Conceived in liberty : Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War /

In narrating the lives of Joshua Chamberlain and William Oates, Mark Perry's Conceived in Liberty opens a window on seventy years of American history, at the center of which is the July 1863 Battle of Little Round Top. This legendary contest decided the Battle of Gettysburg, opened a door to th...

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Main Author: Perry, Mark, 1950-
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Published:New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1997.
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CHAPTER ONE I Went Out Among Strangers IT WAS NOT FATE that brought William Oates's father to Alabama, but land. The elder William Oates came to Montgomery from South Carolina in 1828, then moved forty miles to the southeast, near the city of Troy. There, in Pike County, he set down roots and built a farm on land that was intersected by two trails cut through the wilderness. The journey from South Carolina must have been arduous, but thousands of young settlers like him made the trip in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Most of southern Alabama was populated by farmers who came west from the soil-poor upland districts of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. They followed the old Indian trails that skirted the southern edge of the Appalachians, or hugged the lands just north of the Gulf Coast, stopping by circumstance or plan to put in crops and start a family. Small farmers were not the only ones moving west. Planters from the tidewater regions of the mid-Atlantic were also on the move, fleeing the bleached-out cotton lands that produced smaller and smaller yields. While most of Alabama's newest settlers planted small plots of corn, tobacco, sugar, fruit, and vegetables, the lowland immigrants came with their slaves, cutting away thousands of acres of woodland and building plantations. These new planters settled mainly in the "black belt" country of central Alabama, where the soil was rich. They engaged in the nineteenth-century equivalent of industrial farming. With few exceptions, these planters did not learn from their failures in the cast, however, and gave little thought to rotating and diversifying their crops or resuscitating their fields with potash and phosphates. By the third decade of the new century, most of the South's planters and farmers realized that their methods were spawning an agricultural disaster, but they kept on as before, pushed by necessity. Edmund Ruffin, a slaveholder and plantation owner in Virginia, recognized the effects of southern farming methods on his own holdings as early as 1832 and pushed his fellow planters to institute more progressive farming methods. He received little support. When his neighbors asked him why his estate, Marlbourough, was thriving while their own were going to ruin, he pointed to his fields of planted corn and wheat, his thriving herd of livestock, and his small plots of green vegetables as proof that his methods resulted in increased yields. Cotton was a huge cash crop that promised immediate profits, he pointed out, but a farmer should not plant it everywhere year after year. It destroyed soil fertility. But instead of being viewed as agricultural innovations, Ruffin's methods were looked on with suspicion, and he was labeled a cranky eccentric. By the early 1850s, however, Ruffin would no longer be alone in his views and the South would be faced with a looming agricultural crisis. In 1857, agricultural expert J. Foster Marshall told a South Carolina conference of planters: Our present system is to cut down our forest and run it into cotton as long as it will pay for the labor expended. Then cut down more forest, plant in cotton, plough it uphill and downhill, and when it failed to give a support leave it.... Then sell the carcass for what you can realize and migrate to the Southwest in quest of another victim. This ruinous system has entailed upon us an exhausted soil, and a dependence upon Kentucky and Tennessee for our mules, horses, and hogs, and upon the Northern States for all our necessaries from the clothing and shoeing of our Negroes down to our wheelbarrows, corn-brooms and axe-handles. In spite of these and other warnings issued over the years, southern farmers believed that no matter how poor their soil became, anyone who worked hard and planted in cotton could strike it rich; all that was needed was for new lands to be opened in the West that would support the cotton economy, and the slaves that went with it. The belief was pervasive; many of the subsistence farmers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia who moved west in the 1820s were lured by a vision of easy cotton-bought wealth that would transform them from the South's poor cousins to men and women who lived in the manor. With a little luck and enough cotton, they believed, they could form the new cotton aristocracy of Alabama and Mississippi. The elder William Oates carried the family name, a capacity for hard work, and an iron disposition into the wilds of southeastern Alabama. It is nearly impossible to trace the Oates line past William's father, Stephenson Oates, except to confirm what is written in the sparse family biography: that the Oateses were of Welsh stock and poor, had been in America since before the Revolution, and that an ancestor had fought in the Revolution as a soldier for Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." When Oates arrived in southeastern Alabama in 1828, he surveyed a virgin country untouched by the plow. Until then, the only excitement southeastern Alabama had seen was the day in 1813 when Andrew Jackson's tattered western militia came sweeping through in pursuit of the Creek Indians. Jackson fought a series of engagements that broke the power of the Indian confederacy, made them wards of the federal government, and opened new settlement lands. The excitement lasted long enough for hundreds of Creeks to be slaughtered at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, two dozen miles northeast of Montgomery, after which Jackson set out along a new trail that took him to New Orleans and, later, to the White House. But if the Creeks were defeated, they were not subdued. The year William Oates arrived in Montgomery, the state's leading politicians were embroiled in a bitter controversy over Indian removal with the administration of John Quincy Adams, who not only believed that the Indian nations should be as "states within states," but who had decreed that one-third of Alabama should be left in the hands of its natives. Adams's policy was unpopular in the South; in Alabama, opposition to the plan grew so violent that the state government would likely have considered armed resistance had Adams been reelected to a second term. The election of Andrew Jackson eased the crisis, but the danger did not pass. During Jackson's term Alabama's tribes agreed, in principle, to cede their lands to the state government in exchange for an understanding that they could remain as residents until they chose to move. In turn, the federal government promised the Indians it would protect them. Buried in the treaty was the implicit understanding that the Indians would move, but not just yet. Such fine print did not matter, however, to