but Oates seems to have magnified the intensity of the odds by claiming that Alabama was wrestling with Maine, Pennsylvania, and New York all at once. The Alabamians did enough to face off with the Mainers. That's bravery enough in my estimation. At the same time, I don't think Oates was purposefully exaggerating things in his account. He truly believed that his men encountered all those regiments (or portions of those regiments) on LRT, just as he believed, erroneously, that his men captured some Federal cavalry troopers when his regiment retreated from LRT. I don't think he was lying or making it up. It's what he remembered, that's all, and it turns out to have been wrong. His faulty memory was as foggy, in fact, as Chamberlain's. Oates, I think, said it best in a letter to Chamberlain written in April 1905: "No one man can see all that occurs in a fight[,] even between two regiments."

Hope this helps.


> > (Ned & Diane Smith) says:

> > Hi Terry!

> I really do appreciate the information you have posted on the old > squabble over the Oates monument. It really is an interesting tangle & yet > another fascinating example of how perceptions & memories of a battle can > differ. > Sincere gratitude to Tom & Glenn & all who have tackled the many varying > reports & observations, studied the ground, & made sense out of it all! > The personal dynamics of the whole business still interests me, though.

I > agree that Oates' confusion of rights & lefts didn't help. The fact that > the commission forwarded Oates' letters to them to JLC, & JLC's letters to > them to Oates without their knowledge or permission didn't work very well > either. I also think that things went rapidly downhill when Oates denied > JLC's claim that they had exchanged letters shortly after the war. For > what it's worth, in a letter dated 13 Aug. 1903 [GNMP], when communication > was going downhill, JLC stated..."I would regret to see it placed near the > monument to Vincent, who fell near the right of our brigade line, on ground > never seen by the 15th Alabama during the battle. Placing their monument > there, as I understand Colonel Oates to desire, would indicate the the 15th > Alabama had run entirely over the 20th. Maine and annihilated it. The > facts are, quite curiously, nearly the converse of this." > I do hope, as you do, that an interpretive marker will be placed in > the area.

> Bad Diane

> > Thanks for providing the excerpt from the 13 Aug 1903 letter from Chamberlain referring to Oates' monument request. It is clearly documented in this letter that Chamberlain did not understand exactly where Oates wanted to place his monument to the 15th Alabama. It certainly wasn't on the summit near Vincent's Monument as JLC suggests and objects to. Based on this it now seems more clear to me than ever that perhaps both men had their lefts and rights confused! It's just a shame for all of us that they could not have met there after the war to discuss it and perhaps resolve it in person. What would you give to hear that exchange?

You mention that JLC and Oates exchanged letters shortly after the war and that Oates later denied it. Do any of those letters still exist to your knowledge; where is this documented? I've either lost reference to it or it's news to me. Thanks again Diane.


P.S. I was off today since it was Veterans Day so I went to the Marietta GA National cemetery and the nearby Confederate cemetery. Surveying those fields of marble it seems incredible that any of it could have our nation. I could only symbolically salute my Confederate ancestors who did not return and whose bones reside in graves unknown:

  • Pvt. John S. Hendricks, 3rd Alabama
  • Pvt. John Jackson, 33rd Alabama
  • Cpl. Benjamin Franklin Jackson, 33rd Alabama
  • Pvt. Jesse Green Jackson, 42nd Alabama
  • Lt. Seaborn J Weatherford, 18th Alabama
I know that somewhere in the North someone like me is wondering where their fallen ancestor resides. There are many unknowns in the Marietta cemetery and I can tell you that today was sunny and very windy...the Stars and Stripes waved beautifully over them. (Glenn LaFantasie) says:

>"Terry Jackson" says:

>You mention that JLC and Oates exchanged letters shortly after the war and >that Oates later denied it. Do any of those letters still exist to your >knowledge; where is this documented? I've either lost reference to it or >it's news to me.

