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, May 19, 2014

Clash at Cassville, May 18-19, 1864

Withdrawing from his position near Adairsville on May 18, 1864, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston moved his Army of Tennessee further south to Cassville. His plan was to deceive Gen. William T. Sherman and destroy a portion of his advancing army.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
There were 2 roads leading south from Adairsville, one was along the Western and Atlantic Railroad to Kingston and the other to Cassville. Johnston's strategy assumed that Sherman would divide his army in order to use both roads. This would give the Confederates an opportunity to attack one column before the other could come to its aid.

Johnston ordered William Hardee's Corps to move to Kingston as the decoy, while he with Gens. Leonidas Polk's and John B. Hood's Corps fell back toward Cassville. He hoped that Sherman would believe that the larger Confederate force was in Kingston and would, therefore, concentrate his forces there. Hardee was to hold up the Federals at Kingston while Johnston prepared the rest of his army to destroy the other column moving to Cassville.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, in whose division my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving, wrote in his report that his division was the last of Hardee's to withdraw from the battle line at Adairsville in the early hours of May 18th. Leaving skirmishers behind to cover their withdrawal, and moving in a dense fog, his division followed Hardee's Corps down the road to Kingston. At this point there was nothing between Cleburne's men and the pursuing enemy.

Cleburne's Division reached Kingston later that morning, where he rested his men for several hours. As per Johnston's plan, on today's date, he then marched 3 of his brigades, including Great Grandfather's (Lowrey's Brigade), to Cassville, arriving there by mid-afternoon. He left Lucius Polk's Brigade in Kingston as a rear guard to hold the enemy in check, which would follow later.

Gen. Johnston had guessed correctly. When Sherman arrived on site at Adairsville, he wrongly interpreted the tracks he saw as those of Johnston's whole army on its way to Kingston. This confirmed to him his decision for sending Gen. James McPherson's and most of Gen. George H. Thomas's army to Kingston. He ordered only Gen. John Schofield's and a single corps of Thomas's army to Cassville.

Earlier in the morning of the 18th, McPherson and his corps, which was camped 4 miles northwest of Kingston, began the march to that town, ready for battle with the Confederates there. At the same time, Thomas's army, accompanied by Sherman, was 3.5 miles north of Kingston, and was also moving on the town. When the generals converged on Kingston they were surprised to find that the Confederate army was not there, but instead was 5.5 miles away at Cassville.

The morning of today's date brought an opportunity for a Confederate offensive. Federal Gen. Joseph Hooker's corps was marching on the road to Cassville, looking to find the railroad between Kingston and Cassville and to ultimately hook up with Thomas on his right. At the same time, Johnston, who thought that Sherman must have learned by now the location of his Confederate army, did not know that Sherman was still in the dark, and therefore concluded that Sherman was heading to Cassville.

The aggressive Gen. Hood volunteered his corps for an immediate attack on the Federal column heading in his direction. Hood marched his men along a country road a mile or so east of the Cassville road and formed them facing west to strike the enemy's left flank. At the same time, Polk's Corps would attack the head of the column. The Confederate's position for this attack was a good one. However, as Hood was moving into position, he encountered Federal soldiers to the east, which he feared would attack his corps's exposed flank and rear. So after only a brief skirmish, Hood fell back, and the Confederate advantage was lost. Johnston, understanding that it was too late to regroup and resume the offensive, ordered Hood and Polk to move to a new line east and south of Cassville, where they would be joined by Hardee's Corps, now pulling back from Kingston. Here he believed the army could make its stand.

By the afternoon, Johnston had arranged his army to deliver a fight from a wooded ridge below Cassville. It was a strong position from which to offer battle to Sherman. He placed Hood's Corps on the right. Polk's army was placed in the center across the Adairsville road. He positioned Hardee on the left to cover the route from Kingston, with Cleburne's Division across the rail line before it passes Cass Station.

In the meantime, not finding Johnston at Kingston and assuming he was retreating further south, Sherman ordered Thomas to move his column east on the Cassville road to join Hooker and Schofield. As Thomas pushed towards Cassville in the afternoon, he met advanced units from Hardee's Corps in his path. He mistakenly interpreted this Confederate force as a single division, and reported such to Sherman. Thomas was unaware that he had run into the whole Confederate army. 

At this point, the situation for Johnston looked promising. He had the defensive advantage, and his army had now been strengthened to over 70,000 troops, the largest force the Army of Tennessee would ever see again. Perhaps best of all for Johnston, Sherman had fallen for his ruse.

In the late afternoon, Sherman arrived on the scene and ordered a bombardment of the Confederate line to provide cover for the advance of his infantry, which he planned to use in an attack in the morning.

While nightfall brought an end to the cannonade, the attack demonstrated to the Confederates that the enemy could effectively enfilade their position. Alarmed by the effectiveness of the artillery against them, Hood and Polk went to inform Johnston. They insisted that their positions were too vulnerable to defend. Hardee was of a different opinion, but he could not convince his fellow generals to change their minds. So, in the end, Johnston gave in and ordered a retreat through Cartersville across the Etowah River. In his own memoirs, Johnston later wrote that he never ceased to regret the decision.*

Between midnight and 2 AM on the 20th, the disappointed Confederates pulled out of their works and marched across the Etowah River toward Allatoona, 8 miles to the rear. Cleburne's Division crossed over a bridge near the railroad crossing. On the heights about 3 miles south of the river and 2 miles east of Allatoona, his division along with the rest of Hardee's Corps, stopped to guard the army's withdrawal. They remained there for several days before marching on to Dallas.

The decision at Cassville was a frustrating disappointment to most of the rest of Johnston's officers and men who had been led to believe that they were done with retreating.


The original town of Cassville founded in 1833, is no more, having been destroyed by Sherman's cavalry in November 1864. Only a simple stone cenotaph with a commemorative iron plaque marks its location. However, in 1899, the Cassville Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy honored the 300 or so unknown Confederate soldiers who died of wounds or disease in hospitals located in Cassville. The hospitals operated from late 1861 until they were evacuated with Johnston's retreating army. One of the markers from 1899 in the cemetery has this inscription:
So long as breathes a Southern woman, so long as time shall last, so long will Southern women cherish and honor the memory of the Confederate soldier and meet annually to strew their resting place with choicest garlands.

Photos by Mark Dolan, June 2010

* Even Johnston's opponents recognized this fact. Union general, Maj. Gen. Jacob B. Cox, wrote in his memoirs, "The order to fight had been published, and even a defeat might be less mischievous than the sudden retreat in the night without joining the battle which had been so formally announced. Either the order had been an error or the retreat was one. Every soldier in the army knew this, and the morale of the whole was necessarily affected by it."

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, Albert Castel; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Jacob Dolson Cox; Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War, Joseph E. Johnston; Official Records, Vol. 38, Pts. 3 & 4

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