Gettysburg--The Battle on the Right.
By Colonel Wm. C. Oates, of Alabama
I have read with deep interest the historical articles contributed to the press within the last twelve months by writers from different sections of the Union, but none have interested me so much as those on the Pennsylvania campaign and the battle of Gettysburg, because I have always regarded the battle as the turning point in the great struggle-- "the war between the States"-- which culminated in the overthrow of the Confederacy. I am not a fatalist, nor a believer in destiny, and hence cannot say of Gettysburg, as Victor Hugo did of Waterloo, "that God passed over the battle field." I believe in responsibility for human conduct, and although the Federals greatly outnumbered the Confederates, yet the disparity was not so great as on many other fields where the latter had been completely victorious. The army under Lee was never much stronger numerically, nor its condition better than at Gettysburg. The rank and file were never more confident of success. T therefore conclude that some one "blundered." Modesty would dictate to me silence in the discussion of the great battle, but the truth of history can be vindicated only by bringing all the testimony before the impartial reader. Mine is of no great importance as to the humble part I bore, but from the position I happened to occupy on the field, I do know some facts which have an important bearing on the question of responsibility for the failure of the Confederates to win the battle. The campaign may have been an unwise or ill-advised one, but General Lee, in his nobleness of soul, put that question beyond discussion by assuming, more than was chargeable to him, the entire responsibility of the failure. General Early, Colonel Taylor and others have charged General Longstreet with the loss of the battle, and he has, with much ingenuity, attempted a refutation of the charge; and has, perhaps, to the minds of most men, at least partially, succeeded. Their charges are based upon his disobedience of orders to attack the Federals early on the morning of the 2nd of July, and upon his inactivity and slothfulness in making the attack that day; and General Early also charges him with failing to give the Commanding General that hearty and cordial support that was necessary to success. As to the truth and justness of the first two of these allegations, General Longstreet, if his statements are to be believed, seems to have answered pretty successfully. And while I have not sufficient personal knowledge to speak of any of these charges, and have formed my conclusions as to them from the statements of facts and arguments of the respective parties, I believe at least that General Early's charge as to the failure to give proper support is true. General Longstreet had advised against the campaign and the battle, and by his own showing his heart was not in it.
In my opinion, while all these charges may be true, on a different ground, independent of them, he is responsible for the loss of the battle, and that ground cannot be fairly designated by any other term than that of the want of generalship.
I commanded one of the five Alabama infantry regiments of Brigadier-General Law's brigade of Hood's division, Longstreet's corps. As to when the division left Chambersburg, I don't pretend to know, for Law's brigade was on picket some three or four miles southeast of that town on the 1st day of July, when, in the afternoon, the cannonading of the engagement between portions of Ewell's and Hill's corps and the Federals under Reynolds, Howard and Doubleday, near Gettysburg, was distinctly heard by us. About dark we received an order to be ready to move at any moment. Subsequently, we were ordered to cook rations and be ready to move at 4 o'clock A. M. When that hour came, the brigade was put in motion, and after a rapid and fatiguing march, it arrived on the field within sight of Gettysburg at about 2 o'clock P. M., having marched, as I now recollect, between twenty and twenty-five miles. When we arrived, Generals Lee and Longstreet were together on an eminence in our front, and appeared to be inspecting, with field glasses, the positions of the Federals. We were allowed but a few minutes' rest, when the divisions of McLaws and Hood were moved in line by the right flank around to the south of the Federal position. There as a good deal of delay on the march, which was quite circuitous; I suppose, for the purpose of covering the movement from the enemy.
Finally, Hood marched across the rear of McLaws and went into line on the crest of a little ridge, with Benning's brigade in rear of his centre, constituting a second line--his battalion of artillery, sixteen pieces, in position on his left. McLaws then formed his division of four brigades in two lines of battle on Hood's left, and with sixteen pieces of artillery in position on McLaws' left.
