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.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cleburne's sunset attack | Day 1 of the Battle of Chickamauga

The first day of the Battle of Chickamauga opened on this date, a Saturday in 1863. Just after daylight, a Union force from George Thomas's division was ordered to Jay’s sawmill to confront what was thought to be a lone Confederate brigade. Instead, the Federals ran into Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry.1 The 2 forces clashed the dense woodlands. The fierce fighting compelled Bragg to shift some of his forces to the right of the battle line. By 1 PM, the battle there reached a lull, and the fighting began to shift toward the middle of the Confederate line.

All morning the fighting rumbled southward, roughly following the LaFayette road, passing from the Confederate divisions of Cheatham, Walker, and then Stewart. Both sides took heavy casualties but neither gained an edge. Then around 4 PM, Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Stewart launched a charge that pushed back the Federal center across the LaFayette road, and it nearly carried the fight. But this attack stalled. To the south, Gen. John B. Hood had some success with driving his opponent on Stewart's left, but he gained no significant advantage for the fighting. Bragg needed to crush the Federals.

Hope lay with Gen. Patrick Cleburne, whose division will soon have an opportunity to change the dynamic of the battle. His men, having listened to cannonading all morning, are about to enter the fight. Early in the afternoon, Cleburne was ordered to move his division northward to Thedford's Ford, there to cross the Chickamauga Creek and to report to Gen. Leonidas Polk who would direct him into line. Cleburne set his men out on the 6-mile march along a road which was clogged by marching troops,  wagons, and artillery.

A little further up the road, and observing Cleburne's men marching under their distinctive blue and white banners, Gen. Forrest remarked to a subordinate, “Do you see that large body of infantry marching this way in columns of fours? That is General Pat Cleburne’s division; hell will break loose in Georgia in about fifteen minutes.”

Arriving ahead of his men at Thedford’s Ford, Cleburne received orders to continue northward to reinforce the right wing of the army under Gen. Polk. Bragg's plan was to attack the Federal army on its left flank, cut it off from Chattanooga, drive it southward to McLemore’s Cove, and there destroy it. Gen. D.H. Hill’s Corps, including Cleburne’s Division, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving, was to spearhead the attack.

Artillery was firing in the east as Cleburne's men reached Thedford’s Ford in the late afternoon. Moving his men along immediately, the troops took off their shoes and pants, and holding their clothing and rifles high, they crossed the creek and resumed their march for 2 more miles over ground on which the battle had been raging all day. They arrived near the extreme right of the Confederate position just as the sun was setting.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Battlefield marker, September 19th, 6 PM
At about 5 PM, Cleburne formed his tired men in a line 300 yards behind Liddell’s and Cheatham's divisions, which were lying prone in a long skirmish line. When Gen. Hill rode up, he ordered Cleburne to ready for an attack even though it meant an evening fight in heavy woods on unfamiliar ground against an unknown foe. The Federals were posted behind defensive breastworks, albeit hastily con-structed, and they offered heavy artillery and small-arms fire.

Cleburne personally deployed his brigades in a line. He placed Gen. S.A.M. Wood’s Brigade, which included Great Grandfather Oakes's 32nd/45th Consolidated Mississippi Regiment, in the center with Lucius Polk's Regiment on the right and Dreshler's on the left. At 6 PM, Cleburne issued the order to advance. His troops passed through the ranks of Liddell’s prone men who gave them a cheer as they moved forward in a single rank into the twilight through the smoke-filled woods.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Battlefield marker, September 19th, 6:30 PM
“In my front," wrote Cleburne after the battle, "were open woods—with the exception of a clearing (fenced in) in front of my centre, the ground sloping upwards as we advanced. Ordering the Brigades to direct themselves by Wood’s (Center) Brigade, and preserve Brigade-distance, I moved forward—passing over the first line—and was in a few moments heavily engaged along my right and centre. The enemy, posted behind hastily-constructed breastworks opened a heavy fire of both small arms and artillery.”

In this attack, Col. Lowrey's 32nd/45th Regiment of Wood's Brigade was among the first to strike the enemy. Polk and Dreshler advanced through the thick and dark woods, but in the center lay the cleared Winfrey field directly in front of Wood’s men. As they stepped into the open ground and crossed the field, the Federals let loose a devastating fire. Years later, Lowrey recalled "my regiment charged gallantly through an open field on the most exposed part of the line." His regiment aimed its attack at the enemy's barricaded fence at the far edge of the Winfrey field. In his official report of the 32nd/45th Regiment's attack, Lowrey wrote:
The advance was accordingly made, and I soon passed a line of our troops lying down. As I approached an open field in my front my skirmishers soon engaged the skirmishers of the enemy. I pushed my line of skirmishers forward as rapidly as possible, but their advance was slow, as the ground was hotly contested. My main line gained rapidly on the skirmishers, so that by the time the main line reached the first fence they received a volley from the enemy’s main line, which was behind the next fence, about 200 yards distant. My main line then commenced firing as the skirmishers in their front retired to their rear, and the whole line was soon engaged. I pushed my regiment forward as rapidly as possible, but their advance was slow, as they were compelled to pass through an open field against a line of battle of the enemy strongly posted behind a fence. The advance, however, was steady, and the enemy's line began to give way as we advanced within 40 or 50 yards of the fence. Up to this time the enemy had fired rapidly, but as it was already getting dark they overshot us, only killing 5 of my men and wounding about 20, which was a small number considering their great advantage.  
During the advance some brigades got out of alignment, and some units fell back. In the confusion and terror of the nighttime battle, combatants on both sides fired into friendly ranks. Cleburne reported, "For half an hour the firing was the heaviest I had ever heard; it was dark, however, and accurate shooting was impossible. Each party was aiming at the flashes of the other’s guns, and few of the shot from either side took effect. In the darkness and smoke, the fire was mostly inaccurate, and men desperately tried to distinguish friend from foe."