the hordes of settlers who descended on the state in a breathless rush. Over a period of two years, 30,000 settlers moved onto Indian lands in defiance of federal orders, staked claims, and began to farm. Surprisingly, Jackson--who came to office on the strength of his ties to the simple frontiersman--ordered federal troops to remove the settlers, by force if necessary. Alabamians were defiant; local militias were immediately raised and public meetings were held to organize resistance. But just when it seemed that the state was on the verge of outright rebellion, Jackson announced that the settlers could stay where they were. The conflict bore all the hallmarks of southern frontier society: an aristocratic pride in defiance, a deep-seated loyalty to a state's right to nullify federal law, and a romantic belief in the sovereignty of farmers armed with muskets. That Andrew Jackson might simply have been more willing to break a promise to the Indians than shed the blood of those who elected him did not occur to many Alabamians. They believed, instead, that their opposition to the federal government had been justified by their victory. Furthermore, Jackson's initial orders to remove the settlers convinced many Alabamians that New Englanders (like the hated Adams) were trying to strangle the South, first by closing off the settlement of fertile lands and--when this strategy failed--by agitating for an end to slavery. Alabamians were not far wrong: by the mid-1830s a nascent but dedicated abolitionist movement, led by men and women pledged to eradicate the institution, had already taken root in the North. At first southerners dismissed the movement, but they feared that the promise of freedom held out by the abolitionists might lead to a slave revolt, and an end to their way of life. * There were 85,000 whites and 41,000 slaves in frontier Alabama in 1820, but the ratio of white to slave decreased decade by decade over the next forty years. By 1830, two years after William Oates had settled at what came to be known as Oates's Crossroads, there were 117,000 slaves in the state. The figure doubled during the next twenty years. At first no one doubted that the master-slave relationship could be maintained, but the increase in the number of black families sparked doubts among Alabama planters, who began to enforce stringent new slave codes to ensure the peace. The slave codes made everyone feel secure for a time, but they failed to address the increasingly obvious demographic imbalance. The one thing Alabama's planters most feared--that they would be drowned in a sea of black faces--was also the very thing that made them rich, gave them their status, and infused every part of their culture. Alabama was being gradually transformed into three distinct districts: a slaveholding region in the central counties, a white antislaveholding section in the northern counties, and a poor white region of largely small farmers and few slaves in the southern counties. This division began to poison the state's social order. While most of the residents of Pike County mistrusted the federal government, they also resented the affluence and social influence of the planter class. It was a simple matter of geography; just miles north of Oates's Crossroads, the thick, rich soil of central Alabama supported a class of influential planters and a disgruntled and potentially violent population of slaves. There were four whites for every one slave in Pike County, but twenty miles to the north the numbers were nearly even. The distance a man could travel in one day marked the difference between a life of unceasing toil on poor land and a life of comparative comfort on land as yet unspoiled by cotton's demands. Alabama society was shot through with the language of southern propriety and later accounts describe William Oates as a "planter." The term is a social conceit--he cleared and cut the land, planted, harvested, and sold a crop and, after three years, returned to Montgomery to marry Sarah Sellers, whose family roots were French and Irish. William and Sarah were farmers, not "planters." They started poor and stayed that way, their days taken up with the spine-breaking work of scratching a living from the soil, and trading the paltry surplus they produced at the nearby crossroads. They were typical of the new settlers of the "wiregrass country"; their lives had few amenities and little in the way of enrichments. Within a year of their marriage, William and Sarah began to build their family, which soon consisted of as many mouths as they could feed. Their oldest child, William, was born on November 30, 1833, and was followed, in quick succession, by seven others--Thomas, John, Amanda, Melissa, Mary, James, and Louisa. There may have been more; infant deaths were left unrecorded. This was a common enough event on the frontier, for while the passing of a child was deeply mourned, it was only a temporary interruption of the monotony of everyday life. William and Sarah struggled to keep up with their growing family, bringing more of their land under cultivation, but the farm produced only enough for their immediate needs. The elder William worked from sunrise to sunset, while Sarah raised the children to meet her standards. She believed in hard work and religious devotion and was a strong-willed woman with a formidable constitution. She ran Oates's Crossroads with patient firmness, never deviating from her own belief that steely ambition would overcome any obstacle. She had a high regard for education, pushing her oldest son to learn under the most adverse circumstances. There were moments of delight for William and Sarah Oates: healthy births, baptisms, visits to nearby families and friends, and visits to trading towns that lay within easy distance. Over the years, this extended group of families became a tightly knit community, with the Oates children marrying the children of family friends in the nearby towns of Eufaula and Tuskegee. The young William Oates made friends for life on the farms nearby: M. E. Meredith and Jefferson Hussey. Within miles of the Oates home, the Linton and Long families became friends, and relatives of the Sellerses and Oateses--aunts, uncles, cousins--were sprinkled throughout the southeastern part of the state. In the years ahead, the Oates family would become associated with families who were typical of frontier Alabama, large and poor, but dedicated to improvement, and whose descendants are still prominent citizens of the state. William Oates's best friend, his closest confidant, and his ally in all of his adventures was his brother John. Unlike most brothers close in years, they never seemed to have fought, and came to rely on each other in doing chores and defending each other in schoolyard fights. Their closeness came as a result of their work for their father, a strict and demanding disciplinarian, and grew over the years because of their shared intelligence, adventurousness, ambition, and dream of finding a way of life away from Oates's Crossroads. They felt stifled by working on a farm, cultivated an abhorrence for hard labor, and took whatever opportunity they could to go off to the local school. Their father, who is described in histories of Pike County as being "an honest, upright, and godfearing man," knew this and did his best to sustain his family, educate