This line was in the general direction of the Emmettsburg road and nearly parallel with it--the extreme right of Hood's line being directly opposite to the centre of the Round Top mountain. Law's brigade constituted the right of Hood's line, and was formed in single line as follows: my regiment, the Fifteenth Alabama, in the centre; the Forty-fourth and Forty-eighth Alabama regiments to my right, and the Forty-seventh and Fourth Alabama regiments to my left. Thus formed, between three and four o'clock P. M., both battalions of artillery opened fire; the Federals replied. Then our whole line advanced in quick time, under the fire of our guns, through the valley which lay spread out before us at the foot of the range of mountains or hills, with a small muddy, meandering stream running through it midway. The reports of some Federal officers and newspaper correspondents claim that our advance was in two lines or a double line of battle. There were no reserves and no supports or reliefs in its rear; if there were any, I never saw them at any time, and I am confident there were none. When crossing the little run we received the first fire from the Federal infantry, posted behind a stone fence near the foot of Round Top mountain. Our line did not halt, but pressing forward drove our enemy from the fence and up the side of the mountain. Just at this point General Law marched the Forty-fourth and Forty-eighth regiments by the left flank across my rear to the support of Robertson's Texas brigade, which was said to have been hard pressed at that time and unable to advance further without reinforcements. This left my regiment on the extreme right flank of Lee's army, and as I advanced up the mountain side my right was soon exposed to a flank fire from Federal skirmishers, which I promptly met by deploying my right company at short distance. I continued to advance straight up the southern face of Round Top. My men had to climb up, catching to the bushes and crawling over the immense boulders, in the face of an incessant fire of their enemy, who kept falling back, taking shelter and firing down on us from behind the rocks and crags that covered the mountain side thicker than grave stones in a city cemetery. My men could not see their foe, and did not fire, except as one was seen here and there, running back from one boulder to another. In this matter I pressed forward until I reached the top and the highest point on top of Round Top. Just before reaching this point, the Federals in my front as suddenly disappeared from my sight as though commanded by a magician. From the top of the mountain a Federal soldier could not be seen, except a few wounded and dead ones on the ground over which we had advanced. Here I halted and permitted my men to lie down to rest. The Forty-seventh Alabama regiment was on my immediate left--had kept in line with me during the ascent and halted in line with my regiment on Round Top. The Fourth Alabama was to the left of the Forty-seventh, and was not on the top, but on the side of Round Top, towards and perhaps as far as Vincent Spur. During my halt, which continued less than ten minutes, from about Vincent Spur along to the left and about the foot and southern face of Little Round Top, the battle was raging furiously. I think not more than five minutes after I halted, Captain Terrell, A. A. G. to General Law, rode up and inquired why I halted. I told him that the position I then occupied was, in my opinion, a very important one, and should be held by us. He informed me that the order was to press forward. I replied that some of my men for heat and exhaustion, were fainting, and could fight a great deal better after a few minutes rest, and inquired for General law. He then informed me that General Hood was wounded and that Law, who was the senior brigadier, was in command of the division, and was along the line somewhere to the left, and said that General Law's order was for me and Colonel Bulger to lose no time, but to press forward and drive the enemy before us as far as possible. To move then was against my judgement. I felt confident that General Law did not know my position, or he would not order me from it, and this was my reason for inquiring for him. I had not seen him nor any other general officer after crossing the branch at the foot of the mountain, and am confident that no Confederate general nor staff officer, other than Captain Terrell, ascended Round Top at any time during the engagement. In fact, I saw no general officer until the morning of the 3d of July. But notwithstanding my conviction of the importance of hold Round Top and occupying it with artillery, which I endeavored to communicate to General Law through Captain Terrell, I considered it to be my duty to obey the order communicated to me by the latter, who was a trustworthy and gallant officer. I ordered my line forward, and passed to the left oblique entirely down the northern or northeastern side of Round Top without encountering any opposition whatever. After I had reached the level ground in rear of Vincent's Spur, in plain view of the Federal wagon trains, and within two hundred yards of an extensive park of Federal ordnance wagons, which satisfied me that I was then in the Federal rear, advancing rapidly, without any skirmishers in front, I saw no enemy until within forty or fifty steps of an irregular ledge of rocks--a splendid line of breastworks formed by nature, running about parallel with the front of the Forty-seventh Alabama and my two left companies, and then sloping back in front of my centre and right at an angle of about thirty-five degrees. Our foes, who had so suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from Round Top, had evidently fallen back to a second line behind this ledge, and now, unexpectedly to us, this double line poured into us the most destructive fire I ever saw. Our line halted, but did not break. As men fell their comrades closed the gap, returning the fire most spiritedly. I soon discovered that the left of the Forty-seventh Alabama was disconnected--I know not how far--from the right of the Fourth Alabama, and consequently the Forty-seventh was outflanked on its left, and its men were being mowed down like grain before the scythe. Just at this time Lieutenant-Colonel Bulger, a most gallant old gentleman over sixty years of age, commanding the Forty-seventh Alabama, fell severely wounded, and soon afterwards his regiment, after behaving most gallantly and sustaining heavy losses, broke and in confusion retreated back up the mountain.
