Post 38: Gettysburg Requiem

The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates

Book CoverYet another of the slightly obscure biographies that I’ve picked up at the Last Bookshop in Oxford over the last few years; this book tells the story of William C. Oates, a confederate officer who was on the defeated side at Little Round Top in the battle of Gettysburg. He was a reasonably successful man in his own way, but in the grand scheme of things was a very minor player. However, history isn’t just about your Lincolns and your Lees (to use a Jamie Redknapp style syntax) and we can learn a lot from looking at someone like Oates; not just his role in (possibly) one of the crucial moments of the war, but also his general outlook and his life before and after the war.

Oates was born in Alabama in 1835 to a poor farming family, and had a bit of a wild life as a young man (and, to be honest, as an adult). He nearly killed a man in a drunken brawl and ran off to be a drifter in Florida, before being found by his younger brother John and returning to become a local lawyer. In many ways, he wasn’t a particularly likeable character (to put it mildly) – hot tempered, racist, sexist and arrogant – but he was also smart and determined. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 15th Alabama in the Confederate army and rose through the ranks. He was talented as an officer, if occasionally a bit too opinionated or headstrong to reach the level he felt he deserved.

The key moment in his life is undoubtedly his part in the Battle of Gettysburg. As acting colonel of the 15th Alabama division, he led an attack on a hill known as Little Round Top but after a tough battle was beaten back by the 20th Maine. Some people, including Oates himself, would suggest that this moment was decisive in the battle – if the Confederates had been successful in their charge, they could have routed the enemy and marched on with the momentum behind them. [My US military history is not quite up to scratch so I’ll leave that judgement for others.] On a personal level, Oates was utterly devastated by the loss of his brother during the attack. Afterwards he fought on in the war, being wounded several times and eventually being sent home after losing his right arm.

In this post-war period, we start to see a different side of Oates (though as ever, it is still fairly dubious in places). He had two illegitimate children (one with a black servant who nursed him back to health and the other with a teenage girl) and did his best to look out for them as they grew up. He also got married to a much younger woman, with whom he had a long and loving relationship. Oates got into politics as a Democrat, serving seven terms in the US House of Representatives and one as the Governor of Alabama. He modified some of his views on race, but remained devoted to the Lost Cause myth of the American south. He also stayed as hot headed and unpredictable as ever.

The author Glenn LaFantasie does a great job of building up the character of Oates; largely from his memoirs, but not without a critical eye. He links his views and actions in with those that would be expected of a man of his time and shows how they develop over time. At times, LaFantasie can be a little opinionated or get carried away extrapolating, but he always shows his working and allows the reader space to draw their own conclusions on matters. The Civil War era and the decades surrounding is not typically the area I’m interested in, so my background knowledge was pretty sparse – however, the book worked well as a colorful introduction for a newcomer like me. It would also be well suited for an enthusiast of the era with a desire to find out more about a minor (but fascinating) figure in that time. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

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