his children, and offer them opportunities outside of Oates's Crossroads. Yet he could do little to appease his sons' restiveness--the family was simply too poor to allow much deviation from the day-to-day round of chores that were essential for its survival. * When the settlers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia came to Alabama, they brought with them their dreams of a better life and their belief in individual initiative. And they brought their religion. When they arrived they found that the frontier, much like their homelands farther east, had been set afire by itinerant ministers who preached a new and potent religious message of self-reliance and salvation. These evangelists rejected the rising popularity of New England deism and reinforced the belief that a family chosen of God could make its way in the wilderness. The "Second Great Awakening," as it is now called, was sparked in 1801 by James McGready, a Presbyterian minister whose initial three-day encampment at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, attracted 25,000 worshipers, a crowd unheard of for that time. McGready's hellfire sermon at Cane Ridge and his continuing ministry, with its heady potion of down-home morality, had an enormous appeal to frontier families. He preached salvation through hard work and churchgoing, and alluded to far-off unnamed devils who plotted to undo the work of God. Such preaching was especially well suited to frontier Alabama, where its message of individual salvation through hardship took deep root. During the years when William and Sarah Oates were raising their children, religious encampments and revivals were drawing thousands of settlers throughout the South and West. Those who witnessed them would never forget the scenes of crowds of people pressing forward to; receive the blessing: "Will I ever see anything more like the day of Judgment on this side of eternity--to see the people running, yes, running from every direction to the stand, weeping, shouting, and shouting for joy. O! glorious day they went home singing shouting," one observer wrote in 1837. The revival movement burned itself out in the early 1850s, but it had an enormous impact on frontier life, combining with its call for a rejection of sin a belief that God alone ruled and gave to each, regardless of his or her station, a chance at personal redemption. The pious would be rewarded no matter what hardships they met along the way. It was an inspiring message for hardscrabble settlers aspiring to be planters. Yet it resonated even in New England, where devout churchgoers were struggling with the Calvinist notion of predestination. In Rochester, New York, Charles Grandison Finney used the language of frontier revivals to preach a gospel of redemption that questioned the precepts of New England Puritanism and emphasized the primacy of human freedom. Sin, Finney said, was not universal, but personal. He initiated what he called "new measures," like six-hour religious services and the "anxious seat," where sinners sat facing the congregation to confess their most intimate sins and to wrestle publicly with the devil for the dominance of their soul. Finney's enormous popularity was undoubtedly rooted in his flair for drama, but stage props like the anxious seat were also a symbol of the dramatic changes that frontier revivals were having in the more staid congregations of the North and East. While McGready and his colleagues called themselves "harvesters" who had come to gather God's bounty, Finney adopted the language of the revivalists to urge his congregants not simply to harvest new souls, but to remake the world. Sinners who stood by in the face of evil, McGready and Finney proclaimed, could not join the harvest but would be condemned, cut like fields of wheat before the scythe, their seeds scattered to the winds, their redemption bought with blood. This above all, the evangelists claimed, was plain for everyone to see: the sinful would be punished, and the devout would be rewarded. At first Finney was viewed as a quaint country parson by many of the Northeast's traditional ministers and their upper-crust congregants, but the power of his message eventually made itself felt, especially in upstate New York. In New England, free-thinking deists used Finney's message to build a small but vocal core of social reformers, including abolitionists, who used the church to spread their message. This is certainly not what Finney had intended (the "great political and other worldly excitements that agitate Christendom, are all unfriendly to religion," he wrote pointedly), but his message was fraught with the belief that human action could change the world. Like McGready, Finney believed that revivals contained the seeds of change for established religious institutions,just as, in the Bible, "the word of God is compared to grain, and preaching is compared to sowing seed, and the results to the springing up and growth of the crop." The message that appealed to a small core of reformers in the North was used to great effect, but to different ends, in the South. In Alabama and throughout the Deep South, McGready's disciples emphasized his message of personal salvation (just as Finney had), telling their audiences that those who believed in God and followed his path could reach salvation. But they did not stop there. McGready's constant reference to work of the godless outsider had great local appeal and helped to bind fragile frontier communities together. The "Second Great Awakening" reinforced the status quo in the South, where families like the Oateses of Alabama lived a day-to-day existence timed to the rhythms of the crops. Like most of their neighbors, they believed that while the lot of the human race might someday be improved, it was unlikely to happen anytime soon. Instead, God gave to each man and woman a role in life, and a station. In the North personal salvation required individuals to work to end society's evils, but in the South personal salvation became rooted in the defense of the God-fearing against the wicked ways of the devil's agents. * There was a certain pride in the pioneer spirit that McGready and his disciples understood well, and the frontier mentality of hard work and accomplishment was an invariable part of his sermons. That hard work leads to salvation is something the elder William Oates already believed. While the life of the plantations clustered just to the north might seem beyond his reach, it was the elusive but ever-present goal toward which he worked--as did every member of his family, including his increasingly frustrated firstborn son. Beginning in his early teenage years, William continually asked his father to send him to school, but was always met by the same answer. There was too much work to be done on the farm and there were too many mouths to feed. The son understood necessity as well as his father, but the memory of watching others attend school bothered him then and embittered him for years thereafter. "The facilities for obtaining an education in the country at that time were indeed poor," he wrote later, in a hand shaken by age. "Two or three months in the year to a common school in the country was the only chance we had for a scholastic education. And then one out of ten of the teachers employed should have gone to a good school for