History of the 15th Alabama
Researched and Compiled by
In the summer of 1861 the sun blazed brilliantly above the thousands of acres of Southern Alabama's prized crop of "King" Cotton. The white blossoms of cotton appeared to glow in the heat around Ft. Mitchell, a small garrison originally erected in 1813 and later used as an army station during the lower Creek tribes' removal to the West in 1836's "Trail of Tears."
The abandoned fort was being used as a training camp for a new Alabama regiment to be mustered into the state's defense and later attached to the Confederate army. Alabama was the forth state to secede, out of eleven, from the United States; two other states and two territories would leave the Union later that year. By the time the nine hundred men and eleven companies of the 15th Alabama were swearing oaths into military service, the Confederate States of America already had its president, constitution, army, and navy and had established its capital in Richmond, Virginia.
In July of 1861 the Confederacy had already won its first great battle: The Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, merely twenty miles from Washington. By then, the young farmers, merchants, printers, and storeowners in training at Ft. Mitchell were eager to join the war for Southern Independence before it ended.
William C. Oates was the first commander Company G of the 15th Alabama and would later be promoted as Colonel of the 15th. The company, consisting mostly of Irish, was raised in Henry County and called themselves the "Henry County Pioneers."
Each new recruit joined the ranks of this new unit to protect his homeland and his state's independence. One soldier noted, "The spirit of devotion to our Southland bound us together as comrades in a holy cause." Another wrote, "[we] are struggling for the same principles which fired the hearts of our ancestors in the revolutionary struggle." A young private in the ranks also spoke of why he joined. "I am willing to fall for the cause of liberty and independence."
Captain Oates outfitted his company from his own pocket. Their uniforms would later become less flamboyant through the effects of harsh campaigning and personal comfort, but on that day, Company G marched from Ft. Mitchell wearing bright red shirts, Richmond gray frock coats and trousers, and a colorful and diverse attire of headgear. Each of cap bore an HP, which stood for Henry Pioneers. (Some pointed out that the HP stood for Hell Pelters.) So colorful and weighed down with comforts from home in their knap sacks, the Henry County Pioneers were dubbed as "Oates' Zouaves." Each soldier of this gaudy company wore a Secession Badge which stood for "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity," copied from the French Revolution. Private Barnett of G Company pinned, "We have the finest looking company in the regiment, and have the praise of being the best drill company in the manual of arms."
The age group was not unique in the Southern army: The youngest private was said to be thirteen and the oldest, Private Edmond Shepherd, at seventy.
The 15th Alabama and its eleven companies received its first orders to be transferred to Manassas, Virginia where the Alabama unit joined a brigade which included the 21st Georgia, 21st North Carolina, and 16th Mississippi under Major General G.B. Crittenden of Kentucky. Corporal McClendon exclaimed, "Farewell to Alabama, we are going in your defense." Though the rest of the Confederate army of Virginia under General Johnston retreated to York Town and the Richmond defenses, the 15th Alabama marched west with General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's division. Soon after their march into the Shenandoah Valley, the 15th Alabama saw the Elephant at the battle of Front Royal on May 23, 1862.
Through the early summer of 1862 Confederate morale was low. The Union army under General McClellan was marching toward the gates of the Confederate capital and most of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee were falling into Federal hands. In contrast, General Jackson's troops, including the 15th Alabama had one brilliant victory after another in the famed "Valley Campaign. where Company G of the 15th Alabama became hardened veterans. In two months they marched hundreds of miles, often pushing on for twenty miles in a single day. They participated in five large-scale battles and an untold amount of ambushes and skirmishes. The 15th Alabama won the respect of General Stonewall Jackson as being the only Alabama regiment in his valley campaign.
The 15th helped save the Confederate capital and the Shenandoah Valley during which Northern soldiers were routed all the way back to the Potomac River. When Union General Banks tried to rally them, shouting, "Don't you love the Union," one of his fleeing soldiers yelled in reply, Yes, and I am trying to get back to it as fast as I can!"
