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 death of Capt. F. S. Norman, 1864

In the various battles for Atlanta in 1864, my Great Grandfather Nathan Richardson Oakes fought in Company D of the 32nd Mississippi Infantry, a renown regiment in the famous Patrick R. Cleburne's Division in William Hardee's Corps. Great Grandfather's uncle, Flemming S. Norman, was his captain.

Now in Atlanta, the Army of Tennessee's aggressive new commander, Lieut. Gen. John Bell Hood, had a daring plan for striking Union Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's armyAs the determined Hood envisioned it, Hardee's Corps would strike the south flank of the Federal line at dawn and, together with Benjamin Cheatham's Corps, drive enemy back to the Chattahoochee River. The bold plan would decide the outcome of Atlanta. However, it was doomed to failure.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Early in the morning of today's date, a Friday in 1864, Hardee sent his divisions to attack McPherson's line. Cleburne deployed Daniel Govan's Brigade on the left and James A. Smith's Brigade on the right. He placed Mark P. Lowrey's Brigade, in which was Capt. Norman's Co. D, 500 yards behind in a second line as a reserve.

At about 12:45 PM, Cleburne ordered his men forward. The division struck the left flank instead of the rear of McPherson's army as had been planned due to a curve eastward in the enemy's line at this point. Beyond that curved line a Federal division was posted on a round, bald hill.

Govan’s Brigade was first to meet the enemy, and after a 20-minute struggle, drove its skirmishers back to a line of breastworks. His brigade took severe casualties for the effort. Smith’s Brigade caught the enemy by surprise, and his men pursued the fleeing Federals. One of their successes was overtaking the commander of the army, Gen. McPherson, and killing him when he refused to surrender.

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

About 2 hours into the battle, Govan had encountered another line of formidable works, so Cleburne ordered Lowrey to move up his brigade, which to this point was behind Govan, to storm the enemy breastworks. At the same time a gap opened on the line, which, if left uncovered would threaten the 2 engaged Confederate divisions. So, Lowrey took it upon himself to order his brigade into the fight on Govan’s right.

Meanwhile, the fight on Cleburne's front continued. With the help of his artillery, Cleburne's men forced the Federals to fall back to fortifications on the round hill. From the base of that hill, known as Bald Hill (or Leggett's Hill today), Cleburne renewed the attack on a third line of Yankee breastworks. The determined Yankees, however, fought off this new assault.

Lowrey’s shattered brigade, along with another division, was added to the force of this attack. Despite their exhaustion, the Rebels made a furious and magnificent charge. But, just as determined, the enemy drove them back. For 45 minutes, the opposing sides fought across the entrenchments in a savage hand-to-hand struggle. However, in the end, Cleburne’s men were forced to fall back to the second line of Federal entrenchments and there dug in for the night.

There was little time to count the Confederate casualties, but they were severe.

Concerning this final charge, Gen. Lowrey later recalled that his brigade was, "cut to pieces, having lost half its number." Historian Dunbar Rowland,1 says that Lowrey's 32nd Mississippi Infantry "had to cross a miry glade and advance through another brigade that had been repulsed." Lowrey wrote, "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 managed to rally his mangled brigade for another charge. Later he stated, "he never saw a greater display of gallantry than the charge of the brigade; they failed only because a thin line of exhausted men cannot take breastworks held by twice their numbers." The 32nd Regiment's casualties were 18 killed, 45 wounded, 23 missing.

It is likely that in this assault Acting Lieutenant Colonel of the 32nd Mississippi Regiment, Capt. Flemming S. Norman, was killed. Seven other men from Co. D, which by then was commanded by Lieut. B.F. Dilworth, also were killed and 38 were wounded. In fact, every company in the 32nd had captains and/or officers who were killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The 32nd's Col. William H.H. Tison also was wounded in the battle, and therefore, out of action. So, in the midst of so many other killed or wounded officers, it would have fallen to Acting Lieut. Col., Capt. F.S. Norman to lead the regiment in that doomed assault.