years before they would have been properly qualified as teachers." The result was that Oates's education was spotty at best--the teachers were themselves nearly illiterate, the schoolrooms disorganized, the older boys strong and intimidating. There were some exceptions: a school taught by Gamalael Sellers, a relative, and a teacher by the name of F. J. Braswell. But Oates could not attend the single-room schoolhouse for more than three months in any year because of the requirements of the farm. Worse yet, he had to pay for the education himself with funds he earned taking jobs in the neighborhood. "My father, seeing that I had a desire for education, told me ... that he was too poor and had so many children he could not afford me or them any better advantages than the schools [near Oates's Crossroads], and that if I saw proper at any time to go out and try my hand at getting on in the world that he would not object ... [but] I would not leave him but stuck to my plough daily until the crop was made." Oates was intent on getting an education, however, even if that meant working at two jobs--one at home, for which he would not be paid, and as a field hand on nearby farms, to earn the money for his tuition. "I went out among strangers and hired myself to one Allen Pryor for a time and then to Tom McDonald to work on the farm for ten dollars a month," he later recounted, "a part of which I saved and paid my way through a three months county school." Eventually, even with the paucity of education that he was receiving, Oates became proficient enough that he was able to hire himself out as a local teacher, helping younger children learn to read and write. He even "got up a little school in the neighborhood" that brought in extra money for the family. Oates's budding career as a local teacher was cut short, however, by an argument he had with his father, who unfairly blamed him for an undefined act of disobedience, and undoubtedly for taking time away from his chores, and beat him. The son ran away from home in rebellion, making his way as an itinerant laborer in southern Alabama. While he came home only weeks after leaving, his relationship with his father remained strained. It was then that the temper for which he would be known in his youth first began to show. Returning to the local school, he fought with a schoolyard bully by the name of Bill Crauswell, who beat him badly "but did not whip me." Oates "then tried to get a gun to shoot him, but failed. I had it in me for years afterwards to kill him, but I never got the chance." Just a few months later, Oates was still packing a pistol for Bill Crauswell, and working to pay his way through school, when another violent misadventure sent him fleeing the Crossroads, and changed his life forever. * The episode that Oates remembered with a mix of horror and pride throughout his later life had its beginnings just over one thousand miles north of Oates's Crossroads, in the small town of Hydesville, New York. There, in the tiny hamlet of some forty houses thirty miles east of Rochester, an event occurred that was so strange, it gave new meaning to the phrase "burned-over district," which is what that part of the state was then called. The phrase is used by historians to reflect the feverish religious movements that swept through Hydesville and other towns like it in the region; so many movements, in fact, that the communities were spiritually "burned over"--as if scorched by God's power. Joseph Smith first revealed the Book of Mormon in upstate New York, where he gained his first converts in the search for the New Jerusalem. The region also spawned the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney. But neither the experiences of Smith nor Finney nor the religious epiphanies claimed by other upstate religious movements could compare to what happened in the house of John and Margaret Fox on a cold day in March 1848. On March 31, the Foxes learned that their fifteen-year-old daughter Maggie and her twelve-year-old sister Kate were communicating with the dead. It started in the evening when, suffering from colds, the two daughters moved their trundle bed into their parents' bedroom. Soon after, the two parents and their daughters heard several distinct but irregular raps, as if someone were knocking on the walls. The family had heard the rappings before, but passed them off as the sounds of the old house creaking and settling in the weather. But this night, the two girls began snapping their fingers in imitation of the sounds. The younger girl, Kate, then asked the sounds to imitate her snapping fingers--one rap for yes and two for no. Whoever (or whatever) was rapping responded. Their mother then conducted an experiment of her own, which was duly noted by later investigators: "I then asked if it was a human being that was making the noise? and if it was to manifest it by two sounds. I heard two sounds as soon as the words were spoken. I then asked, if it was an injured spirit? to give me the sound, and I heard the rapping distinctly. I then asked if it was injured in this house? and it manifested it by the noise. If the person was living that injured it? and got the same answer. I then ascertained by the same method that its remains were buried under the dwelling, and how old it was." Neighbors were called, confirmed the rappings, and testified that despite hours of intense searching they could not find the source. Then more neighbors came, and more, until the story of the two young Fox girls and how they learned to communicate with the spirit world had spread well beyond Hydesville. Within weeks, crowds began to descend on the Fox home and local committees of investigators were appointed to locate the source of the rappings. No one could. Doors were shut, windows closed, and sentries posted in the cellar and all the rooms, yet no one could determine any trick the girls had used to mislead the community. Finally, a chief investigator was forced to admit that while the young Fox daughters might not be communicating with the dead, they were certainly not involved in a massive charade: "I am willing to testify under oath," this investigator said, "that I did not make the noises or rapping which I and others heard, that I do not know of any person who did or could have made them, that I have spent considerable time since then in order to satisfy myself as to the cause of it, but cannot account for it on any other ground than it is supernatural." That was good enough testimony for many and sufficient for most. The investigation brought even larger crowds to Hydesville. Eventually, at the urging of their parents, the Fox girls worked out a complicated code to communicate with the spirit world and a regular series of messages passed between the living and the dead. The Fox sisters were now famous--so famous, in fact, that just one year after the Hydesville rappings began, the Foxes decided to move Kate to Rochester to keep her away from the excited crowds. That turned out to be a very good decision because in Rochester (as Kate quickly informed her growing flock of admirers) the first complete message from the world of the dead was transmitted to the world of the living. This message became as well known to spiritualists as Graham Bell's "Watson, come here, I need you" became known to a later generation of scientists. "We