The loss of an arm in one war did not keep William C. Oates from
volunteering to fight in another conflict. A Confederate colonel from Alabama,
Oates was shot in the right arm during the Civil War. The wound necessitated
Led by beliefs
After the nation’s bloodiest conflict, Oates was elected as an
Alabama state legislator, congressman and governor. In 1898, 62-year-old Oates
finagled a brigadier general’s commission in the U.S. Army in hopes of
fighting in the Spanish-American War.
|Following his injury in the Civil
War, Oates served the military in several capacities before briefly returning
to active service during the Spanish-American War.
|Image: Wikimedia Commons (Public
“I am now a Yankee general, formerly a Rebel colonel, and right
each time!” he boasted, according to Oates’ biography,
“Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel
William C. Oates,” by Glenn W. LaFantasie.
Oates raised an infantry company shortly after the Civil War began in
1861. His outfit became part of the 15th Alabama; Oates, at age 27, was named
its colonel shortly before Gettysburg, the war’s bloodiest battle.
The 15th Alabama was part of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern
Virginia. On July 2, 1863, Oates led his men in several fruitless charges
against Union troops desperately defending a rocky rise known as Little Round
Top. Had the attacks succeeded, Lee might have beaten Gen. George G.
Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
Oates, who was wounded six times in the war, barely escaped death at
Gettysburg. But John Oates, his brother and law partner back home in Abbeville,
Ala., was among the Southern slain on Little Round Top.
From Gettysburg, Lee retreated back to Virginia. In 1864, he tried to
block Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s assault on Richmond, Va., the Confederate
capital, by fortifying nearby Petersburg.
The worst wound
Meanwhile, Oates had been transferred to command of the 48th Alabama. He
led his new regiment forward to meet a Union attack at Fussell’s Mills,
close to Petersburg, on Aug. 16, 1864.
Oates was, according to LaFantasie, “impervious to the hail of
bullets around him.”
Oates’ men begged him to take cover with them in a ditch.
Their entreaties came too late.
“A minie ball struck him in the right arm, midway between the elbow
and shoulder, shattering and splintering the bone,” LaFantasie wrote.
In his memoirs, Oates quipped that the wound earned him “a good
long furlough.” But LaFantasie wrote that the Alabamian “…knew
perfectly well that he had been seriously wounded.”
Realizing he could no longer lead his men, Oates turned over command of
his regiment to a captain. He soon fell wounded, according to LaFantasie.
Through the pain
Oates tried to steady himself by leaning against a small apple tree.
“The pain in his arm was excruciating,” LaFantasie wrote.
“One of those large minie balls strikes a hard blow,” he quoted from
Minie balls whizzed around the heads of the Rebels, who were forced to
retreat. Oates was “fearful that he might be shot in the back,” as he
walked toward the rear, LaFantasie wrote.
Staggering along, Oates encountered Rebel Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson.
The general ordered a courier to dismount and surrender his horse to Oates. The
grateful Oates climbed into the saddle and continued toward the rear. But
riding made his arm hurt worse, so he fstopped to rest under a shade tree,
according to LaFantasie.
He rose and continued his grueling trek on foot. After he gave a report
of the battle to another officer, Oates encountered an army surgeon who gave
him morphine to ease the pain. The physician began binding Oates’
shattered arm but fled when a Union artillery shell exploded uncomfortably
close by, LaFantasie wrote.
Finally, a pair of ambulance corpsmen from the 15th Alabama came upon
Oates. They fashioned a stretcher from a captured Yankee army blanket and began
carrying him away. Luckily for Oates, they found a horse-drawn ambulance which
carried him the rest of the way to a field hospital.
Oates said it was a grisly scene – “about an acre of ground
… covered with the wounded and dying” – from the 15th and 48th
Alabama, according to LaFantasie’s book. Doctors examined Oates’
bloody arm and determined it had to be amputated.
They gave Oates chloroform as an anesthetic before the surgery. The
chloroform was not completely effective. Oates said he “clearly knew what
was being done to me when they sawed the bone.”
He woke up about sundown, having been placed under a tree. One of
Oates’ men from the 15th Alabama was sitting at his side, sobbing because
he believed his old commander was dying, LaFantasie wrote.
After swallowing more whiskey to help dull the pain, Oates dictated a
letter to his parents, telling them of the amputation.
“He instructed a man to bury his severed arm, which the fellow did
by digging a hole near Oates’ tree,” LaFantasie wrote.
When he was well enough to travel, Oates was sent to Howard’s Grove
Hospital in Richmond. An attending physician “…used a compress on the
arm to stop the incessant bleeding and watched over his patient until the arm
began to heal,” LaFantasie wrote.
Oates admitted his spirits flagged.
“I was a young man of fine physical strength and activity, and to
be so impaired by the loss of my right arm made me despondent at times to feel
a regret that I had not been killed,” he wrote in his memoirs.
LaFantasie wrote that a captain from the 15th Alabama, who was also
wounded, cheered Oates up by coaxing extra whiskey rations from the nurses and
by teasing other wounded soldiers to the point that some of them
“requested transfers out of the ward.”
In November, Oates was sent home to Abbeville, which was the Henry
County seat. But he was moved to a plantation near Eufaula, where he had
recuperated from a previous wound, LaFantasie wrote.
Oates again became despondent, according to the author.
“Several times when trying to dress myself or write, and a time or
two when I got a fall by not being able to balance properly, I had felt a
regret that I had not been killed instead of maimed,” he confessed in his
memoirs. But Oates added, “Thereupon I made a virtue of necessity and
undertook to learn to do nearly everything that a man with two hands could
He said he became “like the sailor who fell from the masthead of
the ship and broke his leg – he thanked God it was not his neck.”
In January 1865, Oates tried to return to active service. Because of his
disability, he was assigned a desk job in the Confederate war department in
Richmond. Later, he was named a military judge, but the war ended before he
The Spanish-American War gave Oates – dubbed “the One-Armed
Hero of Henry County” – a last, if slim, chance at combat. He asked
President William McKinley for a brigadier general’s commission. Oates had
been a Rebel and was a Democrat. McKinley was a Republican and a Union Army
veteran. But McKinley happily gave Oates brigadier’s stars.
The old soldier served stateside in the brief conflict. He spent his
last years practicing law and selling real estate in Montgomery, Alabama’s
capital, before he died in 1910 at the age of 74 years.
“Like other Civil War veterans who served in the war with Spain,
Oates believed it never really measured up to the great conflict fought between
North and South,” LaFantasie wrote. “It was a piddling affair, made
more so by the fact that he could not relive the exhilaration of leading his
men in battle.”