Terry and Diane:

Oates and Chamberlain corresponded for the first time after the war in 1897. Or at least no earlier correspondence survives. Oates may have "conveniently" forgotten the earlier correspondence with JLC, since his letter to JLC was a long-winded account of the battle that he must have remembered writing. In fairness, he wrote similar accounts around that same time to several individuals, including at least one other member of the 20th Maine (Elisha Coan). Also in fairness to Oates, JLC opened the 1897 correspondence by asserting that WCO and his 15th Alabama could not possibly have gone over the summit of Big Round Top before attacking the 20th Maine on LRT. JLC's tone, which could be condescending from time to time, was not exactly warm and friendly, if a surviving incomplete draft of the opening letter to Oates is to be believed (no recipient's copy has been found). On those grounds, Oates might well have forgotten Chamberlain's rude assertion, although one can argue that JLC's patronizing air should have made his letter even MORE memorable to Oates. Maybe Oates was trying to accomplish a backhanded Victorian slight--i.e., "your letter was offensive, mister, therefore I choose not to remember it", or that sort of thing. The problem with that interpretation is that Oates, who could play the gentleman when he wanted to, ignored JLC's tone and wrote that long-winded reply as a very friendly response.

But if I remember correctly JLC's complaint to Oates in their later correspondence, both men were wrong--i.e., JLC thought they had had a friendly exchange of letters soon after the war (or around the time Oates published an account of the battle in the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1878) that never seems to have taken place and Oates could not remember ever writing to Chamberlain before the monument controversy unfolded. Again, so much for the reliability of memories.


Glenn (Tom Desjardin) says:

Terry & Diane -

There are about 2 inches of file we call the Oates Correspondence. Among the letters and documents contained therein are a few letters between Oates and JLC. In one Oates writes:

"You speak in that letter of having corresponded with me and that you had received two letters from me. I will not dispute your word for you are an honorable gentleman, but I have no recollection of ever writing you a letter to you except at the present moment, nor do I remember ever to have received one from you." even though there is another letter to JLC from Oates dated earlier. In response, JLC wrote: "...our former correspondence made so little impression on you that you are led to deny having made such correspondence."
Tom (Glenn LaFantasie) says:


The letter I have in mind (but I don't have here in front of me) is an incomplete draft of Chamberlain's letter to Oates, dated February 27, 1897, found in the Chamberlain Papers at Bowdoin. Oates's reply is: Oates to Chamberlain, March 8, 1897, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

If I'd have to bet, I'd say it was Chamberlain who was mistaken about that early correspondence. I doubt very much if he and Oates at any time after the war could have agreed on particulars, especially since Chamberlain apparently couldn't fathom the route that Oates travelled over Big Round Top, although that route is clearly and credibly delineated in Oates's early article in the SHSP. Both were good men; both had faulty memories. But Chamberlain was unwilling to give Oates any ground whatsoever in the difference between their two accounts. By the way, I disagree with Tom Desjardin that Oates confused his left with his right. I think he believed he pushed back Chamberlain's left AND right wings (thus driving the 20th Maine into a hairpin line rather than a salient), and while Chamberlain's assertions seem to suggest otherwise, it could be that Chamberlain's momentary decision to reinforce his left wing with some companies from his right wing (and then changed his mind to keep his men where they were) gave Oates the impression that part of the right wing had fallen back during the temporary confusion that took place along Chamberlain's right when those companies could not figure out whether they were going or staying. From Oates's point of few, those fumbles along Chamberlain's right were enough to demonstrate that he had, even temporarily, pushed back the right. Oates surely knew his own left and right from Chamberlain's left and right, and Oates's references to Chamberlain's RIGHT are too specific and occur more than once in separate letters to suggest that he erred about lefts and rights more than once. No, like the correspondence, the federal cavalrymen, and how many Federal troops were coming up in his rear at the time the 20th Maine came running down the hill toward him and he simultaneously order a retreat of the 15th Alabama, Oates was convinced he had, even for a brief (and, perhaps, barely perceptible) moment, turned Chamberlain's RIGHT. Mind you, I don't think Oates DID turn Chamberlain's right, but I do know he believed it--just as sure, he once told GNMP commission William Robbins, "as your name is Robbins and mine is Oates."


