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.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cleburne's Division at the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, 1864

William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign of 1864 kicks off with an attack on
Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee at Rocky Face Ridge/Dalton, GA.
SSource: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
By May 5, 1864,1 Confed-erate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was alerted to a Federal force moving on his Army of Tennessee en-trenched around Dalton, Georgia. He, therefore, ar-ranged his army to meet the enemy, now under the com-mand of Gen. William T. Sherman.

Johnston formed his main infantry line across Mill Creek Gap, known locally as Buzzard Roost Pass, and from there north for about a mile on the crest of Rocky Face Ridge. His line then continued across Crow Valley. He placed Patrick R. Cleburne's Division north, in front of Dalton, behind Mill Creek Gap. Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in the 32nd Mississippi Regiment, which was commanded by Col. William H.H. Tison, in Mark P. Lowrey's Brigade of Cleburne's Division.

On today's date, a Saturday in 1864, forces under Gen. George H. Thomas took Tunnel Hill, opening the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, May 7-13. The next day, his troops attacked Johnston's main line where they encountered well entrenched Confederate forces. Although outnumbering the Rebels here 10 to 1, they were turned back. Surprised by the defeat of his larger force Thomas decided to probe the line further north, near Buzzard Roost, defended in part by Cleburne's Division, while Gen. James McPherson moved his army south in the direction of Resaca in an attempt to outflank the Confederate's position. Thomas ordered 5 five full-scale attacks against the defenders at Mill Creek Gap, but ultimately met with defeat.

Mill Creek Gap/Buzzard Roost Pass, Georgia, 1864
From the Matthew Brady Collection

Elsewhere on the line, Union Gen. John Schofield was moving his army south from Red Clay, when he was attacked by Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry. While Thomas was moving his attack further north to Buzzard Roost, Schofield skirmished with Wheeler's men. On the 9th, Wheeler attacked a portion of Shoffield's cavalry force at Prater's Mill and delivered Sherman his first defeat of the campaign.

In the late afternoon of the 8th, an urgent situation for the Confederates developed at Dug Gap—it was under attack. Dug Gap was a vital pass through the Rocky Face Ridge, 5 miles southwest of Dalton. Its defense was critical. Part of Cleburne's Division was ordered from Mill Creek Gap to reinforce Dug Gap, defended by only 2 small regiments of dismounted cavalry. Cleburne led Lowrey's and Hiram Granbury's Brigades in a rapid march in extreme heat up the steep ridge, arriving at the gap around sundown. While the attack was continuing, Cleburne arranged his brigades to relieve the defenders, which were struggling to hold their position. For a while, the Federals shelled the ridge, but as night fell, the enemy withdrew, leaving behind many of its dead and wounded along with many small arms. Historian Albert Castel notes about the action of Cleburne's men at Dug Gap: "The fight—the first real one of the campaign—is over, and what could have been, against less resolute resistance, a calamitous Union breakthrough has turned out to be a one-sided Confederate victory."

Fighting at Dug Gap, sketched by A.R. Waud
Source: The Civil War Trust

Federal success was to come elsewhere on the battle line. Earlier, on the morning of the 8th, Gen. James B. McPherson's army had crossed Taylor's Ridge at Ship's and Gordon's Springs Gaps, then marched through Villanow and took the important Snake Creek Gap—a narrow 4-mile gorge through the ridge—with little opposition.2 On the 9th, his army passed through the gap to within a mile of Resaca, threatening the railroad there. If he could take control of the town and the railroad, Sherman would have the Confederates trapped between enemy forces in the north and south.

To counter McPherson's surprise move, in the early hours of the 10th, Cleburne with Lowrey's and Granbury's Regiments, along with and 2 other divisions, were ordered toward Resaca. But, while waiting near the town, Cleburne received orders to return to Dug Gap due to a change in the enemy's movements. Fearful of being cut off from the rest of the Federal army, the nervous McPherson turned back. While he had managed to secure Snake Creek Gap, which provided the opening through the ridge Sherman needed, his undue caution ultimately allowed Johnston to escape down the rail line, thus ensuring another confrontation on May 13-15.

Despite McPherson's decision to pull back, together with the Federal repulse at Dug Gap and other points along the Confederate line, Sherman's attacks had managed to upset the Confederate plan to defend Dalton. Johnston was compelled to withdraw.

Leaving Thomas to attack the the main Confederate line on the 10th, Sherman moved the rest of his army south. Thomas's demonstrations were weak against the Confederates that had resisted several earlier frontal assaults over the previous 2 days. But they did give the rest of Sherman's force time to advance along the west side of Taylor Ridge undetected by Johnston's army.

On the11th, Gen. Leonidas Polk arrived at Dalton from Rome, Georgia, with a force of 15,000, bringing up the strength of the Army of Tennessee to nearly 65,000 men. However, with a superior enemy force now in his rear, Johnston withdrew on the 12th, and fell back to Resaca.

Thus began Sherman's Atlanta Campaign of 1864.

On the same date, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched his simultaneous Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee's army in the Battle of the Wilderness. While both armies suffered heavy casualties, on May 7, it was Grant who disengaged and moved southeast for another battle at Spotsylvania on May 8.
Gen. Wheeler was assigned to defend Snake Creek Gap with his cavalry. However, on May 7, he removed his pickets for fighting to the north. Failing to maintain reconnaissance in this area of Taylor's Ridge left the Confederates unprepared for the Federal advance. Of course, Johnston should have understood the importance of defending the gap with a sufficient force to hold it.

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, Albert Castel; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Jacob Dolson Cox; Official Records, Vol. 38, Pt. 3

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