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.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Our last reckless charge that broke the enemy’s lines" | Day 2 of the Battle of Chickamauga

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
With the arrival overnight of Gen. James Longstreet with 2 additional brigades, Confed-erate Gen. Braxton Bragg decided a hasty reorgani-zation of his army was in order. He placed the army's left, under Longstreet and the right under Leonidas Polk. Orders were made for a dawn attack, beginning with Polk's right wing in the north, with each division joining suc-cessively down the line from to the south. However, in the con-fusion and darkness, orders went astray and commanders could not be found. The Federals used the time to strengthen their mile-long defensive breastworks.

Toward morning on today's date, a Sunday in 1863, Gen. Patrick Cleburne received an order from Polk, explaining that he had sought in vain to locate Cleburne's corps commander, D.H. Hill, and so directed Cleburne to attack the enemy as soon as he could get into position. Polk sent an identical order to Gen. Breckinridge, now in position on Cleburne’s right.

About 7 AM, Hill received his copy of the orders, and immediately sent a message to Polk, explaining that it would be an hour before his divisions could move. Further, Hill informed Polk, “General Cleburne reports that the Yankees were felling trees all night, and consequently now occupy a position too strong to be taken by assault. What shall be done when this point is reached?” Bragg's reply came about 8 AM, with an order for Hill to attack as quickly as possible.

However, it will be 10:00 AM, 3 hours late, before Breckinridge opens the battle by striking toward Federal Gen. George Thomas's breastworks to the north of Cleburne's men. Two of his brigades drove all the way to the LaFayette road. But the left of Breckinridge's Division ran up against fierce fire from behind stronger fortifications, and the shot-up division was turned back. Confederate Brig. Gen. Ben Hardin Helm, President Lincoln's brother-in-law, was killed in the attack. By noon, Breckinridge's Division was ruined.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Now it was Cleburne's turn. From Cleburne's report of that morning:
I received orders from Lieut. Gen. Hill to advance and dress on the line of Gen. Breckin-ridge, who had been placed on my right. Accordingly, directing each Brigade to dress upon the right, and preserve its distance, I moved forward. Breckinridge was already in motion. The effort to overtake, and dress upon him, caused hurry and some confusion in my line, which was necessarily a long one.
Cleburne moved his division forward to began their own attack against Thomas's main line of defensive works. Almost immediately his men came under fire, and the advance became disorderly and needed to be rectified. However, before Cleburne could straighten out his lines, the men came under shattering firepower coming from the enemy's line.  According to Cleburne:
Polk's brigade and the right of Wood's encountered the heaviest Artillery-fire I have ever experienced. I was now within short canister range of a line of log breast-works, and a hurricane of shot and shell swept the woods, from the unseen enemy in my front.
This deadly fire was direct, and came from that part of the enemy's breast-works, opposite to my right and right centre; the rest of my line—stretching off to the left—received an oblique fire from the line of breastworks, which, at a point opposite my centre formed a retiring angle running off toward the Chattanooga-LaFayette road behind.
To the division's right and center the enemy's works ran about a half-mile north and south, and nearly parallel to the LaFayette road toward Chattanooga, which at this point was only 300 yards beyond. There Cleburne's men encountered the center of the Yankee fortifications, their works forming an angle, both sides running west toward the road. From Cleburne's center to his right were Lucius Polk's Brigade and Col. Mark P. Lowrey's Regiment of Wood's Brigade, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was fighting. Lowrey's men advanced in the lead in the most exposed part of the attacking line. It was nearly impossible for the men to line up an enemy target in their sights, so well fortified were the Federal log works.

Cleburne's report continues:
Passing toward the left at this time, I found that the line of advance of my Division, which was the left of the Right Wing of the Army, converged with the line of advance of the Left Wing of the Army; the flanks of the two wings had already come into collision—part of Wood's Brigade had passed over Bate's Brigade of Stewart's Division, which was the right of the Left Wing, and Deshler's Brigade, which formed my left, had been thrown out entirely, and was in rear of the Left Wing of the Army. I ordered Wood to move forward the remainder of his Brigade; opening at the same time in the direction of the enemy's fire with Semple's Battery.
That part of Wood's Brigade to the left of Lowrey's Regiment, and to the left of the Southern angle of the breast-works, in its advance at this time, entered an old field bordering the road (Chattanooga-LaFayette), and attempted to cross it in the face of a heavy fire from works in its front; it had almost reached the road, its left being at Poe's house (known as the Burning House), when it was driven back by a heavy oblique fire of small-arms and Artillery which was opened upon both its flanks. The fire from the right wing coming from the South face of the breast-works, which was hid from view by the thick growth of scrub-oak bordering the field. Five hundred men were killed and wounded by this fire in a few minutes.
At this point, the Confederates were well within the enemy's kill zone when their advance was checked. For Lowrey's troops it was the most severe ordeal they had yet experienced in the war. As Lowrey's men gained the summit of a ridge, they came under fire from a long line of infantry and a battery firing grapeshot from behind breastworks. "When they reached the top of a ridge 230 yards from the enemy's breastworks," reported Lowrey, "they took position behind trees and kept up a regular fire until the whole line had moved up to their position. The firing was heavy from the enemy's breastworks, and my whole line was soon engaged." Nearly a quarter of regiment's men were cut down here, including Maj. F.C. Karr and several of his men who tried to rescue him.1 Sgt. Thomas J. Webster, Pvts. James P. Carter, Jerry M. Layton, and John W. Looney of Great Grandfather's Co. D were also killed. Many other friends from his hometown of Kossuth, Mississippi were killed or wounded near this spot.