are all your dear friends and relatives," the spirit said. The message was soon hailed by Kate's growing group of followers as a communication as important as Morse's telegraph (invented four years before)--or more so, since this new "spiritual telegraph" opened a world that Morse did not even know existed. On November 29, 1849, the sisters received their first payment for a private seance. The drama during such readings rivaled anything that James McGready had presented at Cane Ridge and made Finney's "anxious seat" pale by comparison: tables moved, beds and mattresses were overturned, blankets fluttered unaided about rooms. The Fox sisters' power, prestige, and popularity was known far and wide, with journalists and society mavens traveling from New York City to participate in their private readings. Even the most outspoken skeptics were convinced: "Injustice to the family," one journalist wrote, "we must acquit the girls of any attempt to impose upon the public--in truth they are the most imposed upon by the public--and when we see published statements of their trickery and deception, we do not hesitate to pronounce the authors of them liars." In early 1850 the Fox family moved to Albany, where they continued their work. Here they were put upon by a gaggle of agents and the equivalent of twentieth-century public relations experts. Soon afterward, the two young girls decided that they should follow the advice of their handlers by taking quarters in the luxurious Barnum Hotel in New York City. Their arrival in New York drew throngs of people, from the curious to the convinced. The great and near-great of the city were also attracted by the new wonder and crowded quickly into the Fox sisters' public demonstrations and private readings: Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the Tribune, the poet William Cullen Bryant, and author James Fenimore Cooper all made the pilgrimage to the Barnum to meet the sisters, confer with them, participate in their "rap sessions," and then discharge an endless patter for a nation consumed by the news. Cooper was particularly impressed when a spirit from "the other side" correctly answered his most private questions--especially when it rapped fifty times for the number of years that his beloved sister had been dead. It did not seem to matter to the public that one year after taking New York by storm, the Fox sisters failed an examination conducted by doctors of a recently organized school of medicine in Buffalo. The doctors concluded that the two girls made the sounds of rappings by deliberately popping their knee joints, cracking and uncracking them, but the report caused little interest. The public simply did not want to believe that the sisters were frauds. For many, the issue was put to rest by the dead themselves, who reassured their loved ones that the Fox sisters had been specially chosen as their communicants. Besides, spiritualism not only soothed the pain of loss for the living, it was good for business. Inevitably, the Fox sisters phenomenon gave birth to myriad other wild claims that all attracted adherents: believers in animal magnetism, clairvoyants, summoners of poltergeists, and speakers of tongues (who communicated with the dead while in a trance). It was as if the public testimonies of the "Second Great Awakening," which featured fearful screams, faints, and terrified shaking, had been transmuted into something far more wondrous--or sinister. In an age still dominated by church leaders who claimed that only the elect could be saved, the popularity of spiritualism proved that anyone could have access to the truth, even two unprepossessing hayseed country girls. American spiritualism swept through New York and then out across the Midwest. It came to Alabama in the early 1850s, carried there by new settlers from the northern states who, like the earlier frontier peoples, came looking for a better life--or a fast way to make a dollar. On a hot June day in 1851 a spirit medium called Miss Post set up business near Oates's Crossroads and claimed that she could communicate with the dead through rappings that were similar to those heard by the Fox girls. Of course, ever since the first Hydesville Rappings, as they came to be known, the use of innocent children as communicators with the dead was standard fare as parents all over America (some as convinced of their children's special gifts as the Foxes themselves) promoted the mediumship of their children for personal gain. The temptations of proving this fraud were too much for William Oates, however, who visited the young girl for a special spiritualist reading. At first, everything went well, or as well as the Posts had hoped, but when Oates insisted on firmly holding down the table at which he and the young lady were seated--thereby causing the rappings to stop--the trouble began. The girl was disconcerted, increasingly flustered, protested against his skepticism, and insisted that he put his hands out of sight so that she could continue with her reading. Oates was delighted by this and unintimidated by the looming figure of the young girl's father, who entered the room to watch the session and to keep an eye on his daughter's customer. When Oates repeated his actions, the father could barely contain his anger. He was so enraged, in fact, that he ordered the young man off of his property and followed him down the road, shouting at him and shaking his fist in the air. When Oates continued to hoot about his trick, the man picked up a piece of lumber and chased him, apparently intent on protecting his investment from a youth who would broadcast the fraud throughout the community. The man swung at Oates, believing that it would take little effort to scare him away, but Oates, instead, turned to face him. When the man kept coming, Oates grabbed a nearby shovel and, swinging wildly to protect himself, knocked him down. The damage was worse than Oates had intended: by his own account he "hit him a glancing lick which fractured his skull, [and] knocked him senseless, inflicting a terrible wound." As fortune would have it, a passerby who had heard the argument came upon Oates standing over the man, shovel raised. There could be only one conclusion; within hours a warrant was issued for Oates's arrest. But it was too late. Oates was gone, headed south, convinced that somewhere behind him the local authorities were telling his father and mother that their oldest son was being charged with murder. He left Alabama with a bag over his shoulder and fifty dollars in his pocket. * The next twenty-four to thirty-six months in the life of William Oates--from the early summer of 1851 until about the beginning of 1854--were some of the most important of his entire life and, for later historians, some of the most confusing. Writing about the events that followed his flight from Pike County more than six decades later, Oates not only failed to give clear chronological markers of his journey (it is still uncertain just exactly when he left Oates's Crossroads), he made it nearly impossible to tell when he went where, how long he stayed, and when he decided to return home. Oates may well have purposely clouded the record; he certainly had good reason to do so. Over the next months, the young Alabamian wandered the untamed and violent footpaths of frontier America with little concern