Esteemed member "Terry Jackson" contributes:

Hello Ed, Diane, and GDG...

Ed thanks for adding your thoughts on this fascinating piece of the battle. However, I think you missed my point in the previous post, i.e., that the 20-ME men STARTED the fight with more ammunition than their Alabama protagonists. Tom Desjardin in _Stand Firm_ tells us that, "The men drew 20 extra rounds of ammunition, stuffing them into their pockets and cartridge boxes with the 40 rounds already there." (page 35). Tom's primary source for this information, according to his notes for that paragraph, seems to the William Livermore diary. This means that the 20-ME probably started their defense of LRT with 50-percent more ammunition than the attacking Alabama force. You must also consider that Oates' men had already expended some of their ammunition on their appraoch to LRT while hotly engaing the 2nd US Sharpshooters.

As to the ultimate effect that Co. B 20-ME and the 2nd US Sharpshooters had on the 15th AL, I can only point to the two primary sources for Confederate descriptions of the engagement, Col. WC Oates and Pvt. WC Jordan.

Oates said, "

With a withering and deadly fire pouring in upon us from every direction, it seemed that the regiment was doomed to destruction. While one man was shot in the face, his right-hand or left-hand comrade was shot in the side or back. Some were struck simutaneously with two or three balls from different directions. Captains Hill and Park sugessted that I should order a retreat;..." (_The War..._, page 220).
Obviously the effect of Co. B 20-ME and 2nd USS was considerable and had convinced Oates and two of his company commanders that their position was untenable.

William C. Jordan of the 15th Alabama said,

"Colonel Oates was giving his attention to the right of the regiment. He was endeavoring to swing around and turn the enemy's left, but it was impossible as they were flanking our right, had overlapped our right, as our line was too short. While the duel was in progress Colonel Oates saw the situation, and ordered a retreat, as the enemy would have soon been in our rear, some of the men said they would NOT attempt to escape as it would be death to undertake to escape. The enemy had the drop on us and it seemed impossible to avoid capture." (_Events and Incidents During the War_; 1909; page 43).
Pvt. Jordan did eventually make his escape and his description is very animated but I'll not repeat it here.

I've quoted these two passages for you so that you can understand how Oates and his men saw their situation, in a word hopeless.

Have a nice weekend everyone...I'll be offline until Sunday evening. Glenn, haven't you rejoined us yet?


> Esteemed member contributes:

> > Greetings Terry and Diane....and All

> > Just 2 points to clarify and 1 to add to:

> > 1] absolutely correct, Law's Brigade was 100% on foot as they began their > series of > hits around LRT. essentially working their way around the right of the end > (20th ME position)....

> > 2] there was indeed 1 full charge and 1 half attempted charge after Oates saw > his brother fall....

> > 3] the 2nd US Sharpshooters did nothing more than harass the Ala and Tx units > while making their way left around LRT keeping pace with Law's Units and > Oates Regiment ultimately....when positioned with the 20th ME Co B. there > were indeed only a handful > thus I am unsure of the impression the 2nd USSS would have made during that > last > *firing squad type* of enfiladating fire that sent the troopers of the 15th > Ala to their dis-organized retreat.....

> An interesting fact to trackdown would be the observation that I made when I > was last at > LRT....the 15th Ala retreated back down the valley and in the direction of > BRT...but likewise a fair number (the number escapes me know!!) did retreat > easternward > over the knoll and eventually into the fields occupied by some wagons and no > doubt the > still arriving would be interesting to know how many and if they > were all > rounded up.....

> > Lastly, I agree 100% that the men of the 20th ME did during and directly > after their > securing of those prisoners that did not make it to the rocks on BRT or > surrender, > gathered ammo...I am not convinced that it was any great amount...just enuf > to keep them in the fight (so to speak)....and likewise they did avail > themselves of other items > in addition to ammo (food, coffee) which was likewise needed. > > Please forgive my breaking in....

> > Humbly,

> > Ed...

> > Esteemed member (Ned & Diane Smith) contributes:

> > Hi Terry!