A year after they were mustered into service, the Henry County Pioneers were indeed veterans. Jackson's men joined the new Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. Following the Confederate victory of second Manassas or second Bull Run on August 30th 1862, they had sustained many losses in sick, wounded, captured, and killed in action. Most of the veterans now wore slouch hats or sun-bleached kepis. Most had replaced their shredded trousers for captured Federal light blue trousers. By the autumn of 1862 less than half the company had shoes. Almost to a man, however, Company G soldiers still wore their honored HP insignias.
In September of 1862 the 15th Alabama played a role in the largest capture of Union soldiers following Jackson's siege of Harpers Ferry. From there, the Alabamians were forced marched into Maryland to participate in the bloodiest single day of the War for Southern Independence. The Battle of Sharpsburg, September 17th, 1862. Though the battle ended in a draw and the Confederate Army withdrew back into Virginia, the 15th Alabama was praised for helping to hold the lines along the Antietam Creek, thus saving the Army of Northern Virginia from destruction.
Following the Maryland campaign, it was not three months before the 15th Alabama was again given the responsibility of holding a part of Lee's line against a massive Union assault, this time by General Burnside on December 15, 1862 beyond the town of Fredericksburg.
The clash ended with a resounding victory for Lee's veterans. On the evening of the second day's battle a rare show of Northern lights waved and swirled over the battle weary veterans of the 15th Alabama and its field of battle. The Alabamians, being from the Deep South, had never witnessed such a grand night show and most took at as an acknowledgment from God following their success upon Maries Heights.
January 1861 was a time of change for Company G and the 15th Alabama. It was mustered into Brigadier General Law's Alabama brigade consisting of the 4th, 44th, 47th, 48th, and now the 15th Alabama. They were also transferred to the 1st division under Major General Hood of Lieutenant General Longstreet's first corps, Army of Northern Virginia.
Although the Confederacy was suffering inflation and a tightening naval blockade, the Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed a peaceful and rather contented winter. Furloughs were granted to men of the 15th Alabama. Though most of these were used to visit Richmond and participate in the capital's social circles, some journeyed all the way to their homes in Alabama. Their homecomings were short lived but were surely the happiest moments in the war. For many of the returning Alabamians, it would be the last time they would see their home. Alabama tears would flow for generations.
One of the highlights during the dull winter quarters of early 1863 was a snowball fight. The snow fell hard that winter and the bored Confederate troops were ready for battle again. The Yankees were just across the Rappahannock River but they were not ready to ford the icy depths of the river to bring on a fight. One early evening whole regiments in line of battle including the 15th raided the unsuspecting camps of other regiments and brigades of Hood's division armed with snowballs.
The snowball fight soon escalated to such intensity that whole brigades and divisions in line of battle charged each other. It became a world record as the largest snow ball fight. General Longstreet and even Lee himself went out between the lines to halt it but were soon enfiladed by flying snow shell and snow canister. The "battle" ended with a true after small stones hidden in the snowballs wounded a few soldiers and the cold and soaked 15th Alabama retreated back to their wooden huts to conspire new adventure against winter boredom which consisted mostly of sewing worn trousers, playing cards, writing letters to home, and being entertained by the locals.
The buds on the trees had barley appeared when the 15th Alabama and most of the 1st corps were ordered to counter a Union offense in Southern Virginia. Company G and the rest of the regiment suffered slightly during the Suffolk campaign. Soon after, the Alabamians were rushed back to rejoin Army of Northern Virginia on the heels of what was perhaps Lee's greatest victory of the war: The Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1st and 2nd. The glow of victory was dimmed by the wounding and later death of General Stonewall Jackson and his death was a particular blow to the 15th Alabama, for it was Jackson who turned them into veterans during the Valley Campaign a year before.