for his own safety and little reflection on the higher purposes of life--he consorted with criminals, gambled, brawled in public, had numerous run-ins with the law, and tasted the fleeting pleasures of meaningless romance. His journey was certainly exciting, but it was also sybaritic--something that many years later, as a mature and established man of means, he would not want many people to know. That we have a record of his adventure at all is unusual, for he only wrote of his time "a roving in the southwest" at the very end of his life, leaving his sole written account to his son "that he may profit by following my good examples and be happy by avoiding my errors." It is obvious that he did not want his adventures made public. Oates seems to have left Alabama in late June 1851 and, after a short and uneventful journey through Pike and Henry counties, found himself in the small Florida panhandle town of Milton, a nondescript crossroads village of ruffians and gamblers just across the Alabama-Florida state line. Milton must have been one of the most unattractive places on the Florida frontier, a town of transients and those who served them: bartenders, a few storekeepers, a handful of prostitutes, and rough men looking for work. There was little work to be had, except farther south, along the Gulf Coast itself, where a small fishing trade had grown. Oates had little idea what he would do with himself in Milton, though he believed firmly that fifty dollars (a fortune, really, for a seventeen-year-old southern boy in the early 1850s) was enough money for him to start a business and prosper. Certainly there was nothing else to do, so after making certain the Alabama authorities had not followed him across the state line, and believing he could make up in ambition and good intentions what he lacked in experience, Oates rented a small stand to sell cigars. It was an odd idea. Oates had little business knowledge and almost no contacts in Milton, and he soon learned that, despite the town's ever-shifting population, there was little need for cigars in the community. Eventually he was forced to supplement his meager income by playing cards, a way of life that was not only exciting (and chancy, considering the lack of gambling laws--or anyone to enforce them), but for which he believed he had an almost inexhaustible talent. But the learning curve for gambling is, if anything, steeper than it is for selling cigars and it was not long before Oates and the money he had earned from his cigar business were separated in "a game or two or a dozen of cards." Within a few short weeks Oates was forced to close his cigar stall and hire himself out as a housepainter, which provided a constant, though unexciting, source of income. By then, just weeks after setting out, Oates received word from his friends in Pike County that while he had not killed the father of the medium, he could not return home, since a warrant for assault had been issued in his name. The local constable was waiting for him. He had only been gone a few weeks, and yet because Milton offered even fewer prospects than Oates's Crossroads, the young Alabamian decided to once again take to the road. This time he headed farther south to the Gulf Coast itself, where he had heard there were jobs to be had aboard a number of local fishing schooners. But his time as a hired hand on a Gulf schooner was a brutalizing experience, cold and physically exacting. He was mistreated by the schooner captain, who worked him to the point of physical exhaustion and then, when he complained, refused to pay him his wages. Oates later recalled that the only friend he had on his first voyage was "a big long negro" who kept him warm during the cold Gulf nights and fed him during the day. When Oates finally put his feet back on dry soil, he wisely decided to give up the life of a deckhand and once again struck out west, down the single dirt road to Pensacola. Yellow fever had begun to sweep through the South, claiming hundreds of lives each year in the region's larger cities. It struck Pensacola in early 1852, at about the same time that Oates arrived there. It was only a matter of time before he also became ill. As the disease worsened, he began to vomit blood, turning a deathly yellow as the fever racked his body. One night, when the disease was at its height, the few friends he had made in Pensacola gathered at his bedside to witness his death. In due time they called in a minister to give him a last blessing, then waited for the inevitable. By the next morning, however, Oates had made a miraculous recovery: he was awake, the fever was gone, and after several days he had rallied completely. Others in Pensacola were not so lucky and dozens died before the fever swept on farther west. After several months of working in Pensacola without any improvement in his prospects, Oates decided that he had had quite enough of Florida, packed up what few belongings he owned, and moved west to Mobile. The yellow fever epidemic had preceded him, however, and Oates was not willing to wrestle with death one more time; so he gave Mobile a wide birth and struck out along the well-traveled wagon-rutted road to New Orleans. It was a memorable journey, peopled with itinerant Americans heading to the new southwestern frontier where jobs could be found along the waterfront in New Orleans, or in the new state of Texas, where the sparsely populated plains were being broken for farms or divided into cattle ranches. Near the Louisiana-Florida border, Oates fell in with some "creamy looking Mulattoes, spanish speaking, quite pretty and attractive in appearance," whom he accompanied for a time before leaving them to find work in New Orleans. Even in early 1853, New Orleans, the South's first city--a boomtown of wharves, warehouses, ornate homes, slums, bars, gambling dens, and slave markets--was famous across the nation as the gateway to the Gulf and the heartbeat of America's greatest river. Like Abraham Lincoln, who sculled his way from Illinois south to New Orleans on a flatboat (making an unimaginable eight dollars per month doing so), Oates undoubtedly believed that his visit to the Crescent City would be the high point of his young life. It was, but only for a short time. While Oates was impressed by the sheer numbers of people who crowded the New Orleans docks (more people than he had seen in one place, ever) and promenaded along its still young streets, he was disappointed, even scandalized, by New Orleans' seamy underside. He spent some time there (whether days or weeks is uncertain) taking in the sights and doing odd jobs, but then coolly decided what was plain for everyone to see: that despite its legendary sophistication, New Orleans was a "filthy" place. One day he had had enough and moved on north, to Shreveport. His decision may have been influenced by the yellow fever that seemed to have followed him to New Orleans from Pensacola. The sickness hit the city hard; where it had once felled a handful, and then dozens (in Milton, Pensacola, and Mobile) it now afflicted hundreds, and then thousands. For several weeks the fever swept through the city seemingly unchecked, driving people into their homes in fear and emptying the newly fashioned Latin Quarter, where Oates had heard French spoken for the first time. The first cases of yellow fever appeared in New