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.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The First Battle of Dalton, 1864

Following the Battle of Missionary Ridge in November of 1863, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the overall commander of Union troops in the West, drove the Confederates out of Tennessee. The Army of Tennessee, then under the command of Gen. Braxton Bragg, fell back to the mountains of northern Georgia.

With his defeated army headquartered at Dalton and posted in the nearby ridges and gaps, Bragg resigned and was replaced by Joseph E. Johnston. Mindful of his army's defense Johnston arranged his force along the imposing Rocky Face Ridge in the vicinity of Dalton. Over the next 4 months, he reorganized and refit his army for the inevitable campaigning to come. For the most part, except for a Federal attack on this date in 1864, these months were militarily uneventful.

On February 3rd, Grant sent Gen. William T. Sherman and 25,000 troops from Vicksburg on a campaign east toward the Confederate supply center at Meridian, Mississippi. Along the way Sherman tore up the railroad and created other havoc on the route to Meridian. There he planed to link up with a Federal cavalry force.1 This troop movement prompted President Davis on February 17th, to order Johnston to send Gen. William Hardee with Cleburne's, Cheatham's, and Walker's Divisions, to reinforce Gen. Leonidas Polk in charge of defending Mississippi with only 10,000 troops in his command.

Each night from February 19-23, units from Cleburne's Division, having cooked 2-days' rations, began marching from their winter quarters at Tunnel Hill, 12 miles to Dalton. There they loaded onto boxcars for transport to Demopolis, Alabama, about 300 miles southwest on the line toward Meridian, another 60 miles beyond. 

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Anticipating Johnston's transfer of part of his army to meet Sherman, Grant saw an opportunity to exploit the Confederates' weakened position at Dalton. He sent Gen. George Thomas to probe Johnston's defenses. On today's date in 1864, just as the last of Cleburne's regiments —Great Grandfather Oakes's 32nd Mississippi—was boarding at Dalton, Thomas moved against Johnston's army.2  Just before boarding the train at Dalton the 32nd Mississippi was ordered to march to Mill Creek Gap to reinforce Gen. A.P. Stewart's Division there, although it did not engage the enemy during the fighting.

The action on February 24th, revealed to Thomas that the Confederates's positions at Mill Creek Gap and Rocky Face Ridge were well defended. So on the 25th, his force attacked Dug Gap, just a few miles south of Mill Creek Gap and at Crow Valley.

Meanwhile in Mississippi, Polk was forced to abandon Meridian, leaving it for Sherman to burn on the 22nd. By the time of Thomas's attack on Dalton, Polk was returning Hardee's unneeded reinforcements, many of which were still in transit to him from Dalton. Portions of Cleburne's Division began returning to Dalton from the 25th through 27th. His first brigade to arrive, Hiram Granbury's, was sent immediately to retake Dug Gap, which it did on the morning of the 26th.

By the 27th, Thomas realized that Johnston, now reinforced with his returning divisions, was ready and able to counter any assault on the Dalton stronghold, so he withdrew his army.

In the battle, Thomas suffered fewer than 300 casualties, while Johnston lost around 140 men. The Union command did learn from this action, however. Next time, with Sherman in command, the army will bypass a direct assault against Rocky Face Ridge and instead attack through an undefended gap well to the south.

Confederate breastworks at Dug Gap, Dug Gap Battle Park
Source: Dalton CVB

After the battle, Cleburne gathered his scattered division and encamped at Dug Gap for a few days. On March 1, he moved his division 3 miles east of Dalton, to the banks of Mill Creek in the Gap of the same name (also known as Buzzard Roost), on the extreme right of the army. As they had done at Tunnel Hill, the men dug entrenchments and prepared huts for their new winter quarters.

Sherman's plan was to link up at Meridian with Brig. Gen. William Soy Smith's cavalry force of 7,000 men. However, Smith met Confederate resistance before he could reach Sherman. Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry brigade confronted Smith at West Point, Mississippi. From there, Forrest forced Smith to retreat, catching up with him in Okolona, Mississippi. There Forrest defeated Smith in a battle on February 22nd. Meanwhile, Sherman's army reached Meridian on February 14, unaware of Smith's retreat. He waited in Meridian until February 20, when he gave up on Smith and returned to Vicksburg. Little did he know at the time that Smith's defeat at Okolona resulted in the elimination of Sherman's entire left flank of his campaign.
The action that developed on this date is called "The First Battle of Dalton." The Second Battle of Dalton was a Confederate cavalry action led by Joseph Wheeler against the Federal garrison at Dalton on August 14 & 15, 1864, ending in Wheeler's defeat. In a Third Battle of Dalton, the Federal garrison here will be attacked again and taken by Hood's army in October 13th.

Sources: The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purue; This Day in History

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