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, August 21, 2013

Bombardment of Chattanooga, 1863

Having chased Gen. Braxton Bragg's troops from Middle Tennessee a few weeks earlier, on today's date in 1863, Union Gen. William Rosecrans of the Army of the Cumberland opened a new campaign, one to take Chattanooga from Bragg.*

Col. John T. Wilder's "Lightning Brigade," which had been so successful earlier at the Battle of Liberty Gap, was observed by the Confederates marching northeast of Chattanooga. It was part of Rosecrans's ruse to trick Bragg into thinking his army would cross the Tennessee River near there. Wilder had been sent on the 20th to reconnoiter from Harrison's Landing to Chattanooga. Part of his deception included having his men make a lot of construction racket to simulate the building of rafts. Wilder's men then threw the lumber into the river to float downstream into Confederate-held territory. It was enough to reinforce Bragg's expectations of a Union attack on Chattanooga from that direction.

Around 9 AM on the 21st, along the Tennessee River opposite Chattanooga, Wilder ordered his artillery to begin shelling the town. The attack caught many soldiers and civilians at the Presbyterian church observing a day of prayer and fasting for the Confederacy. Shells killed and wounded women and children attending the service. The bombardment also sank 2 steamers docked at the landing and created great anxiety among the Confederates. The soldiers were forced to evacuate the town and reposition beyond the range of the enemy artillery.

On the day of the attack on Chattanooga, a worship service was planned in the 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment along the banks of the river. According to Capt. Daniel Coleman, the service had to be canceled when Federal troops were spotted in several areas. On the north bank of the river at Blythe's Ferry, Col. Lowrey, commanding my great grandfather's 32nd Mississippi, sent a dispatch from his defensive position there to Brig. Gen. H.D. Clayton: “The enemy have appeared on the opposite shore, in what force I cannot tell.” Gen. Clayton left for Blythe's Ferry for an assessment of the situation. He reported,
“[T]he enemy appeared on the opposite [side of the river at Blythe's Ferry] at 1 o’clock, and requesting that I would hasten on. I had previously sent Colonel Lowrey word that I was coming. I subsequently received information that the enemy had left and that there was no necessity of hurrying. Learning that there was no drinking-water near the river, I halted my command at this place, and taking with me a section of artillery went to see Colonel Lowrey.
Clayton reported that the next day, in addition to leaving a section of artillery with Lowery's Regiment, that there was a battalion of sharpshooters with Lowrey, too. Nearby were 2 other regiments and another section of artillery. In Clayton's opinion, Lowrey's position at Blythe’s Ferry was "perfectly secure; the rifle pits for about 600 men are very superior, and the bluff on this side high enough to command the opposite [side of the river]...” Meantime, Gen. Cleburne was ordered to move the rest of his division at Tyner's Station to positions covering every ford along the river, from the mouth of Chickamauga to Lowrey's position at Blythe's Ferry. Capt. Coleman wrote that for several days afterword, Federal troops were spotted across the river, which kept the Confederates there on alert.

But Bragg's attention was focused upriver, so he sent troops in the wrong direction. His orders to his commanders on today's date indicate that he was fooled by Rosecrans's deception, convinced that the enemy's action was the start of a major Union thrust. His problem was that he really didn't know where the Army of the Cumberland was, nor where Rosecrans may cross his army over the river. Bragg decides to wait for developments before taking further action, and to fall on the enemy in force when he knows from where the main attack will come.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

At midnight, Bragg ordered the civilians out of Chattanooga. Federals continued to shell the town periodically over the next 2 weeks, keeping Bragg's attention to the northeast, while the bulk of Rosecrans's army crossed the Tennessee River well west and south of the city. When Bragg learns on September 8 that the Union army was in force across the river southwest of Chattanooga, he will abandon the town.

So far, Rosecrans's strategy is going according to plan.

* The entire Chattanooga/Chickamauga Campaign will last from August 21 to November 28, 1863. Though many historians divide this period into 2a campaign for Chickamauga and a campaign for Chattanoogaactually, the entire 3-months of maneuvering and combat was aimed at control of Chattanooga. Beginning with the shelling of Chattanooga on today's date, the Chattanooga/Chickamauga Campaign will end with actions at Shellmound, Tennessee and Tunnel Hill, Georgia, on November 28, 1863.

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; This Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Official Records, Vol. 30, Pt. 2; CWSAC Battle SummariesHuntsville Historical Review, Vol 26, No. 2. 1999: Transcription of Capt. Daniel Coleman Diary, Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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