Through out the later part of June, Company G, now commanded by Colonel William Oate's brother, Lieutenant John Oates marched up the Shenandoah Valley with the First Corps. Spirits ran high as the Henry County boys forded the Potomac River: Their army was at its peak strength and they were sure that "Marse" Lee would lead them to yet another victory. This victory, they hoped, would end the war that had cost them so dearly. Historian and author, Philip Tucker wrote, "Colonel Oates's soldiers marched north into Pennsylvania to win the decisive victory that would save their Alabama homeland from invasion. In the past, the Union forces were known to burn and pillage, such as in Huntsville, Alabama, and this fact was on the minds of the Alabama Rebels as they pushed northward with muskets on shoulders and high hopes for future success."
July 1st 1861 was hot and still. There was an air of melancholy among the ranks. Though the sky was cloudless, the 15th Alabama could hear rumbling thunder to the East. The veterans knew that it was a growing battle, rather than a mid summer storm. Their predictions proved true: Orders were brought up from Lee himself to send all available forces to a small Pennsylvania college town called Gettysburg.
The 15th Alabama caught little sleep on the morning of July 2nd. The battle in Gettysburg had stalled and all available units were being called up to exploit the Confederate victory on Seminary Ridge and the capture of Gettysburg itself. About two in the morning, the 15th Alabama started out on a record-breaking march of about thirty miles through Franklin and Adams counties. When the sun rose their endurance was tested. The Alabamians were, in fact, a part of Stonewall Jackson's old "foot cavalry." Yet, during the hottest part of the march the 15th Alabama got a dose of bad luck. A private ordered to fall out of line to refill several canteens never returned. Colonel Oates reported that he was a victim of enemy bushwhacking.
The temperature was above ninety-five degrees and the humidity was near 100% and the regiment lost almost half its strength due to men dying as they marched from heat stroke and exhaustion. The 15th finally arrived at Gettysburg around 2 PM after a twelve-hour forced march.
The 15th Alabama was quickly ordered into a line of battle. It was not only the right flank of Law's Alabama brigade but also of the whole Confederate army! Standing at "rest on arms," few of the men could see Longstreet, Lee, and Hood reviewing the next move. The sun dipped lower in the West and for two crucial hours the Alabamians waited. There was little chatting in the ranks. Nerves were on the edge and mouths were parched.
Finally the order was given. "Forward march!" Longstreets 1st corps with the exception of Pickett's division lurched forward in one step toward the Federal left flank. Lee hoped that a repeat of his victory at second Manassas would happen, however the fate and chance of war dictated a different unfolding of events. As the left flank of Longstreet's 1st corps became tangled up in a bloody fight on the Emmetsburg Road against General Sickles Union regiments, Law's brigade became detached and exposed from the rest of Longstreet's support.
As the 15th Alabama started up the wooded Big Round Top, the highest elevation in Adams County, Union Sharpshooters commanded by Colonel Berdan met them with a devastating volley of fire. With each step up the rocky slopes another Alabamian was shot down. More crises followed when the rest of Law's brigade was drawn into the furry of the battle around the "Slaughter Pen" leaving the 15th Alabama completely isolated. Only by sheer will and courage unmatched in history did Colonel Oates's men crest the summit of Big Round Top as every few seconds, a life would end with the thick slap of a lead ball.
From the summit, the Alabamians could see the whole battlefield. Culps Hill and Cemetery Hill to the North was being raked with fire. To the 15th's left, a knoll flanked by large boulders known as Devils Den was covered with Confederates and Federals in a desperate hand-to-hand combat. Yet, to the East stood Little Round Top with its treeless summit and sloping ridge empty of troops. That was the spot where Oates knew he could turn the enemy flank and with it capture the Union supply wagon park. All within the reach of these tired soldiers from Southern Alabama was the chance to end the war and return to a free Alabama.
With a rebel yell, the 15th Alabama stormed down the East side of Big Round Top, surprising and capturing many of the harassing sharpshooters. But the charge was slowed and disoriented because of the wooded and rocky terrain. Three cliffs split the 15th Alabama command in two and no skirmishers were deployed beyond the charging ranks.