There was so little protection that the Confederates lay down and did their best to fire back at the log defenses, while at the same time erecting what little defense they could of limbs, rocks, and brush that could be hastily collected. Lowrey's report continues:
A battery could be seen from my right wing, and the smoke from the enemy's guns was all else that could be seen at which to direct our fire, as the enemy's works were constructed over the crest of the next hill. Being disengaged a considerable distance from the left of Polk's brigade, so that a line of infantry much longer than my own poured a direct and cross-fire into my ranks, and a battery only 230 yards in my front all the time pouring grape-shot upon us, made the fire by far the most severe I have ever witnessed.
In a very short time, I lost over one-fourth of my command in killed and wounded. Nineteen of my men now sleep in one grave near where the colors stood, all of whom were killed near that spot. I would have caused my men to fall back over the crest of the hill and cease firing, but having had orders to go forward and engage the enemy and none to fall back, I supposed it was my duty to keep up the fire, and that a movement was going on the enemy's right flank that would soon remove them from their stronghold.
Lowrey's Regiment clung to the crest for over an hour, while the rest of the Wood's Brigade was driven back with heavy losses. Supposing some other advance would be made to relieve him, Lowrey held on. But when his ammunition was practically exhausted, each man having expended his 40-round issue, Lowrey was forced to pull back his regiment as well. Captain Coleman of the 15th Batallion Sharpshooters, who followed Lowrey's decision to withdraw, observed: "Owing to the gallantry and coolness of Colonel Lowrey, his regiment fell back in fine order, and this inspired my own company… The good order preserved under so hot a fire was remarkable."

When Wood's Brigade withdrew, Cleburne moved up Deshler's Brigade to fill the gap it left, intending to connect Dreshler with the left of Polk's Regiment. However, by this time Polk's left had been driven back and was in serious danger. Cleburne was compelled to order Polk to fall back and join Wood's men in a strong defensive position more than 300 yards in rear of the point from which they had been repulsed.

Deshler moved his brigade forward toward the right of the enemy's defenses, but he could not go beyond the crest of the low ridge from which Lowrey had been forced back. Cleburne ordered Deshler to take cover there and hold his position as long as possible, while the rest of the division rested several hundred yards behind. Sadly, while in command of the advanced position, Gen. Deshler was killed when a shell hit him in the chest.

Other brigades were thrown forward in series rather than together. Some further to Lowrey's left made it as far as the LaFayette road before being turned back. Consequently, while each unit fought vigorously, they were not victorious. Gen. Leonidas Polk's decision not to assault Thomas with his whole wing had been a mistake. Bragg's plan that morning for a series of sequential attacks all along the line did not achieve the expected breakthrough.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
For Cleburne’s and Breckinridge’s Divisions that morning, their attacks were repulsed at great cost. To their credit, wrote Hill, the men fought in a single line without reserves or supporting forces, and they had assailed formidable breastworks. Their heroism and sacrifice had not been in vain, however, and their attack did have a significant influence on the outcome of the battle. Their piecemeal assaults, although repulsed, were so forceful that Gen. Thomas repeatedly called for reinforcements. Rosecrans, convinced that the Confederate army planned to turn his army's left, hurried heavy reinforcements (Gen. T.J. Wood's Division) to Thomas from the Federal right. The gap that opened shortly before noon offered Confederate General James Longstreet the opportunity to pierce the Federal right and achieve a decisive outcome.2

At 1 PM, Gens. Longstreet's and John Bell Hood's men surged through the opening at the Brotherton field, striking the exposed Federal right flank. Within 10 minutes the Rebels were across the LaFayette road, driving a deep wedge into the Federal rear. The Union center and right were routed and fled. Most of the demoralized Federals fled to Chattanooga, as did Generals Rosecrans, Crittenden, and McCook. Also fleeing was the Assistant Secretary of War, Charles A. Dana, who was present at the battle as an observer for Secretary Stanton. Part of a single division, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's, stopped upon reaching a gap in Missionary Ridge, but it did not return to the battlefield. By sunset, which came around 6 PM, essentially the whole Federal army was full retreat through McFarland's Gap, not stopping until they got to Rossville on the outskirts of Chattannooga.

Yet, one obstinate Yankee corps general, George Thomas, did not flee. He was commanding the forces in Cleburne’s front when Longstreet attacked, and he remained in place. Only his unbroken line along the LaFayette Road, plus a few thousand more Federals on Horseshoe Ridge, still held the field.