Flemming S. Norman was born in Virginia, to a Revolutionary War veteran, William Norman. Raised in Tennessee, he moved across the state line to Boneyard, Mississippi, which neighbored the small community of Kossuth where Great Grandfather Oakes lived and where Mark Lowrey pastored a church. He resided there with his wife, Susan, their 3 children, and his widowed mother. Norman was a saddler by profession, in a tiny township now extinct, that also boasted a tanyard, blacksmith, cabinet maker, and a Post Office.2 

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Confederate Obelisk at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta
Approximately 6,900 Confederate dead are buried in the cemetery.
Great Grandfather Oakes and his Uncle Norman knew Mark Lowrey prior to the war. Indeed, both had seen prior service under him in the state militia. In the early months of 1861, the governor of Mississippi had called for 10,000 troops from his state to defend it against an anticipated Yankee invasion. This militia of 60-Day Troops served until it was incorporated into the newly formed Confederate Army of Mississippi. Norman enlisted as a lieutenant and helped Lowrey organize a company of men, Co. G, nicknamed "Lowrey Guards." When Capt. Lowrey was elected colonel of the regiment, Norman was promoted to captain.

With the outbreak of the War Between the States, Lowrey recruited a new regiment. It is a testament to the respect he held among his men and the community that many of the men from his old regiment enlisted in the new army and again elected him their colonel. Norman was also elected captain of the new Company D. Given his relationship with the colonel, it is no surprise that Norman borrowed the old moniker to name his new company "Lowrey Guards."

During his Civil War service, Capt. Norman frequently performed special temporary assignments for the regiment. At least twice he was detailed as recruiting officer. From time to time, he also served as major of the regiment. Following the victory at Chickamauga, and Lowrey's promotion to brigadier general of Wood's Brigade, Norman was put in command of the 32nd Regiment as its acting major, a position he held from October through December 1863. This stretch of command included the famous Battle of Missionary Ridge and the division's incredible defense of Ringgold Gap in November 1863.

After the wounding Col. W. H. H. Tison in Atlanta, command would have fallen to Acting Lt. Col., Capt. Norman. Once again he led the 32nd Regiment, on this date in its assault on Bald Hill in the Battle of Atlanta. Capt. Flemming S. Norman was 39 when he was killed on this famous battlefield. In addition to leaving a wife and children in Mississippi, he also had a brother, Lafayette Norman, who was at the moment of Norman's death fighting nearby in the 33rd Alabama, also in Lowrey's Brigade.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The beautiful and moving "Lion of the Confederacy" in Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery,
commemorating the unknown Confederate fallen, some 3,000 of which lie nearby.

Sadly, this is about all the information I have uncovered about this brave soldier of the Southern Cause. I am indebted to Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes who in 1900, published a short letter to the editor of the Confederate Veteran. It was in that brief note that Great Grandfather mentioned that Capt. Norman was his uncle.3 Beginning with that single statement, then later Norman's service records and census information, I have been able to reconstruct this simple history of that valiant officer.

I have been unable to locate Norman's grave. Perhaps his body was one of those hundreds that were quickly buried on the field during the brief truce and never identified. Or possibly he lies among the 3,000 Confederate "Unknown" in Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery. I can only hope that some kindly person marked his grave and that it will one day be revealed. Until then, I can think of no more fitting tribute than these lines from Henry A. Wise,
The blessed and ever-glorious dead are not here to defend their memories from the taint of the reproach of rebellion and treason. Alas! I am alive and here, and am bound at every hazard to declare that these men were no rebels and no traitors; that they were patriots, loyal citizens, well-tried and true soldiers, brave, honest, devoted men, who proved their faith in their principles by the deaths which canonized them immortal heroes and martyrs.
1 In his authoritative volume, Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, Dunbar Rowland includes the organization in the Battle of Atlanta and lists the various officers killed and wounded in the 32nd Regiment. Co. D is incorrectly listed as Company "G." He records: "Captain F.S. Norman, Acting Lieutenant-Colonel (killed); Lieutenant B.F. Dilworth, commanding company; First Sergeant J.L. McLean (wounded).” Regrettably, Norman's sacrifice was not mentioned in any of the Official Records.
2 Boneyard was founded in in Tishomingo County in the 1830s. It was destroyed by occupying Federal troops and never rebuilt. The 1860 census indicated that Flemming S. Norman and his family were all residing there.
3 Unfortunately, the editors published his name incorrectly as "S.F." instead of F.S. Norman. I have since learned that Norman was the half-brother of Great Grandfather's full uncle, James Oakes.

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue;  Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, Dunbar Rowland; Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey's AutobiographyConfederate Veteran, Vol. 8 (1900); Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Vol. 5, Franklin Lafayette Riley; F.S. Norman Service Records; N.R. Oakes Service Records

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