Q & A with Civil War Leaders: (C) Col. William C. Oates
What was your relationship like with your brigade Commander (Law)? With your men?
Oates and the 15th Alabama were reassigned in January 1863 to a brigade under the command of BG Evander M. Law, as a result of Lee’s reorganization of the Confederate Army brigades by state (per a recently enacted Confederate Congressional law). The 4th, 15th, 44th, 47th, and 48th Alabama regiments were in Law’s Alabama Brigade, in John Bell Hood’s Division, in Longstreet’s First Army Corps – reassigned from ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s command. Oates and his men were not necessarily happy about this change, but soon adapted.
Prior to Gettysburg, to compensate for Jackson’s death as a result of wounds received at Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized his Army into three corps of three divisions each. Longstreet was left in charge of the First Corps, so the 15th Alabama was unaffected by this reorganization.
Law was 26 years old, 3 years younger than Oates. Generally, Oates admired Law and trusted him. Law was brave in battle and a competent officer, the only brigade commander in Lee’s army who had not attended West Point. Law was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and a former instructor, and so was a trained military man. Oates did not think that Law always dedicated himself to the necessary but less glamorous aspects of his job, such as filing reports and keeping up with required paperwork.
Oates was a concerned and involved leader. He knew many of his men personally, as they were his friends and neighbors in Alabama. His brother, Lieutenant John Oates, was under his command in company G of the 15th Alabama. There were many brothers who served together in Company G and the 15th Alabama. Heading towards Gettysburg, the 15th Alabama had an estimated 600 men and 42 officers, and was thought by Oates to be the “strongest and finest regiment in Hood’s division.” He took a paternalistic air over his men, seeing his role as “looking out” for and guiding his men and in that regard he could be a stern disciplinarian, but was usually fair. One of his men remarked that Oates was “ a handsome and brave leader,” but also said;
“He was regarded by many as too aggressive and ambitious but he usually was well to the front and did not require his men to charge where he was unwilling to share the common danger.”
Were you prepared for command? How/why were you prepared?
Oates had no military experience prior to raising a company of volunteers (the Henry Pioneers out of Henry Co., Alabama) and being voted captain of what became Company G of the 15th Alabama Regiment. He received “on the job” training on how to be an officer, and his men on how to be soldiers. The company first saw action at Cross Keys, and were tested at the second battle of Manassas. Oates was on sick leave during Antietam. However, he was in command of the regiment at Fredericksburg (in December 1862), and so had gained leadership experience prior to Gettysburg. He did have talents as a leader of men. He was appointed as a Colonel in the Provisional Army, C.S.A in May 1962, and assigned to officially command the 15th Alabama Regiment. Oates’ commission as Colonel was never confirmed by the Confederate Senate, though, so officially Oates never ranked above Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate Army (he was actually still a Captain at Gettysburg). However, he always claimed the title of Colonel, until his appointment as a Brigadier General in the US Army during the Spanish-American War.
What was your mission on 2 July?
Oates and his men were on the extreme right of the Confederate line heading towards Little Round Top. His orders were to “hug the [western] base of the Great Round Top,” and to go up the valley between Big Round Top and Little Round Top and advance until they found the left of the Union line. Then, he was to turn the enemy line while inflicting all possible damage.
Did you adapt to meet your mission objectives?
The orders as issued by Law directly to Oates were unclear, and Oates did not fully understand what was taking place. Unknown to Oates, Law failed to give the same orders to the 47th Alabama as he gave to the 15th Alabama. As Oates responded to a threat to his right flank from sharpshooters, he disobeyed orders and separated from the rest of the brigade, directing his regiment to begin climbing Big Round Top to disperse the sharpshooters. After the sharpshooters retreated, Oates kept his regiment climbing, rather than turning around to try to catch up with the rest of the brigade and carry out his orders. The landscape of rough, steep ground further confused the regiment, making it difficult to keep in line. At the top, he allowed his men to rest from the tough climb. He was found at the top by General Law’s aide, who questioned Oates’ position and the fact that he had halted his men. Rather than responding to a reiteration of Law’s orders – now in command of the division after Hood was injured – Oates argued that he should continue to occupy Big Round Top. Eventually, Oates responded to his order to “press on, turn the Union left, and capture Little Round Top, if possible, and to lose no time.”
By the time he advanced, he had lost precious time. Oates had already lost about 22 men to a canteen detail; they hadn’t returned by the time orders were given to move forward. As he (finally) moved towards Little Round Top, he ordered another 40 men (Company A) to surround and capture a group of Federal ordnance wagons, again, against orders. His ranks were already depleted from the earlier sharpshooter fire, and from the effects of extreme thirst and exhaustion – the result of a 20 mile hike that morning, no water, and a climb up Big Round Top. His late start meant that he was at the extreme right on Little Round Top, facing the deadly cross fire from the Union line, and specifically, the fire from the 20th Maine. Despite repeated charges, and success in bending the Federal line back, Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine succeeded in pushing back the 15th Alabama. As Oates gave the order for retreat, with the realization that he was also being fired upon from the back by the same sharpshooters he had chased up Big Round Top, the 20th Maine began a bayonet charge down the hill, and the 15th Alabama
“…ran like a herd of wild cattle.”
Out of about 400 men heading into the battle, only 223 enlisted men and 19 officers responded at role call that night. One of the men mortally wounded at the battle, and left behind on Little Round Top during the retreat, was Lieutenant John Oates, a loss that William Oates would feel for the rest of his life.
What leadership style do you use?
Oates had had poise, courage, and level-headedness under fire. But he worked by instinct, and could be impetuous. He relied on his own knowledge and senses, and so was sometimes slow to respond to direct orders, and sometimes ignored them completely, such as when he ignored his direct orders on the second day of fighting at Gettysburg. He wasn’t always aware of the totality of the battles around him, and rather than relying on his chain of command to guide his decisions, made his own judgment calls on the best course of action, which usually resulted in errors and lost opportunities.