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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Battle of Atlanta, 1864

Having fought in 2 battles over the past couple of days in 1864, Lt. Gen. William Hardee's Corps, including Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne's Division in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in the 32nd Mississippi Infantry, was called back from Bald Hill to the inner line of Atlanta's defenses. Leaving skirmishers behind to conceal the movement, Cleburne began pulling his men back after midnight on July 21st. The division was ordered to ready for yet another attack on the Federal line.

Now within the city's inner fortifications, Cleburne’s weary men had a short rest while he met with Hardee for new orders. Cleburne learned that the army's commander, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, planned for Hardee to lead his corps on a lengthy and circuitous march east of the city to launch a surprise attack in the rear of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s army approaching from Decatur. As Hood envisioned it, Hardee would strike at dawn and would "roll up" the south of the Federal line and drive it in confusion into the center. Then Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s (Hood's old corps) and Alexander P. Stewart's Corps would follow up with a final strike on the front and drive enemy back to the Chattahoochee River.

The fate of Atlanta rested on the outcome of this attack. But Hood's plan was doomed to failure.

Hood was relying on exhausted men who had not slept for 2 days and had seen near-constant marching and fighting. It was unrealistic for him to require these men to make a 15-mile night march through a panicked and crowded city, before launching a dawn attack. Hardee objected, so Hood agreed that instead of striking the Federal rear, he could turn north at a moment of his choosing and hit the enemy flank.

Source: Historical Markers Across Georgia

In the early morning hours on today's date in 1864, Hardee's Corps, accompanied by Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry, and stretching several miles long, marched under a bright full moon, south on the McDonough Road, then southeast, and finally northeast toward Decatur. About an hour before dawn, they halted near William Cobb’s Mill, 3 miles from McPherson's line, where the men got a couple of hours’ rest by the side of the road. Each man was issued an additional 20 rounds of ammunition in preparation to move northward toward the enemy's line.

After meeting with Gens. W.H.T. Walker and Joseph Wheeler to discuss the attack, Cleburne and Hardee decided they could delay no longer. About a mile beyond Cobb's Mill on the Fayetteville Road, Hardee split his corps. He sent the troops on another 2 miles toward the Federal line. Gens. William Bate's and Walker's Divisions would continue northwestward to Sugar Creek, then face left and move against the presumed Federal flank. Cleburne and Brig. Gen. George Maney (commanding Cheatham's Division1) would move northward along the east side of Flat Shoals Road. Maney, traveling on the east side of the road would attack the center. Cleburne on the west side of the road would deploy on Walker’s left and flank the enemy, attacking in the rear

With the exception of that short rest by the side of the road, Cleburne’s men had now marched or fought continuously for 48 hours. They had almost marched in a complete circle and would be assaulting the south flank of the forces they had resisted throughout the previous day.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Cleburne's Division, with Mark Lowrey's Brigade (Great Grandfather Oakes's) trailing 500 years behind, encountered rough terrain on its march along Flat Shoals. The division was not in position until nearly midday, so Cleburne's attack came a little later than Walker's and Bate's, who were east of him about a mile away. Cleburne deployed his 3 brigades just to the west of Flat Shoals Road, with Brig. Gens. Daniel Govan's Brigade on the left of the division and James A. Smith's (Polk's) Brigade on the right. He placed Lowrey's Brigade 500 yards behind in a second line as a reserve.

At 12:45 PM, Cleburne gave the command, and the men moved forward. Very soon, the dense woods and thick underbrush broke up the attack formation. Lowrey's Brigade, and probably the others, too,  were forced into a column, 4-men wide, until about a mile forward Cleburne called a halt so his brigade commanders could correct their alignment. This consumed valuable time before the advance resumed.

Cleburne's men struck the left flank of McPherson's army where its line bent eastward in a fishhook of fortified works, beyond which a division was posted on a round hill, known locally as "Bald Hill," from which the Confederates had been forced the day before. Govan’s Brigade was first of the division to meet the enemy, and after a 20-minute struggle, drove its skirmishers back to a line of breastworks, which his men eventually captured along with an entire regiment. His brigade took severe casualties for the effort.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Gen. McPherson's monument marking the spot where he was killed.
Location is present day Monument & McPherson Avenues. His body
was removed and buried in the McPherson Cemetery in Clyde, Ohio.
On Govan’s right, Smith’s Brigade caught the enemy by surprise, and his men pursued the fleeing Federals. Rebel troops met face-to-face with a mounted Federal officer on the wrong side of his line, who was clearly startled to see them. Refusing to surrender as ordered, and touching his hat in salute, he attempted to gallop off. However the soldiers opened fire, mortally wounding the commander of the Army of the Tennessee, Gen. James Birdseye McPherson, the only Union army commander to be killed during the war.Smith's and some of Govan's men then forced the enemy back to their defenses on the hill.