Just as the left of the Forty-seventh regiment was being driven back, I ordered my regiment to change direction to the left, swing around and drive the Federals from the ledge of rocks, partly for the purpose of enfilading their line and relieving the Forth-seventh. My men obeyed, and advanced about half way to the enemy's position, but the fire was so destructive that my line wavered like a man trying to walk against a strong wind, and then, slowly, doggedly, gave back a little. Then, with no one upon the right or left of me, my regiment exposed, while the enemy was still under cover, to stand there and die was sheer folly; either to retreat or advance became a necessity. My Lieutenant-Colonel, J. B. Feagin, had lost his leg; the heroic Captain Ellison had fallen, while Captain Brainard, one of the bravest and best officers in the regiment, in leading his company forward, fell, exclaiming: "Oh God! that I could see my mother," and instantly expired. Lieutenant John A. Oates, my beloved brother, was pierced through by eight bullets, and fell mortally wounded. Lieutenants Cody, Hill and Scoggin were killed, and Captain Bethune and several other officers were seriously wounded, while the hemorrhage of the ranks was appalling. I again ordered the advance, and knowing the officers and men of that gallant old regiment, I felt sure that they would follow their commander anywhere in the line of duty, though he led them to certain destruction. I passed through the column waiving my sword, rushed forward to the ledge, and was promptly followed by my entire command in splendid style. We drove the Federals from their strong defensive position; five times they rallied and charged us-- twice coming so near that some of my men had to use the bayonet--but vain was their effort. It was our time now to deal death and destruction to a gallant foe, and the account was speedily settled with a large balance in our favor; but this state of things was not long to continue. The long blue lines of Federal infantry were coming down on my right and closing in on my rear, while some dismounted cavalry were closing the only avenue of escape on my left, and had driven in my skirmishers. I sent my Sergeant-Major with a message to Colonel Bowles, of the Fourth Alabama, to come to my relief. He returned and reported the enemy to be between us and the Fourth Alabama, and swarming up the mountainside. By this time, the Federal reinforcements had completely enveloped my right. The lamented Captain Frank Park (who was afterwards killed at Knoxville) came and informed me that the Federals were closing in on our rear. I sent him to ascertain their numbers, and he soon returned, accompanied by Captain Hill (subsequently killed in front of Richmond), and reported two regiments were coming up behind us, and just then I saw them halt behind a fence, from which they opened fire on us. At Balaklava, captain Nolan's six hundred had "cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them, that volleyed and thundered"; but at this moment the Fifteenth Alabama had infantry to the right of them, dismounted cavalry to the left of them, infantry in front of them and infantry in rear of them. With a withering and deadly fire pouring in upon us from every direction, it seemed that the entire command 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 simultaneously with two or three balls from different directions. Captains Hill and Park suggested that I should order a retreat; but this seemed impracticable. My dead and wounded were then greater in number than those still on duty. Of 644 men and 42 officers, I lost 343 men and 19 officers. The dead literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles on the rocks. The ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle. I still hoped for reinforcements. It seemed impossible to retreat; I therefore replied to my captains: "Return to your companies; we will sell out as dearly as possible." Hill made no reply, but Park smiled pleasantly, gave me the military salute, and replied: "All right, sir." On reflection, however, a few moments later, I did order a retreat, but did not undertake to retire in order. I had the officers and men advised that when the signal was given every one should run in the direction from whence we came, and halt on the top of the mountain.