Orleans in the spring of 1853, and it reached epidemic proportions during the humid midsummer months. Over the next two years, 5,000 people died of the fever in New Orleans. It was only in 1855, after the disease moved north along the river (where it claimed one-sixth of the population of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in two short months) that the city recovered. Although it isn't clear when Oates arrived in Shreveport, his luck began to change there. He was able to find work as a housepainter and quickly settled into a predictable routine of work and entertainment. It appeared that he had finally found a home; he befriended Shreveport's natives and became known around the town. After a few weeks he even found himself attracted to "a pretty rosy cheeked, black eyed country girl who," he added, "had not been reared to closely observe the rules observed in the more cultured circles of society." One night near Shreveport, while Oates and the girl were carrying on "a little love affair" in the family wagon, the girl's father burst in and grabbed Oates by the shirt. Oates could see that the girl's father was enraged and about to haul him off to the local constable or, worse, demand that he marry his daughter. Oates would not have any of that, firmly refused the suggestion, and began to grapple with the man. Luckily, Oates was saved by a very timely interruption. In the midst of the angry tussle, the girl's father was himself arrested by the local sheriff, who accused the man of stealing a slave--a very serious criminal act. Oates later recounted this episode in his autobiography, commenting at length on the pitfalls of love and the temptations of romance and warning his son against the temporary pleasures of such liaisons. "It is only the puny, feeble and lifeless chap who is too pious, prudent and pure to be allured by the natural attractions of the world," he wrote, but then added that such attractions can be dangerous. Oates said later the important lesson he learned was that not all is what it seems and that it is precisely when you are most vulnerable you should think about the future. After the Shreveport incident, Oates resolved never to be shackled to a plow and determined to make the best of his ambitions before being saddled with a family. Clearly Oates hoped to avoid his father's fate: a brood of children and a mounting pile of bills. He followed this vow well into his adult life, ultimately marrying only when it suited his purposes. * While Oates's "little love affair" had brought him a maturity he had not had when he set out on his journey, the events of the next few months proved that he still had not mastered his temper. It flared up once again when a man he worked for in Shreveport failed to pay him what he promised. Oates confronted him angrily and, when the man still refused to pay what he owed, Oates "seized him and threw him back into his chair, grappled his throat with my left hand, held him as a vise, and while choking him, I hit him in the face eight or nine times with my right fist and made the blood spatter." He left the scene in a hurry, feeling better that he had taken his revenge, though the local authorities were once again on his trail. Oates was now on the run again. He wandered aimlessly off toward Texas and soon found himself in the small town of Marshall. Though he had few prospects and even less money, Marshall seemed much more to his liking than any other place he had been, not only because almost everyone carried a gun, but also because open public gambling and the violence that went with it were common. Oates was attracted to this kind of danger, and knew it. So he promised himself he would stay away from the gambling dens as long as he could (his Milton experience must have still been on his mind), do his best to make a living at his old job as a housepainter, and stay clear of young marriageable girls. It was not that Oates had suddenly decided to follow the path to respectability, but rather that having always been attracted to books and ideas, he began studying at a local school and doing the best he could to stay out of trouble. It was one of the few times since he had left Alabama that there had been any routine in his life. Marshall was a frontier town, growing and dangerous, and it was almost inevitable that he would get into a fight. This time, though, Oates was more victim than aggressor. The incident took place when Marshall's town drunk, a man by the name of Sweeney, insulted him in a local bar. When Oates hurled an insult back at him, the argument grew heated. Sweeney pulled out a long Bowie knife and waved it threateningly in front of Oates's face. Oates was thoroughly frightened (he later wrote vividly that the knife "glistened like new silver") and ran down the street with Sweeney huffing after him. Again, as so often in the past, the young Alabamian was saved from almost certain death by accident when a group of close friends spied him running through the city with Sweeney close behind. Acting quickly to change the tide of events, one of Oates's friends threw him a large "brick bat" that was lying on the ground nearby. The weapon appeared just when Oates most needed it and, brandishing it, he turned on Sweeney menacingly. Sweeney stopped, hesitated, backed up, then turned and ran the other way, with Oates pursuing him back the way they had come. Sweeney eventually outran an almost certain beating, or worse. Yet he was dissatisfied with the results and within days he accused Oates of not fighting fair, challenging him to a stand-up fight--but this time, he said, Oates could only use his fists. The two met several days later and Oates was pummeled by the more adept boxer. But Sweeney had underestimated his opponent, who stayed on his feet long enough to corner the larger man. Oates struck back, stunning Sweeney. With the older and larger man set back on his heels by this surprising onslaught, Oates pounced on him, put his thumbs in his eyes, and squeezed as hard as he could. He only let up after attempting to pull Sweeney's eyes from their sockets, then smothering him with his hands until be gasped for breath. Oates finished the fight by licking Sweeney in the stomach. Oates left Sweeney on the street, doubled over in pain, and went off to celebrate his victory. But he had to leave town the next day, when he was told that there was another arrest warrant (his third) issued in his name. After several days, or weeks, of wandering off to the southwest, Oates made his way to the Texas town of Waco, which over a period of just half a decade had grown from a small frontier fort guarding the Brazos River into a thriving settlement. It was the roughest town yet visited by Oates and served as a kind of magnet for every kind of outlaw that could be found on the Texas frontier. Despite this, Waco was in the midst of an economic boom and there were jobs to be had; within days, Oates had hired himself out as a shingle maker, a trade that demanded backbreaking labor in mosquito-infested swamps under a broiling sun. It was the most brutal work he had ever done and it paid little. The monotony of shingle making, which consisted of stripping bark off of hardwood trees growing in three feet of water, was alleviated to some degree, however, by the fact that Oates now enjoyed the friendship of a distant cousin who