Thomas soon formed a new line to his rear on Horseshoe Ridge from where he made a stubborn stand that halted Longstreet’s pursuit. With reinforcements, yet outnumbered 2 to 1, Thomas resisted Longstreet’s vigorous assaults throughout the afternoon, earning him the well-deserved nickname, "The Rock of Chickamauga," as well as the Thanks of the U.S. Congress. At 4 PM, Thomas received orders to withdraw from Rosecrans. The message was brought by future President, Chief of Staff James A. Garfield, who famously rode under enemy fire through the battlefield to Thomas on Snodgrass Hill. With the Federal army safely behind him at Chattanooga, Thomas quietly withdrew to Rossville under cover of darkness, there to await a renewed attack that never came. Then on the 21st, he retreated on to Chattanooga with the rest of the Federal army.
During Longstreet's attack on Thomas's position, Cleburne and Breckinridge regrouped their men for another assault. At about 3:30 PM, Polk ordered Cleburne to attack. Just before 5 PM, Cleburne had formed his battered men in a line and advanced. This time the Rebel attack was too heavy to be resisted. Cleburne's men drove the enemy's skirmishers, as my Great Grandfather recalled, "in our last reckless charge that broke the enemy’s lines."3 With help from the artillery the men took the works from which they had been repulsed that morning.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

As the Federals were fleeing, Polk's Brigade, with Lowrey's Regiment following in support, took up the pursuit some distance up the LaFayette road. Capturing the enemy's artillery and hundreds of prisoners, Cleburne halted his division in the enemy's camp to await further orders. His victorious men had finally gained the LaFayette road for which they had fought for 2 days. There they will camp for the night, while less than a half-mile to the west, Gen. Thomas is gathering a Federal force to make a stand on Horseshoe Ridge.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The direction from which Cleburne's men attacked the Federal breastworks
in the Kelly field along the LaFayette Road

Initially, Bragg was unable to believe that the Confederates had won without following his battle plan. He, therefore, delayed in following up on his victory, which could have meant the complete destruction of Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland. The opportunity for overwhelming victory was allowed to pass.

________________________ The 32nd Regiment Roll of Honor ________________________

"Many of my best men fell," wrote Col. Mark P. Lowrey. Indeed the 32nd Regiment lost 25 killed and 141 wounded.  Major F.C. Karr was shot and died soon after the battle. The various companies selected the following men for the Roll of Honor: Smith Scroggins, (killed), Co. A; J.B. Milton (killed), Co. B; Samuel H. Stevenson, Co. C; J.W. Looney (killed), Co. D; Monroe M. Miller (killed), Co. E; J.M. Cooper, Co. F; C.H. Reed, Co. G; Sgt. John Calvin Dean, Co. H; C.C. Campbell (killed), Co. I; Sgt. T. W. Crabb, Co. K.

For his actions in this battle, Col. Mark P. Lowrey was promoted to brigadier general on October 4, 1863. He will be given command of Wood's Brigade, which will henceforth be called "Lowrey's Brigade." In his report of the battle, Lieut. Gen. D. H. Hill wrote: "Col. M. P. Lowrey has been deservedly promoted, and a worthier object of advancement could not have been selected." Gen. Cleburne said after the battle that Lowrey was “the bravest man in the Confederate Army."

In 1899, an old veteran from among this rescue party wrote to the Confederate Veteran magazine (Vol 7): "At about the time Maj. F.C. Karr fell Cleburne’s column fell back two hundred yards to get ammunition. Gen. Mark Lowrey came down the line and cried out: ‘Boys, you have left your major on the field, and he is still exposed to danger!’ Five men immediately volunteered to bring the wounded major from the field. They were D.W. Rogers, Jessee Cheeves, Serg. Hanks, Serg. Crabb, and W.P. Hammons. The Federals were still pouring a deadly fire into the field, and shot and shell were plowing the ground in every direction around the wounded officer. The five men walked across the field without faltering for an instant, and had secured the Major and were bringing him back to their line stretched on a blanket, when a bomb exploded among them. The brave fellows fell in a heap, with shattered limbs and bodies. They were rescued by other comrades, but all were maimed for life." 
2 Gen. John Bell Hood was severely wounded at the height of this assault, requiring the amputation of his right leg. He had earlier received a serious wound at the Battle of Gettysburg, rendering his left arm useless for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, this dedicated soldier will continue to lead men in battle. He will return to field service during the Atlanta Campaign of 1864, and replace Bragg as the commanding general of the Army of Tennessee.
3 From a letter Nathan R. Oakes wrote to the editor of the Confederate Veteran magazine (Vol. 7, 1889). One of Great Grandfather's comrades in Co. D, Thomas "Ben" Settle, wrote home a few days after the battle: We have had a hard fight near this place. It commenced on the nineteenth of this month and ended on the twentieth. We had a very hard fight lost a great many men but succeded in driving the enemy from the field... They fought very stubbornly all the while, but our men went to the field determined to drive the enemy back, and they fought with that determination."

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; This Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West, Glenn Tucker; The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist; Confederate Veteran, Vol. 7,  January 1899-December 1899; Huntsville Historical Review, Vol 26, No. 2. 1999: Transcription of Capt. Daniel Coleman Diary, Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill; National Archives Civil War Service Records; Official Records, Vol. 30, Pts. 1 & 2

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