With Victory in their grasp, the 15th Alabama's screaming veterans rushed into a small bowl like valley between Big Round Top and Little Round Top. Suddenly a crushing volley of musket fire poured down upon the surprised ranks. Union Colonel Vincents brigade arrived at the crest of Little Round Top just in time to break the charge of the 15th Alabama. The battle between the Union left and the Confederate right would become legendary in the annals of warfare.
Oates' dream of capturing the Supply Park and Little Round Top was not to be broken. The 15th Alabama relined their ranks and charged forward again; only to be stopped by brigade sized firepower. By now the 15th Alabama had only about three hundred soldiers. Colonel Oates considered the situation. The detached units of Law's brigade had returned and were charging against Vincent's right flank. Oates decided to move his men around Little Round Top and charge the Union's rear. Yet, a Professor turned Colonel named Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine eyed every move of the 15th Alabama's flanking march and he ordered his men to a left wheel march so that they were now aiming down the back slope of Little Round Top. Repeated charges against the Mainers brought down scores of Oates' Alabamians. It is ironic that Colonel Chamberlain's brother, Thomas Chamberlain commanded Company G of the 20th Maine while Colonel Oates brother, John Oates, commanded Company G of the 15th Alabama. Though each charge of the 15th Alabama gained them new footing, the cost was terrible. Lieutenant John Oates received a mortal wound as his Henry County Pioneers drove their bayonets, bullets, and hearts into the wavering Union lines.
Colonel Oates decided the moment was lost. Over half of his command was either wounded or dead. Blood dripped from the rocks and hardly was there a space of ground not covered by a fallen comrade. "Finally I discovered the enemy had flanked me on the right, and two regiments were moving rapidly upon my rear and not 200 yards distant, when, to save my regiment from capture or destruction, I ordered a retreat," Colonel Oates later reported.
During the 15th Alabama's defiant retreat the 20th Maine began to surge. In later reports, some members of the 20th Maine reported that they were merely moving forward to collect their wounded. Yet, when the 20th Maine saw its colors, too, moving forward, junior officers ordered their men to charge. Colonel Chamberlain moved by the sudden rush of his men called them all to advance. Despite modern stories, romancing this battle, Colonel Chamberlain did not lead the charge and nor was it coordinated. It was a charge that took a life of its own.
Already retreating, the 15th Alabama turned to face the falling tide of the 20th Maine and a few shots could be fired. However the lack of ammunition and knee jerk instinct of panic took over most of the Alabamians. Their retreat became a route.
For most of the Army of Northern Virginia, the autumn and winter was to be a time of rest, refitting, and reflection. Yet, the 1st corps was ordered west to help protect the vital rail line at Chattanooga, Tennessee and to give the Army of Tennessee its first victory. The 15th Alabama, having been reinforced after the Gettysburg campaign played a crucial role in Longstreet's attack at Chickamauga Creek on September 19 through the 20th 1863. With Longstreet's support, the battle of Chickamauga is viewed by some as the greatest Confederate victory of the war, stalling the Union advance toward Atlanta for another year. But General Bragg, commander of the Army of the Tennessee failed to exploit the victory and the Federal army fled safely back into the Chattanooga Valley.
Longstreet's corps arrived back in Virginia following his defeat at Knoxville, Tennessee just in time to save Lee's breaking right flank at the battle of the Wilderness in June of 1864. The 15th Alabama, Longstreet, and Lee faced a new foe. General Grant. Grant persisted a flanking battle against the bleeding Army of Northern Virginia all the way to the southern gates of Richmond. After a nine-month siege at Petersburg, Virginia, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. The 15th Alabama furled its colors for the last time on April 12th. By May of 1865 all Confederate units had surrendered and the Confederate government was disbanded.
The Confederate dream of Independence that the Henry County Pioneers fought and died gallantly for swayed like a flame in the wind and was finally snuffed out.
Bibliography available upon request
If you want to learn more about the history of the 15th