> Welcome back! Buy a Mac!

> > But the NUMBERS, Terry!

> green uniforms + breech loaders = 1 regiment?!? (or was > Oates counting the horses, too? Forgive me...I couldn't resist)

> Bad DianeHr> > > From: "Terry Jackson"

> "I still personally > believe that those men were 2nd US Sharpshooters. I now think Oates > believed they were cavalry because 1) their uniforms were different (green > I think) and 2) their weapons were breech loaders like cavalry. He knew > they were breechloaders without even seeing them because their report is > distinctly different than a rifled musket...he heard them AFTER their > bullets arrived on target rather than before; a musket discharge is just > the opposite."

> > Terry

> Oates didn't have to include horses in his count to determine that he was essentially outnumbered by the time he gave the order to retreat. He wasn''t counting horses but rather his dead and dying which included his brother whom he had just left at the Boulder on the ledge of the spur. The practical strength of Co. B 20-Me working in concert with the dozen or more men from the US Sharpshooters who were armed with breech loading rifles should not be underestimated. I'm sure their rate of fire from their obscure positions would have convinced most commanders that they were under the attack of a large flanking force. Oates was counting the NUMBER of incoming projectiles and I could not describe the effect more vividly than he has already done in his _War..._ volume.

Recall our recent discussion on Oates' claim to have attacked the 83rd Pennsylvania during the attack; Glenn LaFantasie proposed then that Oates reported it that way because he believed it...I think that is the case here too. You might also consider that you don't have to rely entirely on Oates' accounts for the view from the base of LRT; William C Jordan of the 15th Alabama later described the situation just as bleakly as his commander had. He also confirms that Oates did give the order to retreat (a fact that many have overlooked)!

As Oates kept extending his right wing in an attempt to flank Chamberlain he was actually working the 15th Alabama farther into a position of near envelopment. I know this sounds curious in light of how Chamberlain describes his own situation but look at Tom's maps in _Stand Firm_.

A big deal is always made about how depleted the 20-ME was on ammo. I know of no evidence that the 15th AL carried extra rounds or that they recieved any during their attack. Conversely, we do know that the men of the 20-ME picked up extra rounds before they deployed onto the field. So in all likelihood many of Oates' men had either already or would soon have exhausted their ammo. They couldn't even get water after their 30-mile forced march to LRT let alone more ammo. If you are receiving more fire than you are able to return then your opposing force seems all the larger.

Speaking of horses, it reminds me of something curious I heard at the site one day. During my last visit to the park I sat near the 20-ME monument and listened to groups of visitors and their licensed guides. One guide claimed that John A Oates had come into the action on horseback. We do know that he was extremely ill that day and WC Oates tried to convince him to go on sick call. There is no evidence that any officers of the 15th AL or of other regiments in Evander Law's Brigade went in mounted, with the exception of officers on Law's staff.

Have a nice weekend Diane. BTW, why do you carry the sobriquet 'Bad Diane'?


Esteemed member contributes:

Greetings All,

i want to add a few lines that Wm C. Oates wrote in letter to Col. Stoughton of the 2nd USSS after the war. The letter is in "Berdans United States Sharpshooters" by Stevens.

"The advance began, and when the right of my regiment approched the first foot of Round Top, we received your fire nearly in flank; our advance of 150 yards further without change of direction would have presented my right flank to your left, had your line been parallel; but as your right was retired in conformity to the ground, you had partly a front and partly a right oblique fire on me. receiving no orders, i did not vary my course until you gave me a second one, which wounded several of my men,........I then knowing that it would not do to pass and leave you on my right and rear, gave the command, Change Direction to the Right, and swung around far enough to advance on you and the 47th Alabama swung with me. My advance dislodged you, but as you fell back up the south front of Round Top, you kept up a lively fire on my advancing line, which returned it but without much effectiveness, as your men being trained sharpshooters and skirmishers kept well under cover.....when over halfway up your fire ceased and henceforth to the top I did not see one of your men.......I then advanced down the north side of and to the east end of Vincent's spur, where lay Vincent's brigade...........but just as my ammunition was getting short and when I was within 120 yards of Little Round Top, Lt. Col. Bulger fell severly wounded and his regiment broke and retreated in confusion. A moment later you appeared directly in my rear and opened fire on me. That a New York regiment assailing me in front and you in the rear forced my thimmed ranks to face and fire in both directions, which we could not long endure. Half mt men still able for duty were without ammunition."
Thought this might answer some questions on the topic about Oates running out of ammo and generate some new questions.

