It's unreasonable to throw out the testimony of a man simply because his family was associated with slave ownership. David Upton quoted two Mississippi officers from slaveholding households who wrote home about fighting for their rights. Both gave their lives for the Confederacy, and should be honored for doing so.
However, if you must have the word of a non-slaveholder who grew up in a poor Southern household, this man qualifies.
Oates was born on November 30, 1833, in Pike County, Alabama, the son of William and Sarah Oates, poor farmers who struggled to survive in the wiregrass country where nothing grew quickly except one's debts. His formal education was paltry, and he attended school off and on throughout his childhood, but most of what he learned came from teaching himself. As a child, he liked practical jokes and rigorous play, although a younger brother, John, and he would pretend to be stump preachers giving rousing sermons under the trees near their father's cabin.
Life in frontier Alabama was precarious and violent, and Oates was a pure product of his environment. At seventeen, he left home and fled to Florida, convinced he had killed a man in a brawl. The man survived, but Oates didn't know it, and he was at least right in suspecting that the Pike County authorities were looking for him. For the next few years, Oates wandered throughout the southwest, dallying with women and getting himself into trouble and assorted fistfights. Eventually he made his way to Texas, where he got into one brawl after another and became, as he later explained, "much addicted to gaming at cards."
His quick temper and violent tendencies got him repeatedly into tight fixes, although he always managed to outfight his opponents or get out of town before they had a chance to best him. On one occasion, a decision to "pocket" an insult kept him from facing down a known gunman on the streets of Waco. Always he stayed one step ahead of the law; miraculously he avoided killing anyone or getting himself killed at the hands of his enemies. William Oates was a tough customer who seemed unable to control his outbursts of anger or his swinging fists. As a hallmark of his fighting style, he liked to press his thumbs into his opponents' eyes. The technique worked without fail to disable his adversary and give Oates the victory.
Oates remained in Texas only for a year or two. His younger brother, John, who had dispatched by the family to find William and bring him home, ran into him by chance in the town of Henderson, Texas, and persuaded him to return to Alabama, despite the arrest warrant that was still pending in Pike County. The two brothers traveled back to the Chattahoochee Valley together, where William Oates settled down by enrolling in an academy, teaching school, and studying law. He stayed out of Pike County, though, and managed to avoid the local authorities there. For a while, he even attended church in Eufaula, a prosperous trading town on the Chattahoochee River, but for the most part organized religion and Oates could never quite see things eye to eye.
By the late 1850s, Oates had successfully turned his life around, rather miraculously leaving behind his lawless, violent ways, and embracing a professional career as an attorney (he passed the Alabama and Georgia bars in 1858) and the owner of a weekly newspaper in Abbeville, the county seat of Henry County in southeastern Alabama. He had experienced a personal awakening that owed little to any religious conversation and a great deal to his own determination to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Oates was now a changed man, a pillar of the community. His metamorphosis may have been influenced by his mother, a pious woman who seems to have been something of a clairvoyant. But it was Oates himself who turned his life around and who realized that in following his former ways, he was never going to amount to anything at all. Together, he and his brother John opened a law practice in Abbeville and became well respected.
On the 1860 census of Abbeville, Henry County AL, WCO appears as an attorney, single, age 26, no personal or real estate and no slaves.
Will he do?