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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Let us die like men" | The Battle of Franklin, 1864

On today's date in 1864, the men of Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne's Division, in which my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes served, got their first look at the Columbia-Nashville turnpike, along which they had slept in line of battle all night. They disappointed troops now knew for certain that the enemy they had battled the previous day had abandoned Columbia and Spring Hill. The anticipated attack orders from Gen. John B. Hood never came, and in the darkness all of Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s army had slipped by unchallenged.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill, built in the 1850's,
and the home of Major Nathaniel Cheairs

In the early daylight hours, after breakfasting at the Nathaniel Cheairs home and quarreling with his commanders, Hood put his army in motion toward Franklin, marching rapidly in order to overtake the enemy before it crossed the Big Harpeth River, 18 miles north of the Confederates at Spring Hill. Hood, still unjustifiably angry,1 and even years later he still blamed the loss on his men:
A sudden change in sentiment here took place among officers and men: the Army became metamorphosed, as it were, in one night. A general feeling of mortification and disappointment pervaded its ranks. The troops appeared to recognize that a rare opportunity had been totally disregarded, and manifested, seemingly, a determination to retrieve, if possible, the fearful blunder of the previous afternoon and night. The feeling existed which sometimes induces men who have long been wedded to but one policy to look beyond the sphere of their own convictions, and, at least, be willing to make trial of another course of action.
It is hard to imagine how any of them could hold their commander in high enough esteem to be willing to offer the sacrifices he shortly would require of them. But being the valiant and loyal patriots they were, without hesitation, they will.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The William Harrison House, where Gen. Hood planned his reckless
strategy that sent more than 1,700 men to their deaths at Franklin
About noon, Hood arrived with Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s Corps along the Columbia turnpike, a mile south of Winstead Hill. He set up headquarters at the William Harrison House and there ordered his generals to report. Hood outlined his plan to risk everything on a direct, frontal assault on the Federal lines. When he asked for comments, Gen. Nathan B. Forrest objected because he saw that a direct assault would bring on a great and unnecessary loss of life. Forrest offered to lead his cavalry and some infantry to flank the Federal position. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham and Cleburne added that an attack across 2 miles of open valley against impregnable earthworks would be a disaster.

Still stinging from his lost opportunity the night before, Hood was emphatic with his orders this afternoon: The attacking Confederate force was to “go over the main works at all hazards.” Obediently, Cleburne’s last words to Hood were, “I will take the enemy’s works or fall in the attempt.” Tragically, Cleburne will be true to his word.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
View an exceptional animated map available at the
Civil War Trust website
Gen. Cleburne then rode back to his command and passed the orders to his brigadiers, instructing them to march their troops up to the foot of Winstead Hill, east of the turnpike. Gen. Daniel Govan later remembered Cleburne being despondent on this afternoon, and tried to engage him in conversation: “Well, General," he commented, "there will not be many of us that get back to Arkansas.” To which Cleburne replied, “Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.” 

Though hastily constructed, the Federal entrenchments were significant, made of earth and logs. This imposing line extended around the town. The dirt on each side of the trenches had been used to elevate the works, creating a ditch in the front and rear. Twenty-eight cannon were spread throughout the line. The battle would mainly take place on the plantation of Fountain B. Carter. His cotton gin, less than 100 yards east of the Columbia pike, was strategically located along a natural defensive line. There Federal troops had scavenged lumber from the cotton gin to reinforce their barricades. Along the crown of the embankments, a top rail was placed with space beneath from which to fire their rifles. In some sections these works rose 5 feet high and 4 feet or more thick. Artillery had also been deployed behind other earthworks. The Yankee position was formidable.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The Fountain Branch Carter House: Gen. Jacob Cox's headquarters
and center of the Confederate attack. The Carter family and neigh-
bors huddled together in the basement during the battle.
The Carter House was located in the center of the Federal's defensive arc. The home was set back about 45 feet west of the road. It was located on a prominent hill, which Union Maj. Gen. Jacob D. Cox saw as the key to his entire defensive line. Here where the road passed by the house, a gap was left in Cox’s defenses to allow wagons and the rest of the army to pass through. This gap was covered by a second line of breastworks, about 100 yards long, 70 yards to the rear of the first line, along the northern edge of Carter’s garden, where a wood frame farm office and brick smokehouse stood. The main Federal line of breastworks continued westward from the southern edge of the garden, then northwest along the side of the hill until it ended in a wooded area at the Carter’s Creek pike. Beyond that pike, the line was extended to the Harpeth River. About 17,000 Federal troops were ensconced behind these defenses, awaiting their turn to cross to safety over the Harpeth River and on to Nashville

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Confederate view today  from Winstead Hill of the Columbia Pike, which leads
north to Franklin. Cleburne's Division attacked the center of the Federal fortifi-
cations to the right of this road.

