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, September 18, 2013

Preliminary movements of the Battle of Chickamauga

Having missed earlier opportunities to crush portions of Rosecrans's army, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg now has a chance to turn Rosecrans's left flank, get possession of the important LaFayette Road, and doing so, cut off a Federal retreat to Chattanooga. With this as his object, Bragg's offensive begins with bridge crossings over the West Chickamauga Creek on today's date, a Friday in 1863. This will be his opening move that will result in the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20, one of the bloodiest in the War Between the States.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

Every day the situation for Bragg's enemy—Rosecrans and his scattered Army of the Cumberland—became more critical. Masses of reinforcements were being hurried to Bragg. In addition to Buckner's arrival, plus troops from Johnston in Mississippi, Longstreet's appearance from Virginia is imminent. And if that weren't enough, noted one Union soldier, "every militiaman of northern Georgia that could carry a gun was pressed into service." With that knowledge and the fact that his own army was scattered from Lee & Gordon's Mills north to Chattanooga, Rosecrans knew, as he said in his report, that it was "a matter of life and death to effect the concentration of [his] army."

By the 17th, Federal Generals Crittenden, McCook, and Thomas had begun uniting their 3 corps in supporting distance of each other. However, they were not yet in position to avert the impending danger that was the source of Rosecrans's anxiety. Bragg had his army in readiness for a general advance immediately. It undoubtedly would be successful if the Federal army were not in position to prevent the Confederates from taking the LaFayette Road and a direct path to Chattanooga.

Bragg's strategy required moving most of his army northward beyond the Federal left flank at Lee & Gordon's Mills, then crossing the Chickamauga Creek and driving southward, pushing Rosecrans's army back into McLemore's Cove. His plan anticipated 4 separate crossings over the creek from north to south: Gen. Bushrod Johnson's Division was to cross at Reed's Bridge, turn to the left, and sweep up the Chickamauga toward Lee & Gordon's. Gen. William Walker's Reserve Corps would cross at Alexandria Bridge and attack the enemy's flank and rear in the same direction. Gen. Simon Buckner's Corps would cross at Thedford's Ford, then push the Federals back up the creek from Gen. Leonidas Polk's Corps. Polk would cross at Dalton's Ford and unite in the attack wherever he could find the enemy. Gen. D.H. Hill's Corps, in which Great Grandfather Oakes was serving, was to cover the left flank of Bragg's army, while the cavalry under Generals Forrest1 and Wheeler would cover the army's northern and southern flanks respectively.

The Confederate army's opening movements on today's date were not executed as rapidly as Bragg planned. Early in the morning, Johnson approached Reed’s Bridge over the Chickamauga with his 5 infantry brigades, supported by Forrest’s cavalry. Union Col. Robert Minty, who was guarding Reed’s Bridge, was positioned about a mile east with 3 infantry regiments, supported by only a small cavalry force. At around 7:30 AM, Forrest's cavalry began skirmishing with Minty's force as Johnson's Division began arriving. Minty's troops were able to hold the bridge until mid afternoon before Johnson could force a crossing. Johnson was now hours behind schedule.2

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Overlook today from Reed's Bridge into the West Chickamauga Creek. The
difficulty of the terrain makes the importance of a bridge crossing obvious.

Several miles south, Walker's Corps attempted to force a crossing at Alexander's Bridge, which was defended by Wilder's "Lightning Brigade." Unsuccessful in his attack, Walker was forced to move north to cross at Byram's Ford late in the afternoon. Wilder's action at Alexander's Bridge likely prevented the Confederates from flanking the Union army and gained another day of preparation for the Federals. 

By evening, Bragg's offensive was seriously behind schedule. Johnson's Division, now under Hood's command, had marched southward on the Alexander Bridge Road, but was halted in front of Wilder's blockade. Walker had finally gotten his men west of the creek, but his troops were scattered for a mile along the road behind Johnson. Buckner had managed to push only 1 brigade across the creek at Thedford's Ford. Polk was still facing Crittenden at Lee & Gordon's, while Hill's Corps guarded crossing sites even further south. Nevertheless, Bragg believed he had successfully turned the Federal flank, and the next day he expected to descend upon Crittenden in a massive coordinated attack. 

Unbeknownst to Bragg, Rosecrans was bringing up his forces to confront the Confederates. However, Rosecrans was not yet in the position to defeat Bragg's plan. To accomplish that, it was necessary to make further repositioning of troops, which would be done under the safety of darkness. All night on the 18th, Generals Thomas and McCook will be moving their corps behind Crittenden's, north from McLemore's Cove to the field on Kelly's farm. The then will connect with Crittenden's corps on his right at Lee & Gordon's Mills. Thomas's troops will still be moving into the positions designated for them when the battle opens tomorrow.

By the evening of today's date, Rosecrans assumed that the extreme right of the Confederate army was on the east side of Chickamauga Creek and opposite Lee & Gordon's Mills. In fact, Bragg had a large force on the west side of the Chickamauga with the intention of turning Crittenden's left flank near the mill. In the morning, Bragg will attack what he assumed to be the Federal left. However, when the battle opens tomorrow, the enemy's left flank will be further north of where Bragg expected to find it.

Despite careful planning on both sides, the Battle of Chickamauga will open in an area not anticipated by either, because each is ignorant of the exact position of the other.

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 Angered by Bushrod Johnson's failure to cross the Chickamauga today, Bragg sent Gen. John Bell Hood to take command from him. Hood had only arrived by rail that afternoon as part of Longstreet's detachment from Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Receiving written orders at the station, Hood immediately mounted his horse and galloped out to Reed's Bridge. He arrived there in time to see the Confederates charge across. By evening, Hood marched his men southward on the Alexander Bridge Road, in the direction of Lee & Gordon's Mills, until he was forced to halt in front of Wilder's blockade, where he spent the night.

Sources: This Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn;The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist; Civil War Times, David Wait Howe; Official Records, Vol. 30, Pt. 2; National Park Service

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