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.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Battle of Murfreesboro, Day 1

The Southern attack came at dawn today's date, Wednesday, 1862. The fighting of the first day of the battle, took place west and northwest of the town of Murfreesboro. The south end of the battlefield was about a mile below the Franklin Road, which ran west. 1-1/2 miles north of and parallel to this road, was the Wilkinson Turnpike. A mile further north and also parallel, was a small dirt road. Overall’s Creek bound the battlefield, about 3 miles wide, on the east by Stones River1 and on the west. A short distance apart and directly northwest from Murfreesboro, ran the turnpike and railroad to Nashville.

On the 30th, the Confederate divisions of Generals McCown, Withers, and Cheatham lay in line of battle near the eastern edge of the area, which would soon become the battlefield. McCown’s division formed a line south of the Franklin Road. Beginning at the road Whithers's division extended to a point immediately north of the Nashville Turnpike and railroad, with Cheatham in a line behind Withers. Breckinridge’s and Cleburne’s divisions, north of Murfreesboro, were separated from Withers and Cheatham by Stones River.

Union Gen. Rosecrans concentrated his army facing the Confederate divisions, both on the west and north. At some points the 2 armies were only 500 yards apart.

Both Bragg and Rosecrans essentially had formed the same plan, to be executed the same morning—to attack with the left and drive back the enemy’s right wing. The Confederates, however, advanced earlier on this cold morning.

Battle of Murfreesboro, opening of first day, December 31, 1863
Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

Following are the events associated with my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's division, Gen. Cleburne's of Hardee's Corps, posted on the right of the Wilkinson Pike, extending toward Salem Pike.2 

Gen. Cleburne ordered his men to be awakened and ready for battle at 5:00 AM. The morning was cold and frosty and a thick morning haze covered the ground. No fires were allowed, and the men were assembled quickly and readied to move before sunrise. Cleburne placed S.A.M. Wood’s Brigade behind Polk in a second line as a reserve.

Cleburne and his division, composed of L.E. Polk’s, Bushrod Johnson’s, St. John Liddell’s, and Wood’s brigades, began the advance, and his division moved forward on a front nearly a mile wide. The terrain was not ideal for an attack. The ground was broken and filled with limestone boulders and cedar bushes, allowing for gapping and bunching of the men during the advance.

The division encountered the enemy’s line behind a fence and natural breastworks of limestone. Cleburne threw his brigades into the charge against the Federals. The fight was short, fierce, and bloody, lasting about 25 minutes, when the enemy gave way, and Cleburne’s men pursued. The Rebel charge broke the second Federal line. This line soon yielded and both lines pressed into one. The Federals retreated, leaving behind their two rifled cannon, which were immediately turned upon them by the Confederate attackers. By now the alignment of units became haphazard and disorderly. When Cleburne’s brigades ran up against a new Federal line near the Wilkinson Turnpike about 9:00 AM, their progress was checked by the disciplined volleys of the Federals.

Cleburne's and McCown's Divisions renewed their advance at about 9:30 AM, in a sweep of a line that was 10 brigades long, against the startled Federals of Alexander McCook’s XX Corps. Every soldier assigned to the Confederate attack was now in the front line, and if it faltered before it reached the Nashville Pike, there would be no reserves to throw into the fight.

After the fight along the Wilkinson Pike, Cleburne sent Wood’s Brigade back to allow the men to replenish their depleted cartridge pouches, while his 3 other brigades, plus Preston Smith’s Brigade of Frank Cheatham’s Division, moved a half mile beyond the Wilkerson Pike. There, Cleburne ran into another Federal line, where fierce fighting took place at close range for nearly an hour before the Yankees were driven from the field. 

Cleburne pursued into the early afternoon. By now his men were tired, having carried the burden of the attack for over 8 hours. Now, less than a half mile from the Nashville Pike, with little sleep and no breakfast or lunch or even water, they encountered their fifth line of Federals of the day. Nevertheless, they charged the enemy line and drove the defenders from their position through a cedar break and onto the Nashville Pike, which was the Federals' main line of supply and communication. Cleburne's force had reached the original center of Rosecrans’ army, but it was now after 3:00 PM, and the men had reached the end of their strength. 

By now Rosecrans realized his peril and sent reserves to hold the turnpike. Cleburne’s line broke, and the men fled to the protection of the cedar break about a quarter mile to the rear. Hardee detached Wood’s Brigade to guard their ammunition train, which was threatened by a Federal cavalry probe. Judging that another attack by Cleburne “would have been folly, not valor,” Hardee ordered Cleburne to hold the ground he had gained (about a half mile west of the Nashville Turnpike), rest the division, and await further orders.

For the second night in a row, Cleburne’s men went to sleep without the benefit of campfires or hot food. Having discarded their packs in the attack, they were also without tents or blankets. Even so, they slept knowing they had whipped the Yankees badly, and anticipated that they would withdraw. 

The Southern attack, which came at dawn on this first day had the Union on the defensive by day's end. On the enemy's side of the battlefield, the offensive movement planned by Rosecrans was now out of the question. His supreme object now was to save his army from annihilation by holding his line. He will have Gen. George Henry Thomas largely to thank for preventing a Confederate victory.3  By nighttime, Rosecrans's troops may be battered, but they are not defeated. To Bragg's disappointment, over night the enemy prepared to resume fighting tomorrow.

Battle of Murfreesboro, end of first day, December 31, 1863
Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jespersen

1 The Battle of Murfreesboro is also known as the Battle of Stones River.

2 My great grandfather's 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment (Lowrey's), which was a part of Wood's Brigade, was a few miles away from the battle on the Stones River. The brigade's assignment for the past few weeks had been to guard bridges south of Nashville to prevent Rosecrans from resupplying his troops stationed in that city. Most recently the brigade had been assisting Gen. Wharton’s cavalry in retarding the advance of Gen. McCook's right wing of the Federal army. The 32nd Regiment did not rejoin its division at Stones River until after the worst of the fighting was over.

3 This won't be the only time that Thomas, a former slave owner from Virginia, will come to the Union army's rescue. He will later be known by the well-deserved nickname, "Rock of Chickamauga," for reasons that will become apparent in the next year. Thomas will remain a thorn in the side of the Army of Tennessee for the duration of the war in the West.

Sources: Confederate Military History: Tennessee, James D. Porter; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne:  Confederate General, Howell and Elizabeth Purdue; Stones RiverBloody Winter in Tennessee, James Lee McDonough; Civil War Times, Daniel Wait Howe; The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist; Official Records, Vol. 20, Part 2

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