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

Sherman attacks Cleburne's Division, 1863

Having been recalled yesterday from the Chickamauga rail station, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne's men marched a return trip of 7 miles to Gen. Braxton Bragg's headquarters atop Missionary Ridge last night. Early the next morning, on today's date, a Tuesday in 1863, Bragg ordered Cleburne to send a brigade and a battery up the line to guard the railroad bridge over the Chickamauga Creek and to ensure a secure line of retreat for the army if it became necessary. Cleburne sent Brig. Gen. Lucius Polk's Brigade with Semple's Battery. The other 3 brigades of his division—Lowrey's, Smith's, and Liddell's—remained on the slope behind Bragg's headquarters. Cleburne put the men to work constructing a new defensive line along the top of the ridge from the Shallow Ford road to Bragg's headquarters. His men couldn't resist gazing on Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's immense army swarming below. They also can hear enemy cannonading and small arms fire in the direction of Lookout Mountain.

The northern end of the extended Confederate line on Missionary Ridge descended gradually along the course of the South Chickamauga Creek. South of the creek about a mile, the Chattanooga & Cleveland Railroad passed through a tunnel through the ridge before linking with the Western & Atlantic. The hill above, and about 250 yards north of the tunnel, was known as Tunnel Hill. The hill was critical to the security of the Confederate right, just as Lookout Mountain was for the Confederate left. 

At 2:00 PM on that rainy afternoon, Bragg sent Cleburne's Division and Wright's Brigade to the north end of Missionary Ridge. Cleburne was ordered to take Lowrey's, Smith's, and Liddell's (commanded by Col. Daniel Govan) Brigades with batteries to the north end of Missionary Ridge, near the railroad tunnel under the ridge. There was some urgency to the orders: Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's divisions, which had crossed the Tennessee River, were coming into position near that which Cleburne's men were to occupy. Cleburne also was instructed to hold "at all hazards" the railroad bridge in his rear that Polk's Brigade was presently guarding. His commander, Lt. Gen. William Hardee, had further instructions. He wanted a single brigade stationed on a detached rise, Billy Goat Hill, about a half-mile northwest of the main ridge. The rest Cleburne could deploy on Tunnel Hill itself, and on the ridge line extending southward, until they connected with Maj. Gen. William H.T. Walker's Division on his left.

After crossing the river overnight 23rd-24th, Sherman's objective was to take the Confederate position at Tunnel Hill with 6 divisions and 16,000 men under his command. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's forces would take the other flank of the Confederate position on Lookout Mountain. The object of these 2 attacks was to force Bragg to send reinforcements away from his center on Missionary Ridge, where Grant planned that Maj. Gen. George Thomas should attack. Sherman was under the misimpression that Missionary Ridge was one prolonged even range. When he crossed the river, he passed over the foothills before moving his men up a hill—what he thought was the main portion of the north end of Missionary Ridge.

In the meantime, Cleburne quickly surveyed the ground at Tunnel Hill that Bragg had assigned him. Immediately he saw the impossibility of covering such an extended front with only 3 brigades. He sent word to Gen. Hardee about the situation, even as Sherman's Federals were advancing on his troops. Cleburne ordered Brig. Gen. James A. Smith to move his brigade to take possession of a detached hill known as Billy Goat Hill. But as Smith's men started up the hill, they came under attack by Sherman's infantry already on the summit, and were forced to pull back.

Having a full grasp on the potential of his position on the ridge, Cleburne promptly arranged the rest of his division. He placed Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey's Brigade, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving, in position south of the tunnel, and was positioning Govan's troops on his left in order to connect with Walker's Division, when fighting broke out on his right. Cleburne correctly assumed that Sherman was attempting to turn his right flank and gain the main ridge between his right and the Chickamauga Creek. If the attack were successful, Sherman would gain control of the railroads, and also cut off a line of retreat for the army. As a remedy to the rapidly changing situation, Cleburne placed Govan's men on Missionary Ridge itself, at a point that jutted out in the rear of the ridge just north of the tunnel, in order to cover the valley and road that led over the main ridge in the direction of the enemy's approach. As Cleburne's men were digging in on the surrounding hills, fighting began on Lookout Mountain far to his left.

Hardee soon arrived. Approving Cleburne's troop positions, he then ordered the destruction of another bridge over the Chickamauga in the division's rear right flank. He also ordered 2 of Lowrey's regiments, including Great Grandfather's 32nd Mississippi, and artillery into position in the rear of his right flank. These scant 2 regiments took up position to the left of Smith's Brigade and Walker's Division beyond, covering a distance of nearly a mile. The troops remained on the thin battle line all night.

The last of the fighting in Smith's front ended as darkness fell. Sherman's troops dug in under the misimpression that they had taken the north end of Missionary Ridge, Sherman's original objective. The reality was that Tunnel Hill lay beyond a deep depression between the 2 hills. Seeing that he was about out of daylight, Sherman ordered his men to entrench to hold the ground he had thus far gained.

By now, Cleburne was aware of the loss of the Lookout Mountain position in the south that had been taken late in the afternoon while his men engaged Sherman's troops. Overnight, Cleburne was ordered to hold his position and await the enemy's anticipated attack on Missionary Ridge. He spent the night repositioning his troops.2 The main attack would come tomorrow.

1 Sherman had made a huge mistake. Because he remained in the rear of his forces until after dark, his misimpression lasted until morning. Based on the supposition that Sherman had taken the actual ridge, at midnight Grant issued an order for him to attack the Confederates in his front the next morning. At the same time he plans for Maj. Gen. George Thomas to simultaneously storm the Confederates' center on Missionary Ridge. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker would join the attack after moving from his newly won position atop Lookout Mountain to assault the south end of the ridge near Rossville. These actions will bring on the Battle of Missionary Ridge tomorrow.
2 Cleburne reported that there was an eclipse of the moon that night which hindered troop placement and fortification.

Sources: The Shipwreck of Their Hopes; Peter Cozzens; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; ChattanoogaA Death Grip on the Confederacy, James Lee McDonough; Mountains Touched With Fire, Wiley Sword; The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist; Huntsville Historical Review, Vol 26, No. 2. 1999: Transcription of Capt. Daniel Coleman Diary, Univ. North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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