When the signal was given, we ran like a herd of wild cattle right through the line of dismounted cavalrymen. Some of my men as they ran through, seized three or four of the cavalrymen by the collar and carried them out prisoners. On the top of the mountain I made an attempt to halt and reform the regiment, but the men were helping wounded and disabled comrades, and scattered in the woods and among the rocks, so that it could not be done. This was just about sunset, and the fighting all along our line had pretty well ceased. At this time there were no Federals on Round Top. They never occupied the top of it until near dark. I was on foot, and in my exertions to reform my regiment on the top of the mountain I was so overcome with heat and fatigue that I fainted, and was carried back near to the point from which our advance commenced. It was now dark, and here we bivouacked for the night. After all had got up, I ordered the rolls of the companies to be called. When the battle commenced, four hours previously, I had the strongest and finest regiment on Hood's division. Its effectives numbered nearly 700 officers and men. Now 225 answered at roll call, and more than one-half of my officers had been left on the field. Some of my men that night voluntarily went back across the mountain, and in the darkness penetrated the Federal line for the purpose of removing some of our wounded. They reached the scene, and started out with some of the wounded officers, but were discovered and shot at by the Federal pickets, and had, in consequence, to leave the wounded, but succeeded in getting back to the regiment. These men reported to me that Round Top was even at that late hour only occupied by a skirmish line.
By a survey of the field, made since the war by United States engineers, it has been demonstrated that Round Top is 116 feet higher than Little Round Top--the latter being 548 feet and the former 664 feet high--and only about 1,000 yards distant from the latter, which is almost in a direct line from the summit of Round Top with Cemetery Ridge, which was occupied by the Federal line of battle; so that it is manifest that if General Longstreet had crowned Round Top with his artillery any time that afternoon, even though it had only been supported by the two Alabama regiments, who had possession of it until sunset, he would have won the battle. General Longstreet, in his article of the 3d of November last, claims that Little Round Top was the key to the Federal position. In this he is evidently in error.
In the same article he also says:
"McLaws' line was consequently spread out to the left to protect its flank, and Hood's
line was extended to the right to protect its flank from the sweeping fire of the large bodies of
troops that were posted on Round Top. The importance of Round Top as a point d'appui was
not appreciated until after my attack. General Meade seems to have alluded to it as a point to be
occupied 'if practicable,' but in such slighting manner as to show that he did not deem it of great
importance. So it was occupied by an inadequate force. As our battle progressed, pushing the
Federals back from point to point, subordinate officers and soldiers, seeking shelter, as birds fly to
cover in a tempest, found behind the large boulders of its rock-bound sides not only protection,
but rallying points. These reinforcements to the troops already there checked our advance on the
right, and some superior officer arriving just then divined from effect the cause, and threw a force
into Round Top that transformed it as if by magic into a Gibralter."
This statement is manifestly erroneous, as I have already shown, for although Longstreet was a lieutenant-general commanding a corps, and I but a colonel commanding one regiment, my testimony is to be preferred to his, for the plain reason that I was there, on Round Top, while he was not.
Major-General G. K. Warren, in his testimony before the Committee of Congress on the
Conduct of the War, volume I, page 377, says:
"I sent word to General Meade that we would at once have to occupy that place (Round
Top) very strongly. He sent, as quickly as possible, a division of General Sykes' corps; but before
they arrived the enemy's line of battle--I should think one mile and a half long--began to
advance, and the battle became very heavy at once. The troops under General Sykes arrived
barely in time to save Round Top hill, and they had a very desperate fight to hold it."
General Meade, in his testimony before the same Committee, volume I, page 332, says:
"The enemy threw immense masses upon General Sickles' corps, which, advanced and
isolated in this way, it was not in my power to support promptly. At the same time that they
threw these immense masses against General Sickles, a heavy column was thrown upon the
Round Top mountain, which was the key point of my whole position. If they had succeeded in
occupying that it would have prevented me from holding any of the ground which I subsequently
held to the last. Immediately upon the batteries opening, I sent several staff officers to hurry up
the column under Major-General Sykes, of the Fifth corps, then on its way, and which I had
expected would have reached there by that time. This column advanced, reached the ground in a
short time, and fortunately General Sykes was enabled, by throwing a strong force upon round
Top mountain, where a most desperate and bloody struggle ensued, to drive the enemy from it,
and secure our foothold upon that important position."