To this point, it seemed that the attack was going according to Hood's plan. But by 2 PM, the heat, lack of sleep, and exhaustion, began to take a toll on the Confederates, and their ranks were thinning.

About 2 hours into the battle, Smith encountered another line of formidable Federal works, so he sent a request for support. Lowrey then was ordered to move up his brigade, which had been held in reserve behind Govan's men, and to storm the enemy breastworks. Lowrey marched his troops eastward through deep woods, which he couldn't see through more than 100 yards, and came into the fight on Govan’s right wing. Here, Lowrey reported, his thin line "rushed forward with great impetuosity, as though they bade defiance to Yankee breast-works." Many of his officers were cut down or captured at this point of the attack.

Meanwhile, the fight on Govan’s front continued. Cleburne ordered his artillery to advance with the infantry, and ordered Capt. Thomas J. Key to bring his battery up to within 200 yards of the Federal line. The Federals wavered under Key's fire, and when Granbury’s Regiment came in on their left, the troops fled. Key reported to Cleburne and Govan who were watching the fight that the Federals were falling fall back to Bald Hill which, because of its height, dominated the battlefield and became vital to the outcome of the fight.

From the base of Bald Hill, Cleburne renewed the attack on a third line of Yankee breastworks positioned on the crown of the Federal line. But this time the Yankees didn’t run. Instead, they fought off Cleburne's renewed assault. About 4 PM, Lowrey’s shattered brigade added its force to this attack, while Maney/Cheatham's Division came into the fight on Cleburne’s left. Despite their exhaustion, the Rebels made a furious and magnificent charge across 40 yards of open ground. Many of Lowrey's men were cut down, while the rest plunged on into the enemy. A hand-to-hand struggle ensued.

The enemy was just as determined as Lowrey's men. After 45 minutes of savage fighting, the Federals drove back their attackers. Though some of the of the Confederates gained a temporary hold, night closed with the Federals still in possession of Bald Hill. Cleburne’s men fell back to the second line of Federal entrenchments, which they had captured earlier, and there dug in. What was left of Lowrey’s Brigade withdrew with the division into the dense woods and out of range of enemy fire.

Captured Confederate entrenchments, Atlanta 1864
From the Matthew Brady Collection

Concerning this charge on Bald Hill, Gen. Lowrey recalled that his brigade was "cut to pieces, loosing half its number." According to Mississippi historian, Dunbar Rowland, the 32nd Mississippi Infantry, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was fighting in Co. D, "had to cross a miry glade and advance through the remnants of [Smith's Brigade], that had been repulsed." Lowrey reported, "The Thirty-second Mississippi rushed forward almost to the works, when one-third of the command fell at one volley and two color bearers were killed in quick succession." He continues:
All the regiments acted well. Taking the brigade all together, I never saw a greater display of gallantry; but they failed to take the works simply because the thing attempted was impossible for a thin line of exhausted men to accomplish. It was a direct attack by exhausted men against double their number behind strong breast-works. The history of this war can show no instance of success under such circumstances.
Lowrey said that he lost about one-half the men in his brigade in that charge: Col. W. H. H. Tison was wounded and 578 men were either killed, wounded, or captured. "Many of the captured," he wrote, "were first wounded, but some charged over the breast-works and were captured, while others went to the works and could not get away."

Confederate entrenchments, possibly looking east toward Bald Hill, 1864
From the Matthew Brady Collection

In that assault, the 32nd Regiment lost 18 in killed, 45 wounded, and 23 missing. It is possible that in this fight Acting Lieutenant Colonel of the 32nd Mississippi Regiment, Capt. Flemming S. Norman, was killed. Norman was captain of Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's Co. D3 since its formation in Corinth, Mississippi in 1861. Norman's death hit even closer to home for Great Grandfather Oakes, for Norman was also his uncle.4 Also, Lieut. B.F. Dilworth from his hometown of Kossuth, was killed while leading Co. D in this attack, as were many others. In fact, every company in the 32nd Mississippi had captains and/or officers who were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