After receiving his orders, Cleburne rode from Winstead Hill to Breezy Hill to meet with his brigade commanders. He then rode forward to Merrill Hill where he could observe the imposing enemy lines. The Federals obviously were attempting to cross the river over the narrow bridges. However, their infantry was well entrenched and posted about 300 yards in front of the main line. Beyond at Fort Granger, an earthen fortification northwest of the Harpeth River, there were long-range Federal artillery, which could reach the advancing lines of Confederates. Before Cleburne's Division could assault the first Federal line, his men would have to cross more than a mile of open ground, all the while exposed to direct rifle and artillery fire. It would be a desperate and costly attack.

Before 3 PM, Cleburne’s brigades had moved up to deploy on the forward slope of Breezy Hill in columns by brigades. Given the present situation, advancing columns would expose fewer men to the direct fire of the enemy. Just before their final charge Cleburne would reorganize them into lines. He placed Hiram Granbury’s Brigade plus the 35th Tennessee next to the turnpike. Govan’s Brigade was placed in the center and Mark Lowrey's Brigade (Great Grandfather's) on the right (east) of the turnpike, following behind. As was his custom, Gen. Lowrey, an ordained Baptist minister, delivered a short sermon to his men.

It was going to end up a hand-to-hand fight, so Cleburne directed his men to load their rifles, but save their ammunition in preference to bayonets.

An hour now had passed, and it was almost 4 PM. Sundown came early at this time of the year, so the attack would have only about 35 minutes of sunlight. Using the topography as an advantage, Hood had ordered Stewart’s Corps on a flanking march east through the woods, around the base of Breezy Hill to the Lewisburg pike, to cut off the enemy’s retreat. Stewart’s Corps would follow the Lewisburg pike north and strike the lines near the railroad. On the flank, the rest of Forrest’s cavalry, would support Stewart’s advance, then cross the river and destroy the Federal wagons. William B. Bate’s Division of Cheatham’s Corps would swing west along the knoll at the enemy’s lines near the Carter house. James R. Chalmer’s Division of Forrest’s cavalry would advance along the Columbia pike to support Bate. 

"Cleburne" by David Wright
Partick Cleburne viewing his
troop before the attack
The rest of Cheatham's Corps—Cleburne's and John C. Brown's Divisions—readied to make the frontal assault on the center of the Federal line. Brown's Division followed the west side of the pike while Cleburne's men moved up the right. It would be here in the center that the most vicious fighting would take place, and Cleburne's men would see the worst of it. The army had only two 6-gun batteries. One battery was assigned to each corps, and split up to fill in the gaps between divisions.

At the signal from Winstead Hill at 4:00 PM, the hardened Confederate troops began their fateful march. Brigade bands, which for the first time carried their instruments into battle, struck up "Dixie" and "The Bonnie Blue Flag" as if they were going on parade. It was an amazing spectacle to behold and was forever remembered by participants on both sides. "In the whole history of the war," writes historian Stanley F. Horn, "there never was such an imposing military spectacle as was here presented—eighteen brigades of infantry, with their cavalry support, marching in a straight line across an open field, in full view of their commanding general and of the entrenched enemy." The advancing corps, with banners waving, created a line almost 2 miles wide with a force half again larger than Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But these Confederates had twice as far to march. Considering the enormity of the battle and the slaughter that was to come, it's astounding that the Battle of Franklin is not at least as well known as its eastern counterpart.

Since Schofield's troops at Franklin had not planned on making a stand there (Schofield had been ordered by Gen. George Thomas to abandon Franklin and retire to Brentwood), they were astounded by what they witnessed: Seemingly, the entire Confederate army was approaching. As sunset neared, 22,000 Confederates began their march.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson

Cleburne rode with his advancing line of 3 brigades. He guided his division toward the first Federal defenses, manned by Gen. George D. Wagner's division, using the Columbia turnpike on the left as a guide, and the Carter house as his target. Almost as soon as Cleburne's men came into the open, Federal batteries opened fire, tearing holes in his advancing line. His officers ordered the men to close up and fill the gaps as the advance continued. A few Confederate guns were able to fire above the men and into the enemy soldiers, now only 400 yards away from the advance. It took almost 15 minutes for Cleburne’s leading division to advance the first mile, adjacent to Privet Knob.

At this point, Cleburne halted his brigades and reformed his men into 2 attacking lines. The other divisions did the same. When Cleburne's lines were within a hundred yards of the advanced Federal position, the enemy fired into them, only slowing the determined Confederates momentarily. Raising the Rebel yell, Govan's and Granbury's men charged toward the 2,000 soldiers of Union Col. Joseph Conrad's exposed brigade. Cleburne urged his men forward, and his troops were soon on them in the first breakthrough in the Federal line. A brief hand-to-hand struggle erupted, but the line soon crumbled, and the Federals ran. Scores of the enemy were killed, wounded, or captured as they fled.2 

Cleburne and his troops closely pursued Wagner's broken division, intending to smash them into the main Union works in the rear. But the throng of running soldiers soon became intermingled. Federals behind the main defensive lines were forced to withhold their fire for fear of hitting their own returning troops. Cleburne's men now were aiming for Carter's cotton gin directly ahead on the right (east) side of the road. Cleburne spurred ahead into the mass of men, and was charging diagonally across the front of his own brigades toward the center of the line when his horse was killed. Picking himself up, he was given another. He had only started to mount when this horse also was also shot. He decided to draw his sword instead and lead the charge on foot.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
View across Cleburne Park to the area of the Cotton Gin (about where the blue
house in the center background sits), scene of some of the fieriest fighting. Thanks
to the Franklin's Charge and the Civil War Trust, the area around the former Cotton
Gin has been reclaimed, and the new Cotton Gin Park will be opened this year on
the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Franklin.