The "bloody struggle" which Meade and Warren both say "ensued to drive the enemy from Round Top," was had with two Alabama regiments alone. There were no other Confederate soldiers on Round Top during that afternoon. The other three regiments of Law's brigade were, doubtless, heavily engaged, but that occurred about Vincent's Spur, between Round Top and Little Round Top. The left of the Forty-seventh Alabama became widely separated from the right of the Fourth Alabama about the time we reached the summit of Round Top; there certainly was a wide gap between those regiments when the Forth-seventh and Fifteenth advanced down the northern or northeastern face of the mountain; and the discovery of this fact was the consideration that induced me to make that advance in a left oblique direction, as already stated. If there are any two things connected with the battle about which I can't possibly be mistaken, they are--
First. That there were no Confederate troops on the top of Round Top during the engagement, except the Fifteenth and Forty-seventh Alabama regiments; and,
Second. That the Federals did not occupy Round Top until after sunset, and probably not until after dark.
General Longstreet says: "At half-past 3 o'clock the order was given General Hood to advance upon the enemy, and hurrying to the head of McLaws' division, I moved with his line." What business had he, a corps commander, to advance with the line of battle on one part of the field? Instead of taking a position from which he could see the progress of the battle all along the line, and with the practiced eye of a great captain, taking in at once the whole situation, eager to discover and quick to take advantage of any mistake of his adversary, or weak points in his line, he was playing the part simply of a gallant brigadier, and advancing with his line of battle at one end of it, leaving the other to take care of itself or to be directed by his subordinates. There was no necessity for a display of his gallantry; no one questioned his courage. Had he been in his proper place, and exercising that vigilance and sagacity which his high position and duty required, the moment that his troops got possession of Round Top, he would have reinforced them and have sent at least a portion of his artillery to occupy it, and thus have secured the position which General Meade admits would have rendered it impossible for him to have held the ground he then occupied.
It would have won the battle, or at least forced Meade to have abandoned his position. So great a general as R. E. Lee never orders an impossibility.
Having written all that I purposed writing, it is, perhaps, in bad taste to add anything more; but at the risk of criticism, I will relate two incidents of the battle.
The following did not come under my own observation, but I am satisfied of its
correctness, and relate it as I received it. Any one who knows old Colonel Mike Bulger, of
Tallapoosa county, Alabama, will see that it is characteristic. As already stated, he fell severely
wounded on the evening of the 2d. His regiment fell back and left him on the field. He was
struck in the breast by a minnie ball, which passed directly through his left lung. He was sitting by
a tree and the blood gushing from his wound, when the Federals came on him. A captain or some
subordinate officer, approached him and demanded his sword, when the following colloquy
Colonel B.--What is your rank, sir?
Captain--I am a captain, sir, and demand your sword.
Colonel B.--I am a lieutenant-colonel, sir, and will surrender my sword only to an officer of equal rank.
Captain--Give me your sword or I will kill you.
Colonel B--You may kill me, sir; bring your colonel to me and I will surrender to him, but
never to you.
The captain, struck by the old Rebel's persistency and high notions of honor and military etiquette, sent for his Colonel (Rice, of New York), to whom the sword was gracefully surrendered. Colonel B. is still living and one of the most respected citizens of Alabama.
On the third day, Law's brigade, still on the right, lay along the southern foot of Round Top. Our picket line extended considerably to the rear and nearly at right angles with the line of battle. About midday, or early in the afternoon, a squadron of Federal cavalry broke through our pickets, charged and tried to capture Riley's North Carolina battery of six guns in position on an eminence near a piece of woods, some four hundred yards in rear of Law's line. I was ordered to go with my regiment to protect the battery. I did not take time to countermarch, but moved rapidly, rear in front, throwing out a few skirmishers as I advanced. When ascending the hill at the edge of the woods, a portion of the cavalry came in between me and the battery. The officer commanding, with pistol in hand, ordered my skirmishers to surrender, to which they replied with a volley. The cavalry commander and his horse and one of his men fell to the ground, and the others dashed away. The lieutenant commanding the skirmishers, with a repeating rifle in his hands, then sprang forward and said to the wounded officer, who still grasped his pistol and was trying to raise, "Now you surrender!" to which he replied, "I will not do it"; and placing the pistol to his own head, shot his brains out. I halted my regiment, as the cavalry were gone, but did not go to the dead man, who lay not more than forty steps in my front, until one of the skirmishers brought me his shoulder straps, from which I discovered that he was a general. I then went to the body, an on examination found one or two letters in his pockets addressed to "General E. J. Farnsworth." I was soon ordered to another part of the field, and left the body where it fell.
William C. Oates.
Abbeville, Alabama, April 6th, 1878.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 6, pp.172-182)