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.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The legendary snowball fight of 1864

Late March of 1864 brought an unseasonably large snowfall to the Army of Tennessee encamped around Dalton, Georgia. The storm provided a pleasant diversion for Cleburne's Division at Tunnel Hill. According to historians Howell and Elizabeth Purdue and various other accounts, the men took up a large scale snowball fight which soon swept up participants from several of the regiments including the 32nd. Gen. Cleburne was also caught up in the mock battle. At one point he was "captured" by opposing forces, but soon violated his "parole" and reentered the fight, only to be captured again. The climax came when the general was threatened with "court-marshall" for violating his parole, and a dunking in the creek was being considered as his punishment. However, the victors relented and the fight ended without serious casualties.

More snow fell the next day provoking another snowball fight. Rain and snow continued through the rest of the month. By month's end, apparently Hardee's entire corps was caught up in yet another sham fight.

There were numerous such snow fighting escapades throughout the Southern armies during the war. But the Dalton snowball fight of 1864 is the most famous.

Sketch of the snowball fight in camp at Dalton, Georgia, Winter 1864
Source: Library of Congress

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Fighting Men of the Civil War, William C. Davis & Russ A. Pritchard; Co. Aytch, Sam R. Watkins

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sherman is promoted

On today's date in 1864, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was made the new commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi following Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's promotion to commander of all the Union armies. Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson ascended to Sherman's old position as head of the Army of the Tennessee.

Soon after his promotion, Grant met with Sherman to work out a master plan for winning the war. Their decision called for Grant to direct the Army of the Potomac and destroy Robert E. Lee's army while trying to take Richmond. For Sherman's part, he will try to do the same to Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee, now at Dalton, Georgia, and ultimately take Atlanta. This will be the first time that the Union's Eastern and Western armies will advance simultaneously in a coordinated effort to defeat the South.

In May, Sherman will begin his Atlanta Campaign at Dalton, and he will try to destroy Johnston's army along the way. Sherman will end the year with his infamous "March to the Sea." Also in May, Grant will confront Robert E. Lee in a series of bloody battles, beginning the Wilderness Campaign and ending with Lee trapped at Petersburg, Virginia. Grant finally will force Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, and Sherman will receive Johnston's surrender at Durham, North Carolina, a few days later on April 26th.

William Tecumseh Sherman was one of several Union generals who hailed from Ohio. Appointed to U.S. Military Academy at West Point at 16 years of age, Sherman graduated sixth in his class in 1840. His early military career was unremarkable, and by 1853, he resigned his commission in the army. He tried his hand at banking and law before becoming the superintendent of the Louisiana Military Academy in 1859. When war broke out between the states, Sherman resigned from the academy and returned north to become a colonel of the 13th United States Infantry.

Sherman in Atlanta, 1864
Sherman saw his first war action at First Manassas as a brigade commander. Impressing his superiors by his leadership there, President Lincoln appointed him brig-adier general in August 1861. He was sent to the border state of Kentucky to keep it from seceding. However, the assignment brought him to  the verge of a breakdown, compelling him to request to be relieved of command. After a brief period of recuperation, he was transferred to serve under Maj Gen. Henry W. Halleck and supported his army in the successful battle for Fort Henry.

By now, Sherman was enjoying the support of personal friendship with Grant and had earned his commander's confidence.* From this point on, Grant will increasingly grow to depend on Sherman's military decisiveness.

In the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, against Albert Sydney Johnston's army, Sherman commanded a division under Grant. Despite being overrun during the battle, Sherman was promoted to major general the next month.

Sherman next led troops in the Battles of Chickasaw Bluffs in late December 1862, and Arkansas Post in January 1863, and he commanded a corps during the Vicksburg Campaign. In the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, Sherman's attack against Patrick Cleburne's Division (which included my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes) at Missionary Ridge was decidedly repelled, although the Union army under Grant did succeed in driving the Confederate army off the ridge and out of Tennessee.

Sherman's Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea, 1864
Source: Georgia Stories
Now in March 1864, as commander of all troops in the Western Theatre, Sherman will soon prepare his 100,000-man army to wage warfare that will bring him both fame and notoriety. Believing that to defeat the South he must both destroy its military force and the source for its material support, Sherman will apply a strategy of total warfare. Adapting to Johnston's defensive approach, Sherman will use a series of flanking maneuvers to cut him off on the race to Atlanta, destroying most everything in his path. In July, he will have his prize in hand and then promptly destroy the city. He will do the same with the homes, farms, countryside—everything in his 60-mile wide path on his "March to the Sea" by year's end. Next, he will lead his army on a destructive route through the Carolina Campaign, hastening the war's end by April 1865.