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Tree line from where Wood's attack began
Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The direction of Wood's attack through the Winfrey field (foreground),
and into the enemy-held woods beyond

Having crossed the field and clambered over the first line of entrenchments, Lowrey's men then came under fire from the enemy's main works about 200 behind. The division's lines by now had become confused and overlapping. Because of fear of shooting into friendly troops, Lowrey ordered a cease fire. By then, Cleburne had ordered Maj. Hotchkiss, whose batteries were behind Wood's Brigade, to bring up his artillery in front of the brigade. Hotchkiss, who was wounded in the attack, later reported he "let fly the dogs of war into the Yankee ranks" with double canister within 60 yards of the enemy's breastworks. The artillery fire, combined with pressure from Polk’s Brigade on the right, forced the enemy to fall back into the heavy woods.

Col. Lowrey ordered his men to hold the position while he reorganized his 32nd/45th Regiment for a further advance. In the meantime, Gen. Hill rode to Lowrey and ordered him to hold the position until further orders from Cleburne. By now, Wood's Brigade had taken the enemy's position, capturing 3 artillery pieces, 2 regimental colors, and 100 prisoners. In the struggle, it had also killed Col. Philemon Baldwin of the 6th Indiana, who was commanding the 3rd Brigade.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Monument of Col. Philemon P. Baldwin, 3rd Brigade. In the
center rear of the picture is the cannonball shell monument
marking the position where he was killed.

Further pursuit became impossible in the darkness, so around 9 PM, Cleburne halted his brigades. For all the fighting and terror, the attack had succeeded in pushing the Federals back only 300 yards. Rebel skirmishers were placed a quarter-mile in advance of the soldiers who slept without campfires in the miserable, near-freezing temperature. Some of them dozed with dead Federals for pillows, and everyone was painfully aware of the groans of the injured and dying scattered about. They also could hear the sound of axe blows and falling trees, which indicated that their renewed attack in the morning would mean assailing enemy defenses. Of the results of this fight, Author Steven E. Woodworth comments, "30 percent of the best division in the Army of Tennessee had become casualties while inflicting about equal losses on the enemy, and that was no bargain for the Confederacy."

As Cleburne's attack closes the first day of fighting, losses were great on both sides. One historian estimates casualties for the Confederates as high as 9,000. The Federal loss could have been as many as 7,000. There was one encouragement for the Confederates, however: The long-awaited Gen. James Longstreet had arrived. Overnight, Bragg placed Longstreet in command of the Left Wing of his army, and that will make all the difference in the fighting tomorrow.2


From Lieut. Gen. D.H. Hill’s Report of today's action, 1863:
In the afternoon I received an order to report in person to the commanding general at Thedford’s Ford, and to hurry forward Cleburne’s division to the same point. Soon after Breckinridge was ordered to relieve Hindman at Lee and Gordon’s Mills. I found, upon reporting to the commanding general, that while our troops had been moving up the Chickamauga, the Yankees had been moving down, and thus outflanked us and had driven back our right wing. Cleburne was ordered to take position on the extreme right and begin an attack. We did not get into position until after sundown, but then advanced in magnificent style, driving the Yankees back some three-fourths of a mile... We captured 3 pieces of artillery, a number of caissons, 2 stand of colors, and upward of 300 prisoners. His [our] own loss was small, and fell chiefly upon Wood’s brigade, which had to cross an open field and encounter breastworks upon the opposite side of it.
Gen Hill paid a rare complement when he reported of Cleburne’s men: “I have never seen troops behave more gallantly than did this noble division, and certainly I never saw so little straggling from the field.”

1 Great-great Grandfather, David Crockett Neal, was presently serving in Forrest's cavalry in Frank C. Armstrong's Division, in Armstrong's Brigade, which was commanded by Col. James T. Wheeler.
2 Overnight (19th-20th), James Longstreet arrived with 2 brigades. Three of his brigades arrived earlier, in time to participate in the first day's fight. Tonight, Bragg takes the risky step of reorganizing his army into 2 wings, placing the left under Longstreet and the right under Leonidas Polk. Because of the difficult reorganization in darkness and general confusion, the daylight attack on the 20th will not take place as ordered by Bragg. Orders went astray in the dense woods.

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; This Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens; Mark P. Lowrey Autobiography; Six Armies in Tennessee, Steven E. Woodworth;  Official Records, Vol. 30, Pts. 1 & 2; Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 9; Confederate Military History, Vol 10; Huntsville Historical Review, Vol 26, No. 2. 1999: Transcription of Capt. Daniel Coleman Diary, Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill

No comments:

Post a Comment