Oates Letters on the 15th Alabama Monument
image courtesy GNMP
There is a boulder on Little Round Top known as the "Oates Boulder," it is commonly believed that William Oates' brother John
was wounded at that spot, and that William very much wished to honor his brother by placing a monument on that boulder.
However this may not be the case. Oates does recall that his brother was placed behind a large stone,
"When he fell struck by several balls, Lieut. Isaac H. Parks, who had been his school-fellow,
ran to him and dragged him behind a large stone, and just as Parks let him down another ball struck one of his hands and carried away his little finger." 1
On page 12 we see Oates labels the position of one boulder on his map. However in these documents
Oates does not seem too particularly attached to the idea of a monument being on the
large boulder seen on his map. He spends most of his time focused on other spots and only
suggests this boulder after a mason recommends he find a boulder near his desired locations, but even after that he
seems to focus on other positions over that of this boulder and on his map he does not mark the boulder with
an X to indicate it as a possible location. On page 9 we see he remembers "an incident that occurred at that boulder."
That would appear to be this incident described in his book.
"I led this charge and sprang upon the ledge of rock, using my pistol within musket length,
when the rush of my men drove the Maine men from the ledge along the line now indicated by stone markers on the east end of Vincent's Spur.
I have seen a statement from General Chamberlain that his right was not forced back beyond the point or angle of the rocky ledge,
where the right marker of his regiment stands. My recollection is quite different. At this angle and to the southwest of it is where I lost the greatest number of my men.
The Twentieth Maine was driven back from this ledge, but not farther than to the next ledge on the mountain-side.
I recall a circumstance which I recollect. I, with my regiment, made a rush forward from the ledge.
About forty steps up the slope there is a large boulder about midway the Spur. The Maine regiment charged my line,
coming right up in a hand-to-hand encounter. My regimental colors were just a step or two to the right of that boulder,
and I was within ten feet. A Maine man reached to grasp the staff of the colors when Ensign Archibald stepped back and Sergeant Pat
O'Connor stove his bayonet through the head of the Yankee, who fell dead.
I witnessed that incident, which impressed me beyond the point of being forgotten."2
We see in that quote as well as these letters as seen on page 4 that Oates is describing Chamberlain's right being driven back.
He also suggests in these letters that he pushed through Chamberlain's right as far as to encounter the 44th NY.
On page 4 we also see that he wished to place his monument
east of the Vincent marker, suggesting he wanted it to be on the east side of the road at a point between the 83rd PA and the 140th NY monuments.
These claims did not sit well with Chamberlain nor the Gettysburg National Military Park Commissioners.
After the Commissioners sent Chamberlain Oates' letters Chamberlain would strongly state in his reply seen here
that his right was not driven back and that Oates did not encounter the 44th New York.
In spite of this disagreement Chamberlain still remained open to some monument to Oates' men being erected on Little Round Top.
The quote from Oates' book seen above gives a small hint that something might be amiss with Oates left and right descriptions,
as we see he describes the spot as "the east end of Vincent's Spur" which would be Chamberlain's left not right.
Had Oates said "Chamberlain's left" instead of "Chamberlain's right" it may be that the two old soldiers would have
found themselves in agreement.
Without acknowledging his initial mistake, we see on page 6, Oates eases up on his claims of moving Chamberlain's right,
and now states, "Just as sure as your name is Robbins and mine Oates my regiment not only overlapped his left flank but drove the 20th Maine from that
position back to where I showed you and his right as well as his left forced back but not so far."
Oates' map, seen on page 12, also indicates he meant to say he pushed back Chamberlain's left.
The boulder he would map out would very much appear to be the same boulder later picked by the Park Commissioners to be the location of of the Chamberlain
monument as seen by the blueprint at top of the page and also described here
The Chamberlain monument location might seem like a huge slap in the face to those who would call this the Oates' boulder.
But Oates in these letters does not seem to be particularly attached to the boulder
or in anyway suggest it was the same boulder his brother was carried behind, he only remembers a soldier from the 20th Maine being killed there.
To add more to the confusion the boulder that the 20th Maine monument is on might not even be properly marked.
Chamberlain stated at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument
that "I am certain that the position of this monument is quite to the left of center of our regimental line when the final charge was ordered."
It may be the boulder the 20th Maine Monument is on that Oates refers to in his report when he says,
"I halted my regiment as its left reached a very large rock, and ordered a left-wheel of the regiment, which was executed in good
order under fire, thus taking advantage of a ledge of rocks running off in a line perpendicular to the one I had just abandoned, and
affording very good protection to my men."3
This may be the second and third positons marked out on his map, page 12.
It may have been simply the confusion of left and right that caused Oates first account to be rejected so firmly.
But while it may have saved him the argument, it might not have helped him in his ultimate goal of placing his monument, as
the Park Commissioners wanted to uphold the restriction on that "The monument must be on the line of battle held by the brigade."