had met up with him in Marshall and agreed to travel with him through Texas. The two young men worked in the swamp during the day and stalked the streets of Waco at night, marveling at the lawlessness of the town, but steering clear of trouble. While Waco was a wild frontier town that promised new and more dangerous experiences, Oates had become almost indifferent to the lure of such excitement and he began to think about returning to Alabama. He had been gone from home for at least two years and word of his family had only reached him intermittently, through some family friends in Texas and through distant relatives of his mother's whom he had met along the way. Except for his stay in Shreveport, he had spent hardly more than four months in any one place and he was getting tired of "roving." In spite of this, Oates decided that he would postpone his return to Pike County at least for a little while in order to get a feel for Waco, on the outside chance that it had something to offer that he had not yet seen. This was not long in coming. One night, with Oates looking on, a notorious outlaw by the name of Bill Long murdered a Texas Ranger in the middle of the town and coolly walked away--certain that he would never be punished. The sheer arrogance of the act impressed Oates even more than the horror of the victim's quick and meaningless death. But it also worried him. As a witness to the murder, he knew he would be questioned by the Rangers and that he would be watched by Long's friends to make certain he remained quiet. He quickly considered his options--facing the Rangers or facing Long's friends, a group of gamblers for whom taking the life of a teenager to protect an outlaw would mean nothing. If Long could kill a Texas Ranger, Oates thought, then he could kill anyone. But before he could flee, Oates got into yet another scrape when he was insulted by a local doctor by the name of A. D. Baldwin. Oates would have responded to the insult in the same way he had responded to Sweeney, but Baldwin, Oates later noted, had "killed three men, was a gambler and half crazy all the time with whisky and morphine." Even so, Oates admitted, his fight with Baldwin (and, he believed, his resulting death) had been a near thing: when Baldwin threatened him for making derogatory comments about Waco (a habit, it seems, of frontier Texas--we would call it "picking a fight"), Oates ran through the streets of the town telling everyone he would take his revenge, then ran into his room and started to load his gun. We can imagine Oates with pistol in hand, sitting in his room, deciding whether he should again place his life in jeopardy. As easy as it was to imagine he could be as tough as Bill Long, it was just as easy for Oates to imagine himself in the place of the Ranger, facedown in the street, dead. So after reflecting on his situation for a short time, Oates "pocketed the insult" and put away his gun. He left town for Austin, where he stopped for only a short time before heading west and south to Bastrop. Here he spent six weeks drinking and gambling, winning a large stake in a card game. Being good at cards had its bad side, however, and Oates decided to move on again before anyone would question his honesty. One morning Oates simply walked out of Bastrop, heading south to Port Lavaca, where he found work as a laborer on a plantation owned by a "Yankee" named Allison. For the first time on his journey west, he stayed out of trouble, spending much of his time over the next several months working in and around Port Lavaca (which was much more civilized than either Marshall or Waco) and gambling away his wages at local card games. Surprisingly, however, especially given his earlier vow not to marry young, Oates fell in love with a Port Lavaca girl and became engaged. But the romance was short-lived; one night, as he was about to announce his arrival at his sweetheart's home, he spied her in the family garden kissing another man. The next day, without saying his farewells, he left Port Lavaca for Henderson, Texas, infinitely wiser about the shape of the world that his father had told him he "should try his hand at." He was now convinced that his earlier belief--that it is only "the puny, feeble and lifeless chap" who is immune to the natural attractions of the world--was the correct one, and that whatever the temptations of romance, he should do his best to avoid them. Oates was ready to go home. He missed his family and was tiring of his life on the frontier. He was heading back east toward Alabama, perhaps without knowing so, when miraculously he met up in Henderson with his brother John, who had been sent by their mother to bring her oldest child home. John explained that while the Alabama arrest warrant served on him was still in force, he could hide out at the family farm before deciding what he should do. William needed little convincing and, after visiting relatives in East Texas, the two brothers started back. By now, however, it seemed inevitable that Oates would find trouble no matter where he was. So when the brothers became involved in a wild card game in East Texas, it was only natural that it would end in a fight. This one was vicious. William found himself facing off against a man named McGuire, as tenacious a scrapper as the burly Sweeney. The result, however, was the same. After trading insults, McGuire attacked Oates and got the better of him for a time. But Oates's sheer tenacity eventually tipped the scale and McGuire ended up with gouged eyes, a tactic that Oates found repeatedly useful. With honor served, William and John finally set out for Alabama. * The brothers traveled quickly through Louisiana and arrived at the family farm at Oates's Crossroads in short order. It was more than two years since William's departure, but not much had changed. William helped his father with the farm for a time, kept himself out of the eye of the law, and looked up old friends--but his relationship with his family, and especially with his father, was no better than it had been when he first went off to Texas. There were still too many mouths to feed and the work was as physically exhausting as it had been when he left. So while he was happy to see his family, he knew that eventually he would have to start out on his own. He had now seen the world, or as much of it as he wanted, and decided that he could do as well in Alabama as anywhere else--maybe even better. After a stay of only a few weeks, Oates announced to the family that he was moving to Henry County, only a short distance away. The move seemed like a perfect solution to all of his problems: it would allow him the liberty he craved, and at the same time he could keep in close touch with his brother John. Henry County had another inducement as well. There, a small community had need of a teacher and Oates thought he might fill the post. All he needed to teach a country school was a minimal ability to read and write, which he had. The modest job in a small Henry County settlement offered a chance for him to earn a steady income as he set about the task of gaining a more formal education. So in early 1854, at the age of twenty, William Oates left home again, this time for good, and headed south to Cottonwood, a small settlement carved out of the wilds of southeastern Alabama. Copyright © 1997 Mark Perry. All rights reserved.