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, January 1, 2013

The Battle of Murfreesboro, Day 2

My Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment (Lowrey's), which was a part of Wood's Brigade, was a few miles away from the battle taking place on the Stones River. The regiment's assignment over the past few weeks had been to guard the railroad bridges south of Murfreesboro.  It did not rejoin the rest of the division until after the worst of the fighting at Murfreesboro was over.*

In the first day of fighting, Union Gen. Rosecrans was so badly whipped that he was on the verge of retreating. But he decided to hold on. That night, the Federals withdrew to consolidate their lines, and Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk occupied their evacuated line the on the morning of the 1st of January. Gen. Braxton Bragg had expected Rosecrans to retreat, and was perplexed when he had not done so. He was at a loss as to how to force the enemy to evacuate the field.

Following are the events as they unfolded for Wood's Brigade of Cleburne's Division at the river near Murfreesboro on Wednesday of the second day of the battle.

It's New Years Day along Stones River. Bragg sends word to Gen. Cleburne to move his men forward to discover whether the enemy's line is still in force. Cleburne sends Liddell’s Brigade ahead to reconnoiter, and after hearing the sound and receiving the report of heavy fighting, sends Wood’s Brigade to cover Liddell’s flank. By the time Wood’s Brigade moves forward, Liddell is forced to fall back, so that Wood’s men find themselves outgunned. They, too, will have to fall back to the cover of the cedar break, taking heavy losses and leaving some 100 casualties in enemy hands.

From Gen. Cleburne’s report of this fight:
On the morning of January 1, there were rumors that the enemy was retreating. I was ordered by General Hardee to push forward, feel the enemy, and ascertain the true state of affairs in our front. Liddell’s brigade was moved forward and to the left, and drove the enemy’s skirmishers back at least a quarter of a mile, and beyond a white house used as a Federal hospital, and situated on the small dirt road near which our last fight of the day before occurred...
Liddell again swept the Nashville turnpike with his artillery, and greatly disturbed the enemy’s trains, which could be seen on and near it. Receiving another message from General Hardee to the effect that he had ordered me to feel the enemy, and could not hear my guns, and at the same time receiving information from General Liddell that he was in line of battle near the hospital just mentioned, and needed immediate support on his right, I ordered General Wood to move his brigade forward cautiously, and support Liddell on the right, but I also informed him that the object was merely to ascertain whether the enemy was still in force in our front, not to bring on a general battle. Wood’s brigade moved forward, and I moved Johnson’s skirmishers forward en echelon on Wood’s right flank, so as to protect him as much as possible. Wood’s brigade formed line close to the dirt road last mentioned, immediately became hotly engaged with a large force of the enemy, which advanced on him out of the cedars where our repulse of the day before occurred. He found that Liddell was not on his left, as expected, having previously fallen back; he also discovered that the enemy were flanking him on the left with another heavy force. At this time he received an order direct from General Hardee not to bring on a general battle. He ceased firing and fell back, leaving several killed and wounded on the ground. Some of the men of the Forty-fifth Mississippi Regiment had gone so far ahead that retreat was impossible; they remained where they were, and fell into the hand of the enemy. Wood must have lost nearly 100 in killed, wounded, and prisoners in this fight. It was now clear the enemy was still in force in my front, and I so reported it.
For the rest of the day, Cleburne’s men were largely inactive, watching the front from the shelter of the line of cedars west of the Nashville Turnpike. That night, the men settled down to another freezing night without campfires. They waited throughout the next day.

In an after-battle report, Gen. Hardee provided his reasons for why Cleburne’s success failed to send the enemy in retreat:
If, at the moment when the enemy were driven from the thick woods north of the Wilkinson turnpike, a fresh division could have replaced Cleburne’s exhausted troops and followed up the victory, the rout of Rosecrans’ army would have been complete. The interval required to collect and reform our lines, now shattered by four successive conflicts, was occupied by the enemy in planting heavy batteries and massing fresh columns of infantry to oppose our further advance. I sent for re-enforcements. The commanding general [Bragg] replied he had none to give me.

In fairness to Bragg concerning his decision not to send reinforcements to Cleburne, earlier that morning, he had called for Gen. Breckinridge to send 2 brigades to reinforce Hardee. However, he countermanded the order when Breckinridge, misunderstanding the unfolding situation, told Bragg that a heavy force was advancing on him. In reality, in Cleburne’s front the Federal right wing was doubled back upon the center of the Union army. In front of Withers’s and Cheatham’s divisions, commanded by Leonidas Polk, the Federal right wing and part of the Union center finally were driven back; but at the angle where the Union center joined the left wing, the Federal lines remained intact.

* The toll on Wood’s Brigade in the fighting at the Battle of Murfreesboro was staggering. He lost almost half his force504 of 1,100 men. The 32nd Regiment would participate in some of the after-battle skirmishing while Bragg withdrew his army over the next couple of days.

Sources: Official Records, Vol. 20, Part 1; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell and Elizabeth Purdue; Stones RiverBloody Winter in Tennessee, James Lee McDonough

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