Around 5 PM, Cleburne personally led Govan's and Smith's Brigades, Maney's Division, and Mercer's Brigade, in an another attack, this time along Flat Shoals Road and Bald Hill. The Confederates captured a line of works and forced the Federal line on the crest of the hill to retire east of its original position. To the east of this fighting, other Confederate units attacked the Federal line, but without success.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Gen. Hardee later reported that the battle was "one of the most desperate and bloody of the war, and... won the only decided success achieved by the army at Atlanta." Indeed, his corps suffered severely receiving 3,300 casualties. The partial success of Cleburne’s Division on Bald Hill on this date was the high point of the Confederate assault. However it was largely in vain. On his right, Bate and Walker had been slowed by difficult terrain and suffered a repulse. Walker had been shot dead before the attack was barely under way.Cheat-ham’s Corps was not ordered into the fight until late afternoon, after Cleburne’s attack was losing its momentum. Hood had delayed ordering Cheatham forward in the hope that Hardee’s assault would drive the Federals north of Decatur Road, in which event Cheatham’s attack would have proved decisive. But Hood unleashed Cheatham's force too late in the day. While the men fought furiously, the attack was halted. A Federal counterattack restored the enemy's line.

Despite the heroic sacrifices of his soldiers, and even Hardee's success in inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, Hood's goal of a coordinated attack to drive McPherson's army back to the Chattahoochee was not achieved.

That night, Cleburne’s Division improved their new defenses and prepared to defend the ground they had won. There was little firing overnight, so for the first time in 48 hours, Cleburne’s men were able to grab some sleep. When the sun came up on the 23rd, both armies remained in place, unwilling to renew the fight. At midnight, they agreed on an armistice to remove the dead and wounded from between the lines.

The Army of Tennessee, with Cleburne’s and Maney’s support, had managed to carry the left wing of the Federal army to its breastworks. As evidence of its progress in its sector, Cleburne’s men captured 1,600 prisoners, numerous wagons, ammunition, artillery, mules and horses, hundreds of small-arms, 8 pieces of artillery, and 4 stand of colors. In spite of this, the battle for the Confederates ended indecisively.6 It failed to halt Gen. William T. Sherman’s tightening siege on Atlanta. It also resulted in many more Confederate casualties than the army could afford. Confederate losses numbered upwards to 5,000. By contrast, the Federals lost about 3,600 men. Among the Confederate's loss were 1,388 from Cleburne's Divisionmore than half of those engaged in the battle.

Atlanta will soon fall to Sherman's victorious army. Sherman's successful conclusion to his Atlanta Campaign will boost President Abraham Lincoln's bid for re-election, assuring that he will retain the presidency until the eve of the Confederacy's defeat in 1865.

Brig. Gen. George Maney commanded Cheatham's Division, while Cheatham led Hood's Corps at Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta.
Gen. McPherson's death was mourned by officers on both sides. In fact, Confederate Gen. Hood, who had been McPherson's roommate at West Point, wrote,
I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend, General James B. McPherson, the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow. Since we had graduated in 1853, and had each been ordered off on duty in different directions, it has not been our fortune to meet. Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers.
3 Dunbar Rowland incorrectly indicated that Norman was captain of Co. "G" rather than Co. D.
Capt. Norman had a brother, Pvt. Lafayette Norman, fighting in this same battle in the 33rd Alabama of Cleburne's Division.
Maj. Gen. Walker was killed by a Federal sniper while he as scouting the position assigned to him near Terry's Mill Pond. Following the battle, Walker's Division, which had suffered terrible losses, was reassigned to other Confederate commands. Division command on the field fell to Brig. Hugh Mercer. Walker's death was a personal loss to Gen. Hood, a close friend. 
Hood ultimately blamed Hardee for the outcome of the battle, although his assertion is much disputed. In his memoirs years later he wrote, 
A considerable time had elapsed when I discovered, with astonishment and bitter disappointment, a line of battle composed of one of Hardee’s divisions advancing directly against the entrenched flank of the enemy. I at once perceived that Hardee had not only failed to turn McPherson’s left, according to positive orders, but had thrown his men against the enemy’s breastworks. Thereby occasioning unnecessary loss to us, and rendering doubtful the great result desired. In lieu of completely turning the Federal left and taking the entrenched line of the enemy in reverse, he attacked the retired wing of their flank, having his own left almost within gunshot of our main line around the city 
Historians Albert Castel and Howell and Elizabeth Purdue are some who disagree with Hood's assessment. Hood’s greatest mistake was in failing to carry out his plan for Gens. Cheatham and Stewart who would take up action as soon as Hardee became engaged. By not ordering the 2 other corps forward, Hood failed to make a coordinated attack, which was essential to success. He delayed nearly 3 hours before ordering Cheatham to attack, and Stewart's force was never committed to action.

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue;  Decision in the West, Albert Castel; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Atlanta, Jacob D. Cox; Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, Dunbar Rowland; Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey's AutobiographyAdvance and Retreat, J.B. Hood; Official Records, Vol. 38, Pts. 3 & 5

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