In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Confederate withdrawal from Perryville

Confederate General Braxton Bragg, deciding that his foe, Union General Don Carlos Buell, was heavily reinforced during the night following the Battle of Perryville on the 8th, retired the next morning. During the early morning hours of today's date in 1862, and using the cover of darkness, Bragg ordered his army to pull back from the Perryville battlefield to the lines it occupied the previous morning.

At daybreak on today's date, the army began its retreat towards Harrodsburg, about 10 miles northeast, and concentrated with Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith's army, leaving only a picket line to delay pursuit. Bragg's departure, and Buell's failure to follow up, will create a source of mystery to history students, in that neither side took advantage of obvious opportunities.

Overnight, both sides were caring for their wounded and dead. On Confederate Gen. Hardee’s front, men of Wood’s Brigadeof which my great grandfather's 32nd Mississippi Regiment was a part— moved back up toward the Benton Road to search for comrades and gather their personal effects. Discovering scores of wounded, they gathered straw on which to place those who could not be moved and brought water to the suffering. One witness from a sister regiment (33rd Alabama) recalled: “Although we were thoroughly tired… we were up with the wounded boys and assisting the doctors nearly all night… some complained of being cold, their clothing wet with blood. We wrapped our blankets about them." Homes, churches, and barns were converted into hospitals, where men from both sides were treated.*

In the meantime, Bragg ordered Col. Joseph Wheeler to form his cavalry as a rear guard along the Danville Pike, while Col. John A. Wharton, with 2 of Wheeler’s battalions, brought up the rear on the Harrodsburg Pike. Bragg also ordered Smith to rendezvous with him in Harrodsburg. 

Between 1:00 and 2:00 AM on the 9th, Confederate officers began telling the men on the front lines to get up as quickly as possible and prepare to march. Having won decisively, most of the troops believed that they would continue the fight at dawn. But as daylight broke this morning, Bragg led the way in retreat. With most of his army strung out along the Harrodsburg road, Bragg could not believe that Buell would let him get away so easily. 

The Rebel army moved out in 3 columns, wagons and artillery occupying the road, while infantry hugged the edges in 2 parallel columns. The army arrived in Harrodsburg around 12 PM. Intending to engage the Federals, Bragg and Smith placed their forces in an advantageous position, 2 miles south of Harrodsburg, to await the assault. However, by evening, as he was known to do all to often, Bragg vacillated. His uncertainty this time was whether to make a stand at Harrodsburg, move on to Danville to screen his vital supply depot at Bryantsville, or move on to Camp Dick Robinson near Harrodsburg. To his generals, Polk, Hardee, and Smith, Bragg's indecision was “appalling.” But at dawn, Bragg will withdraw to Camp Dick Robinson.

* Of course many of these wounded did not survive and were added to the scores of soldiers who lost their lives in that battle. Civil War historian Kenneth W. Noe writes graphically of the aftermath of the battle in his book, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. Following the battle, there was an appalling number of Confederate dead, which the Union army at first refused to bury. The owner of the farm where the battle took place, together with local citizens, were forced to bury the victims, many in a mass grave. Eventually, the memory of the great struggle that took place here almost passed away. Finally, on October 8, 1954, on the 92nd anniversary of the battle, and after years of neglect and degeneration to the place, the Perryville State Battlefield Site was officially opened. By the mid-1970s, the park had grown to 98 acres and designated a National Historic Landmark. Additional property was purchased by the mid-1990s, due to the renewed interest coming from Ken Burns’s series, The Civil War. Author Noe offers a compelling story of the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville, and the park that commemorates it, in his article, “Remembering Perryville: History and Memory at a Civil War Battlefield.” It's worth reading.

Sources: Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, Kenneth W. Noe; Official Records, Vol. 16, Parts 1 & 2; Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 10; Stone's River: The Turning-Point of the Civil War, Wilson J. Vance

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