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.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Battle of Murfreesboro, Day 3 | Breckinridge's Charge


The second day of fighting in the Battle of Stones River took place on this date, Thursday, 1863.* It is remembered as the ill-fated "Breckinridge's Charge," the attack across McFadden's farm to a ford in the river.

General Patrick Cleburne, in whose division Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes served, reports on events pertaining to his division at the Battle of Murfreesboro on today's date:
On Friday morning, January 2, I was satisfied that the enemy was fortifying his position. On consultation with my brigade commanders, I addressed a note to General Hardee, which I requested him to forward to General Bragg, stating this important fact, and that I feared, if my single, and now reduced, line was pushed on the enemy in his fortified position, the result would prove very disastrous, but that I believed I could hold a defensible position against any assault of the enemy.
About noon on the 2nd, Bragg decided that to protect Gen. Leonidas Polk's force from being enfiladed, an enemy force must be dislodged from a low ridge east of the river. Bragg issued the order over the protestations of both Polk and Gen. John C. Breckinridge. Breckinridge was to attack the enemy, which would require a near-suicidal attack against a heavily fortified position. Gen. Hardee, to whom Bragg had given tactical command, had no knowledge that the attack was ordered by his superior. Cleburne was ordered to send 4 of his guns to support the assault on the ridge, but it would make little difference to Breckinridge's men.

Battle of Murfreesboro, 4 PM, January 2, 1863
Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

At 4 PM, Cleburne and his division heard firing resulting from Breckinridge’s attack with his 5 brigades, more than 2 miles away. Cleburne's men watched the fighting on the front across the McFadden farm, from their shelter in the line of cedars west of the Nashville Turnpike and the Stones River. One Federal eyewitness, Daniel Wait Howe, wrote that Breckinridge’s men advanced in columns, "cheering as they came.

McFadden Farm: Union View of Breckinridge's Charge
Source: National Park Service
At first, Breckenridge's men seemed to drive the enemy, taking the hill in front of them, pushing on toward the ford. However, Rosecrans, in anticipation of an attack, had massed 58 cannon near the river on a small hill on the west side of the river, which commanded the entire open field. While the massive cannon fire was directed at the hapless Confederates, 3 times the men managed to rally and charge. But they were cut down by the terrible grape shot and canister fire.


McFadden Ford
Source: Murfreesboro Post
Remarkably, some men managed to reach the edge of the river, and a few even crossed it, only to fall in front of the Federal artillery, which had them in their sights. The destruction was dreadful. "With the exception of the charge at Missionary Ridge," wrote Howe, "it was the most magnificent spectacle that I saw during my entire service... No braver charge was made during the war."

But that was not the way Bragg felt about Breckinridge’s results. To him, the attack was failure. In his report of the action Bragg wrote,
The contest was short and severe, the enemy were driven back and the eminence gained, but the movement as a whole was a failure, and the position was again yielded. Our forces were moved, unfortunately, to the left so far as to throw a portion of them into and over Stone's River, where they encountered heavy masses of the enemy, while those against whom they were intended to operate had a destructive enfilade on our whole line. Our reserve line was so close to the front as to receive the enemy's fire, and returning it took their friends in the rear. The cavalry force was left entirely out of the action.
Artillery Monument
Source: National Park Service
In Breckinridge's 45-minute charge, 1,800 of his Confederates were killed or wounded by the the concentrated artillery fire. Union troops counterattacked, pushing back the shattered remnants of Breckinridge’s Division. Bragg immediately sent Anderson's Brigade across the river to form a line on the front of Breckinridge's command. His brigade remained there in position during the night. Bragg also sent Cleburne's Division over, and placed Hardee in command of that side of the river.

Cleburne concludes his report:
About 11 o’clock that night the enemy made a reconnaissance in force in front of my division; he was driven back by my skirmishers. Immediately afterward I received orders to withdraw my pickets and resume the position held by me on the morning of December 30, on the right of the army, in rear of Breckinridge’s division. Here I remained, enduring the incessant cold rain of that night and the next day, until 11 p.m. of the 3d, when I commenced retreating on Manchester.
Hardee ordered Cleburne to quit his position and fall back quietly to the east bank of Stones River, leaving ground which had been taken at great cost. The troops marched back through another cold and drenching rain, fording the Stones River, and back to the same bivouac north of Murfreesboro they had left 48 hours earlier.

Essentially, this was the end of the Battle of Murfreesboro. There will be a little skirmishing on the 3rd, but by evening, faced with this disaster and the approach of Union reinforcements, Bragg will begin the evacuation of his army. Two days later, Rosecrans's battered army will march into Murfreesboro and declare victory.

As the close of his report, Cleburne commends various officers in his division, including Gen. Wood and his brigade, in which my great grandfather's 32nd Regiment served.

Battle of Murfreesboro, end of day, January 2, 1863
Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

Bragg took 37,317 soldiers into the fight at Murfreesboro, and Rosecrans 43,400. Of the 80,717 soldiers from both sides who began fighting on the first day, 24,645 were either killed, wounded, or captured by battle's end on January 2. In terms of percentage of casualties, the Battle of Murfreesboro was one of the worst.

One writer, Capt. Wilson J. Vance, a Medal of Honor recipient for his valor in this battle, had this to say about the outcome for the Southern army:
It was at Stone’s River that the South was at the very pinnacle of confidence and warlike power; and it was here that she was halted and beaten back, never again to exhibit such strength and menace. It was here that the tide of the Confederacy passed its flood, henceforth to recede; here that its sun crossed the meridian and began its journey to the twilight and the dark. Southern valor was manifested in splendid lustre on many a field thereafter, but the capacity for sustained aggression was gone. After Stone’s River, the Southern soldier fought to repel rather than to drive his foe.
Today, the Stones River National Battlefield includes only 650 of the 4,000 or so acres that comprised the original battle grounds.


* My Great Grandfather's 32nd Regiment (Col. Mark P. Lowrey's), was recalled from guard duty on bridges south of Nashville, and participated in some of the after-battle skirmishing while Bragg withdrew his army from Stones River. The brigade was guarding bridges south of Nashville, and then assisted Gen. Wharton’s cavalry in retarding McCook's advance of his right wing towards Bragg's main position on the river.

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell and Elizabeth Purdue; Stones RiverBloody Winter in Tennessee, James Lee McDonough; Civil War Times, 1861-1865, Daniel Wait Howe; The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist; Stone's River: The Turning-Point of the Civil War, Wilson J. Vance; Official Records Vol. 20, Part 1; National Park Service: Stones River National Battlefield

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