William C. Oates

For other people of the same name, see William Oates (disambiguation).
William C. Oates
29th Governor of Alabama
In office
December 1, 1894  December 1, 1896
Preceded by Thomas G. Jones
Succeeded by Joseph F. Johnston
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1881  November 5, 1894
Preceded by William J. Samford
Succeeded by George Paul Harrison, Jr.
Member of the Alabama House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born (1835-11-30)November 30, 1835
Pike County, Alabama
Died September 9, 1910(1910-09-09) (aged 74)
Montgomery, Alabama
Political party Democratic
Military service
Years of service
  • 186165
  • 1898
  • Alabama 15th Alabama Infantry
  • Alabama 48th Alabama
A historic marker honoring Oates stands next to the Henry County Courthouse in Abbeville.

William Calvin Oates (either November 30 or December 1, 1835  September 9, 1910) was a Confederate colonel during the American Civil War, the 29th Governor of Alabama from 1894 to 1896, and a brigadier general in the U.S. Army during the Spanish–American War.

Early life

Oates was born in Pike County, Alabama, to William and Sarah (Sellers) Oates, a poor farming family. At the age of 17, he believed that he had killed a man in a violent brawl and left home for Florida. Oates became a drifter, settling in Texas for a couple of years before returning to Alabama at the urging of his younger brother John, who had been dispatched by the family to locate him. He studied law at the Lawrenceville Academy in Lawrenceville and passed the bar examination, and then opened a practice in Abbeville.[1]

Civil War

William C. Oates joined the Confederate States Army in July, 1861 and entered the army as Captain, 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment and eventually became the commander of the 15th Alabama infantry regiment in the spring of 1863. He fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, leading his troops in a series of charges on Little Round Top, where his brother John perished. This became one of Oates's significant memories of the war, as he believed that if his regiment had been able to take Little Round Top, the Army of Northern Virginia might have won the battle, and possibly marched on to take Washington, D.C. Oates later stated that if even a single additional Confederate regiment had joined the assault, the attack could have succeeded, turning the Union's flank and threatening the entire Army of the Potomac.[2][3]

Oates stated:

His [Col. Chamberlain's] skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat.

[If one more Confederate regiment had stormed the far left of the Army of the Potomac with the 15th Alabama,] "...we would have completely turned the flank and have won Little Round Top, which would have forced Meade's whole left wing to retire." He concluded, philosophically, that "great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs."[2][3]

Oates participated in the battles of Chickamauga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. After transferring to the 48th Alabama, he was wounded near Petersburg, Virginia, losing his right arm, which ended his active service.

Postbellum career

Oates resumed his law practice in Henry County, Alabama, and served as a delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention. From 1870 to 1872, he was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives. In 1880, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served seven consecutive terms. Oates married Sarah Toney of Eufaula on March 28, 1882, and they had one son, William Calvin, Jr., who eventually joined his father in the law practice.

Oates was elected governor of Alabama in 1894 in a bitter campaign. Two years later, he unsuccessfully tried to secure his party's nomination as a candidate for the United States Senate. President William McKinley commissioned Oates as a brigadier general in 1898 and he served in the Spanish American War. He returned to his law practice and speculated in real estate. He tried unsuccessfully to have a monument erected at Gettysburg to his comrades in the old 15th Alabama, including his fallen brother.

Oates died in Montgomery, and is buried there in Oakwood Cemetery.


  1. Michael A. Dreese (2007). Torn Families: Death and Kinship at the Battle of Gettysburg. McFarland. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-7864-2824-3.
  2. 1 2 LaFantasie, np.
  3. 1 2 Oates, William C. The War Between the Union and the Confederacy and Its Lost Opportunities. Dayton, OH: Morningside Bookshop, 1974. OCLC 1199018. First published 1905 by Neale Publishing Co. pp. 216, 219.


Further reading

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William J. Samford
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 3rd congressional district

March 4, 1881 – November 5, 1894
Succeeded by
George Paul Harrison, Jr.
Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas G. Jones
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by
Joseph F. Johnston
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