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.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lookout Mountain, "The Battle Above the Clouds"

On this date in 1863, Federal troops scaled the heights of Lookout Mountain, southwest of Chattanooga, in a "battle above the clouds," and captured the Confederate position there.1 

By the end of the day, yesterday, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's forces under Maj. Gen. George Thomas, attacked the center of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge, and succeeded in taking Orchard Knob in front of the ridge. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman attacked the north end of the Confederate line but was not able to overtake their strategic hold at the north end of the ridge where Great Grandfather Oakes is serving with Cleburne's Division in Lowrey's Brigade.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

Lookout Mountain lay on the Union's far right. Union Gen. Joseph Hooker advanced his men toward the fog-covered peak, attacking Confederates posted at the base of the mountain.2 Hooker didn't actually plan to attack the entire mountain that day, thinking the steep granite slopes too precipitous to overcome quickly. However, fog masked the Union advance, and Hooker's men were able climb more easily than imagined. One Federal officer, Daniel Wait Howe, wrote, "During a considerable part of the day it was so foggy that we could see only the flashing of the guns, but at intervals the fog lifted, revealing the Federal line in the distance looking like a dark thread, slowly advancing from rock to rock. Then cheer after cheer went up from our own lines, for it was obvious that the Federal troops were steadily but surely gaining ground. Far into the night the flashes of musketry indicated that the weird 'battle among the clouds' had not ceased."

The Confederates at Lookout Mountain had overestimated the advantages offered by their position up the steep slopes, and 1,200 Rebels faced nearly 12,000 attacking Yankees. Artillery proved of little use, as the hill was so steep that the Rebels could not see their attackers until they suddenly appeared. Gen. Braxton Bragg did not send reinforcements because he believed the Union attack on the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge was more threatening than what was happening at Lookout Mountain.3

The Federals were victorious, and the Confederates were forced to abandoned the mountain by evening. In their withdrawal they were successful in destroying critical bridges over the Chattanooga Creek, thus separating Hooker's troops from the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. Their action will also significantly slow down Hooker's advance tomorrow on the south end of Missionary Ridge at the Rossville Gap.

The taking of Lookout Mountain was a huge morale boost to the Federals who had been cooped up in Chattanooga for the past 2 months. It wasn't long before the victors began referring to it as the "Battle Above the Clouds." The victory was soon amplified in the Northern press, which became the source for sensationalized and romanticized accounts of the battle. Considering the relatively small force involved and the small number of Federal casualties, Grant was content to refer to it as little more than a skirmish. In his memoirs he put the accounts into perspective: "It is all poetry."

"The Battle Above the Clouds"
A romanticized depiction of the Battle of Lookout Mountain
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Neither the advance yesterday on Orchard Knob, nor the storming of Lookout Mountain today was considered in Grant's original battle plan. Orchard Knob was intended merely as a reconnaissance to learn the enemy's position and to determine whether Bragg had begun to retreat. Taking Lookout Mountain began at Thomas's urging. But both attacks resulted in surprising and unexpected Federal successes. On the other hand, Sherman's attack, the main action, had failed to capture the north end of Missionary Ridge.4

So far, Confederate Gen. Bragg, although losing ground, has held on to his shaky footing on Missionary Ridge.

1 To see a 360-degree presentation of Lookout Mountain and the Chattanooga battlefield, visit the Civil War Trust Website, Chattanooga 360.
2 While Hooker was attacking Lookout Mountain, Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes, in the 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in Lowrey's Brigade of Cleburne's Division, was quickly digging in for an anticipated attack by Sherman's troops on the north end of Missionary Ridge.
3 Historian Wiley Sword writes about Bragg's attitude toward defending Lookout Mountain: "Lookout Mountain had become dispensable in Bragg's eyes. Following the failures at Brown's Ferry, Wauhatchi, and the difficulties with Longstreet, Bragg simply didn't see the military usefulness of this giant mountain beyond that of an observation post." Considering the many Confederate casualties, it's tragic that Bragg hadn't acted on this opinion sooner and vacated the position.
Not all soldiers agreed with Bragg's assessment of Lookout Mountain's importance. It's loss certainly had some demoralizing effect on the troops. Capt. Daniel Colemen of the 15th Mississippi Battalion Sharpshooters in Mark Lowrey's Brigade expressed their sentiment when he wrote in his journal, "Sure enough the enemy did attack Lookout last night and carry it–It is a great blow to us–Reported that a large portion of [?] Brigades was captured" (from the D. Coleman Diary, #3317-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
By evening, Grant erroneously supposed that Sherman had fought his way into possession of the north end of Missionary Ridge at Tunnel Hill. Based on this supposition, at midnight he issued an order for Sherman to attack the Confederates in his front in the morning. At the same time, he issued orders for Hooker to join in attacking the south end of the ridge. Thomas will launch his attack on the Confederates' center. These actions will bring on the decisive Battle of Missionary Ridge on the 25th.

Sources: Civil War Times, 1861-1865, Daniel Wait Howe; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Mountains Touched With Fire, Wiley Sword

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