Sherman also was able to restore, and even increase, his reputation among those who would serve under him.  No less a leader than division commander Maj. Gen. Jacob B. Cox, who served under Sherman from the Atlanta Campaign through the Carolinas, wrote about his admiration for the general: "I soon acquired an undoubting conviction that of all the men I had met, [Sherman] was the one to whose leadership in war I would commit my own life and the lives of my men with most complete confidence. In him the combination of intellectual insight with fertility of invention and with force of will in execution was of the highest order. I felt that if the end we aimed at was a noble and worthy one, the price he asked us to pay was reasonable, and the object was worth the sacrifices he called for: we were therefore enthusiastic in our obedience."

Sources: Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, Albert Castel; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Jacob Dolson Cox; Civil War Trust

Saturday, March 1, 2014

U.S. Grant to head the U.S. army

On Leap Year Day, 1864, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and his congress officially promoted Ulysses S. Grant to the position of Lieutenant General in order to appoint him to head the entire Union army. For the first time, the North's military will be directed by a single man, and he will use his position to bring far reaching changes to the army and directly influence the outcome of the war.

Gen. Ulysses S.Grant
Source: National Archives
Born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822, and raised in Ohio, Grant went on to attend West Point. Apparently through a clerical error at the academy, his name was misprinted "Ulysses S. Grant." He liked the change well enough that he adopted it. Soon, his classmates nicknamed him "Uncle Sam," and then just "Sam," the name by which he was known to his army colleagues in the years ahead.

By his own confession Grant was not an exceptional student. Nor was he particularly drawn to military life. But he did graduate in 1843, ranking 21st in a class of 39. He then was assigned a position as a regimental quartermaster. Personally opposing the war with Mexico, nevertheless Grant made his way to the front lines and fought in the battle of Resaca de la Palma. Soon, serving under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, Grant distinguished himself in the decisive battles outside of Mexico City that resulted in Mexico's surrender.

Over the next several years, Grant served at various posts throughout the states and American territories out west. During this period, he married and started a family. With his military salary inadequate to support his family, Grant attempted, but failed at, several business ventures. He grew unhappy at his financial troubles and the separation from his family, and eventually rumors began to circulate that he had become a heavy drinker.

In 1853, he was finally promoted to captain, serving at a post on the northwest California coast. However, in a few months he resigned from the army, likely forced to do so because of his drinking. Now 32 and with no means of supporting his family, Grant tried his hand again for several years at business and even farming. In 1860, he took on a family tannery business in Illinois, "Grant & Perkins," and was able to reunite his family that year.

When the Civil War came in 1861, Grant helped to recruit a company of volunteers and accompanied it to the state's capital at Springfield. He accepted an appointment to recruit and train volunteer units while he waited for a command opportunity with the regular army. Later that year, he was transferred to northern Missouri and promoted by Lincoln to brigadier general. By August 1861, he was assigned duty in southern Illinois.

His first war action was a successful attack in November 1861 against Fort Belmont in Missouri. Next, he captured Fort Henry on February 6, then Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862. His military successes earned him celebrity in the North, and the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

President Ulysses S. Grant,
18th President of the United States
It was at this point in his career that he began to directly impact the Army of Mississippi (later named the Army of Tennessee), which by now included my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes in the 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, headquartered in Corinth, Mississippi. The Battle of Shiloh came next, when the Confederates under Albert Sydney Johnston attacked on April 6, 1862. The next day, Grant and William T. Sherman rallied their troops and counterattacked the Confederates. Together with Union reinforcements that had just arrived, they sent the Rebels back to Corinth.

Grant continued to experience success on other fields of battle, in particular at Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Following the earlier Confederate victory at Chickamauga in October 1863, he was put in charge of the newly formed Division of the Mississippi, giving him command of almost the entire western theater.

After driving the Confederates from Missionary Ridge in November 1863, Grant's fame increased. On today's date in 1864, when he was promoted to Lieutenant General, he took on a position that had only been held by George Washington and Winfield Scott before him. Now, as the commander of all Union armies, Lincoln finally found a general who will win the war for him, although it will be drawn out for more than another year.

Sources:  Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant;