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, December 27, 2013

Johnston assumes command

On today's date in 1863, Gen. Joseph Eggleston Johnston took over command of the Army of Tennessee, currently under the temporary command of Gen. William J. Hardee. His announcement to his troops was simple: "By order of His Excellency, the President, I have the honor to assume command of this army." His appointment was well-received by the soldiers encamped in and around Dalton, Georgia.

Born to scottish emigrants in Virginia in 1807, Johnston graduated from West Point in 1829, ranking 13th of 46 in his class. His first appointment was as second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery. In 1837, he resigned his commission to study civil engineering. Rejoining the army in 1838, he served with honors in the Mexican-American War, the Seminole Wars, and as a quartermaster general in California in 1860.

When his home state seceded in 1861, Johnston became the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to resign his commission. He was appointed brigadier general in the Confederate army and was assigned the post at Harpers Ferry in May of 1861. He soon organized the Army of the Shenandoah, later consolidated with P.G.T. Beauregard's army as the Army of the Potomac. Johnston was the senior Confederate commander at First Manassas/First Battle of Bull Run. During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign he defended the Confederate capital of Richmond, withdrawing under the pressure of a superior force commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He suffered severe wounds at the Battle of Seven Pines, after which he was replaced by his West Point classmate, Robert E. Lee, who led the now renamed Army of Northern Virginia throughout the rest of the war.

After recovering from his wounds, Johnston went on to command in the western theater, ascending to command over John C. Pemberton's Department of Mississipi and East Louisiana, and more importantly, the Army of Tennessee following Braxton Bragg's resignation. Johnston was criticized by Richmond for his failures in the Vicksburg Campaign, of which he was not completely at fault since he was not entirely in control. After assuming direct command of the Army of Tennessee on today's date, he was engaged in a series of defensive battles against Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman from Dalton through most of the Atlanta Campaign. Critical of his series of retreats to Atlanta, President Davis relieved Johnston of command on the eve of the defense of that city in July of 1864.

Yielding to political pressure, the president reinstated Johnston in February 1865 as commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Soon, the remnants of the Army of Tennessee were transferred to Johnston in the Carolinas Campaign. By now the consolidated army was outnumbered and undersupplied, but it did experience one last success at the Battle of Bentonville. Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9 led Johnston to finally surrender his department and the Army of Tennessee to Sherman on April 26, 1865. It was the largest single surrender of the war—89,270 soldiers.

After the war, Johnston worked in business and as railroad commissioner under President Grover Cleveland. Later, he served a term in the U.S. Congress. He also became close friends with his old opponent, William T. Sherman. In fact, Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral in 1891, when he contracted pneumonia and died several weeks later. He is buried in the Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.

Now in command of the Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia, Gen. Johnston started preparing his force for the coming spring campaign. He began by improving morale, which had reached its low following the rout at Missionary Ridge in late November. He improved his rail supply line from Atlanta and increased rations for his 39,000-man army. He made efforts to provide shoes and uniforms for his tattered soldiers. He strengthened discipline while also creating a system for granting furloughs to his weary men. His new measures worked, and thousands of absentees returned and reinforcements were added to the ranks. By April, the army had increased to 54,000. As the men began to trust their new commander, order and a sense of confidence were restored, returning the Army of Tennessee to a formidable force over the next few months.

Read more here:

Johnston did some reorganization to his army about this time. But apparently he was satisfied with the organization of Cleburne's Division, in which my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in Lowrey's Brigade, stationed on today's date outside of Dalton, since he made no important changes. Neither was there any significant military activity while the division was stationed at Tunnel Hill.

Joseph E. Johnston monument in Dalton, Georgia
Source: Hal Jespersen | Wikimedia Commons

Sources: The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn;  Civil War Trust

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

I heard the bells on Christmas Day, 1863

On this date in 1863, American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, father of a recently wounded Union soldier, penned this famous and poignant poem, now a beloved Christmas carol.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet, the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along, the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Cleburne's war college

In early December, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne's Division established its winter quarters at Tunnel Hill, 7 miles northwest of Dalton, Georgia, where the rest of the Army of Tennessee is encamped. Cleburne's men, including Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's 32nd Mississippi Regiment, guarded the crest of Tunnel Hill and the wagon road to Dalton. Since there was no longer an immediate threat from the Federal army at Chattanooga, Cleburne turned some of his attention to training and disciplining his division.

Most of the Confederate army was made up of volunteers or conscripts with little to no experience at being soldiers—except, of course, what they picked up on the job. Cleburne insisted upon military discipline and obedience to orders. Part of maintaining discipline and fighting readiness in his division included regular drilling of his brigades. At the Tunnel Hill outpost, he went so far as to construct a log cabin classroom where he personally instructed his brigade commanders in the art of war. He taught them from Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics and listened to their recitations. Cleburne's brigadiers, in turn, taught the officers under their various commands.

Maj. Gen. William Hardee was quite impressed with Cleburne's work and its results. After the war he wrote in the Southern Historical Society Papers about Cleburne's war college at Tunnel Hill and the men he trained:
[Cleburne] devoted the winter months to the discipline and instruction of his troops, and revived a previously adopted system of daily recitations in the tactics and the art of war. He himself heard the recitations of his brigade commandersa quartette of lieutenants worthy of their captainthe stately Granberry [sic], as great of heart as of fame, a noble type of the Texan soldier; Govan, true and brave as he was courteous and gentle; [Polk], young, handsome, dashing and fearless, and Lowry* [sic], the parson soldier, who preached to his men in camp and fought with them in the field with equal earnestness and effect. These brigadiers heard the recitations of the regimental officers. The thorough instruction thus secured, first applied on the drill ground and then tested in the field, gave the troops great efficiency in action.
With such careful attention paid to training his men, it's no wonder that Cleburne's Division earned so much praise for its prowess on the battlefield. And Federal troops were heard to say they dreaded to face the blue battle flag of Cleburne's Division more than any other across the battlefield.

* Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey was the commander of Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's brigade.

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; "Biographical Sketch of Major-General Patrick R. Cleburne," Gen. William J. Hardee, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 31

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bragg's departure

On today's date in 1863, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg took his leave of the Army of Tennessee, which he had led in victory and disaster since assuming command in Tupelo, Mississippi, in June the year before. In an emotional ceremony he surrendered his command of the army, now at Dalton in North Georgia, to Lt. Gen. Hardee. The following is Bragg’s farewell order to his army:
General Order, No. 214. 
Upon renewed application to the President, his consent has been obtained for the relinquishment of the command of this army. It is accordingly transferred to Lieutenant-general Hardee. The announcement of this separation is made with unfeigned regret. An association of more than two years, which bind together a commander and his trusted troops, cannot be severed without deep emotion. For a common cause, dangers shared on many hard-fought fields have cemented bonds which time can never impair. The circumstances which render this step proper will be appreciated by every good soldier and true patriot. The last appeal the general has to make to the gallant army which has so long nobly sustained him is to give his successor that cordial and generous support essential to the success of your arms. In that successor you have a veteran whose brilliant reputation you have aided to achieve. To the officers of my general staff, who have so long zealously and successfully struggled against serious difficulties to support the army and myself, is due, in a great degree, what little success and fame we have achieved. Bidding them and the Army an affectionate farewell, they have the blessings and prayers of a grateful friend. 
Braxton Bragg.
Upon assuming command, Lt. Gen. Hardee issued his own General Order to his men. Considering the unfriendly relations these two men shared, Hardee's remarks about his former commander sound generous and conciliatory.
Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee: 
Gen. Bragg having been relieved from duty with the army, the command has devolved upon me. The steady courage, the unsullied patriotism of the distinguished leader who has shared your fortunes for more than a year, will long be remembered by this army and the country he served so well. 
I desire to say, in assuming command, that this is no cause for discouragement. The overwhelming number of the enemy forced us back from Missionary Ridge, but the army retired intact and in good heart. Our losses are small and will be rapidly repaired. The country is looking upon you. Only the weak need to be cheered by constant success. Veterans of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chickamauga require no such stimulant to sustain their courage. Let the past take care of itself. We can and must take care of the future.

W. J. Hardee.
Hardee's command will only be temporary, and President Jefferson Davis will soon pick a more permanent replacement. After asking Gen. Robert E. Lee to consider, who declined, Davis appointed Joseph E. Johnston.

Bragg's departure will be mourned by few under his command. As Civil War author Peter Cozzens writes, "Even Bragg's staunchest supporters admonished him for his quick temper, general irritability, and tendency to wound innocent men with barbs thrown during his frequent fits of anger. His reluctance to praise or flatter was exceeded, we are told, only by the tenacity with which, once formed, he clung to an adverse impression of a subordinate. For such officers—and they were many in the Army of the Mississippi—Bragg's removal or their transfer were the only alternatives to an unbearable existence."

Bragg's patriotism and sense of duty are without question. However, his actual leadership skills were a serious mismatch for the demands of a commander-in-chief of an army second to only Robert E. Lee's in Virginia.

Contrary to the warm farewell he delivered to his command, as his official reports and letters demonstrate, it was an embittered Bragg who departed the army on today's date. His own record contains scathing criticisms of his subordinates, and a shifting of blame to them for his own mistakes. He even went so far as to accuse his men of cowardice, which is remarkable considering the actual bravery and indomitable spirit they displayed in their many hardships and sacrifices for this unappreciative general.

So, it is no surprise that many rejoiced to see Bragg go. However, he will soon become the president's  top military advisor, and in that position, continue to wield power and influence over the Army of Tennessee.

Sources: No Better Place to Die, Peter Cozzens; Mountains Touched With Fire, Wiley Sword; Official Records, Vol. 31, Pt. 3