Marc Riddell

Cooper's Battery B 1st PA Light Artilleryƒ

Esteemed member John Gross contributes:

Let me recap my first two weeks on the GDG. There has been so much new information for me to absorb.

Chamberlain was the commander of the Union army, and Oates was the commander of the Confederates. The Union army present at the battle was the 20th Maine. The Confederate army the 15th Alabama. Like many Civil War battles it was known by two names, Gettysburg, and LRT.

The 20th Maine made the 15th Alabama run like a herd of cattle, but it wasn't really like a herd of cattle, as there is some doubt that they ran like cattle, but no doubt they ran, because they were ordered to run, just not like cattle. There is a difference.

Every Maine man who wanted one was given a Medal of Honor, but had to give it back 30 years later. Some guy named Meade, who appears to have a relativly minor role in all this, is being highly praised for doing nothing. While three other guys who couldn't even speak english, (Jomoni, Clausewitz, and Wavell) had a major influence on the outcome of the battle.

I'm still trying to figure out where the Barbie Doll fits in, but it may have to do with the Yankees who wore skirts and liked to play music.

:o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o) :o)

John Gross

Esteemed member "Terry Jackson" contributes:

John, thanks for bringing these facts to our attention. These varying reports have always been one of the more interesting and controversial aspects of the history of this engagement. I'll offer a few explanations that I hope may resolve some of the 'apparent' discrepancies.

- I hope this helps resolve some of the mystery.

Best regards,

Esteemed member Glenn LaFantasie contributes:
To Terry, Dave Powell, and all:
Without wanting to get into the middle of what's been a very heated exchange among several GDG members, I'd like to suggest that the terms "broke," "held their line," and "charged" may simply not be adequate to describe the encounter between the 15th Alabama and the 20th Maine. In saying this, I am not trying to play with semantics. Let me explain.

The conception of the 20th Maine arrayed in battle line across the ledges of LRT, as depicted in the movie, was not at all what that regiment's line looked like in reality. Instead of straight lines, think instead of clusters of men, grouped behind whatever cover they could find, and with considerable gaps between them (in some cases). Tom will argue with me on this one, but I do believe that the 20th had a particularly hard time anchoring on the good old 83rd Pa. to its right. There was a gap there about as big as a barn door, metaphorically speaking. The lines of the 47th (before it skedaddled) and the 15th Alabama regiments were in complete disarray. Launching a concerted attack, in picture-book style, against the Mainers, was impossible. The surges that Chamberlain and Oates both independently describe involved, once again, clusters of men, not a whole battle line moving forward. Oates could not coordinate the movement of his left and right wings (he was mostly over toward the right) because of the salient that Chamberlain created when he refused the 20th's line. In this sense, the 20th Maine did not "break" the 15th Alabama with its assault (spontaneous or otherwise)--the line was already "broken" before the charge took place. What the 20th Maine DID do was throw the Alabamians off balance, scare the dickens out of them, and roll them down the hill (in various directions) by the sheer weight of the assualt's momentum. Officers and men knew even before the 20th's assault that the hill could not be taken, and two of Oates's captains informed him it was time to withdraw. Whether or not anyone heard Oates's order to retreat, which he sounded probably at the precise moment that clusters of the 20th came streaming down the hill, one can assume with certainty that the brave men of the 15th knew that it was time to be going. Oates completely understood that this was not an occasion for insisting upon an orderly retreat (if any field officer ever has the luxury to insist upon such a thing). So the men, including Oates, ran like a herd of wild cattle to get to safety and fight another day.