The Federal riflemen and those manning the cannon, had an open field of fire, and by now, the they could hold their fire no longer. Men of both armies were cut down. A wave of Confederates pressed to the enemy's line and halted in the ditch below the earthworks. Undaunted, Cleburne’s Division pursued the fleeing defenders. The unstoppable men seized the 4 guns at the pike about 110 yards from the main line, and gained the outside of the main works east of the cotton gin, killing, wounding, and capturing 250 enemy. In the midst of the melee, Gen. Granbury was struck dead with a bullet to his head.

Cannon shell pyramid near where Cleburne fell
Several hundred of Cleburne’s men surged over the embankments and through the gap left in the defenses at the pike. One of Granbury's or Govan's men planted Cleburne's blue divisional flag atop one of the defensive embankments. East of the pike and within 40 yards south of the enemy's works, a single enemy bullet ended the life of an extraordinary Southern hero. Gen. Cleburne was hit in the chest and killed instantly. “It was the work of but an instant," wrote historian Wiley Sword, "a great chasm in Southern history frozen in microseconds. In one shocking moment Pat Cleburne collapsed to the ground, carrying with him perhaps the best hopes of a dying Confederacy’s western army.”

Lowrey's Brigade, which followed, was now near the cotton gin and the center of the inferno at the gap. Gen. Lowrey, at the head of his brigade, brought his men forward “under the most destructive fire I ever witnessed.” Unaware that their commander had fallen, the rest of Cleburne’s Division continued its momentum on and beyond the main line, facing a force that had just repulsed Stewart’s attack on the right (Stewart assaulted the main line as many as 13 times, but was unable to penetrate). As Cleburne’s men now attacked, they came upon terrible fire from their right. Here the fighting became even more severe. 

Along the line there followed a series of uncoordinated assaults. Brig. Gen. John Adams’s Brigade of Stewart's Corps, approached to within 50 yards of the earthworks, where his men were met with deadly fire. As his brigade attempted to advance the general was killed while trying to jump his horse over the embankment, abut 100 yards east of the pike. Near here, Brig. Gen. Francis M. Cockrell, wounded 3 times, finally was pulled over the works and captured by Yankee soldiers. Brig. Gens. William A. Quarles and Thomas M. Scott were also severely wounded. 

West of the pike, Brown’s Division captured about 150 yards of the main line. Parts of 2 of his brigades went over the breastworks and advanced some distance within the works. However, a Federal countercharge drove them back. The men continued to hold their ground along about 75 yards of the outside of the works until the battle ended. Brig. Gens. States Right Gist was mortally wounded and Otto F. Strahl was killed. Gen. Brown, also was badly wounded. Capt. Tod Carter, whose family's home was within sight, was mortally wounded as well.

Throughout the center of the battlefield the slaughter for both sides was greatest. Gen. Cox wrote that the Federal loss in killed was "trifling everywhere but near the center." Historian Eric Jacobson notes,
The clash was uncommon even in a war that had dragged for nearly four years. At Franklin it was if all sense of morality vanished entirely. A war that had started with pomp and grandeur had spiraled into a bloody and gut-wrenching struggle, where victory could only be achieved by an absolute extermination of one side or the other.
Mobs of men continued to stream up the turnpike and swarm into the Federal defenses. As the first hour of fighting wound down, the killing was far from over. Federal forces on both sides of the turnpike crumbled.

By this time, Federal Gen. Emerson Opdycke, who understood his army's peril, led his brigade in a disorganized counterattack toward the gap in the east side of the pike. Men from Cleburne's and Brown's Divisions slammed into them, resulting in a brutal hand-to-hand fight, a maelstrom that few of the hardened soldiers had ever witnessed. Scattered troops from both sides fired from all directions. Men fought each other to death with anything at hand. “The collision of the 2 mobs amid the Carter house and the outbuildings became a lifelong memory,” wrote historian Wiley Sword. "It was a hand-to-hand combat that witnesses could never describe accurately or portray fully."3 

The Carter office building and smokehouse beyond
By sheer weight of numbers, the Federals began to force their way forward to strengthen the Federal line. But the furious Confederate attack did not stop. Trailing brigades of Cheatham’s Corps continued to arrive and assault the Federals in the Carter garden and around the home. On the north side was the smokehouse and farm office outbuilding, where Opdycke’s and other brigades fought behind the low rail barricade and garden fence. Across the bare garden to the south Confederates returned fire from the main earthworks. Faced with overwhelming numbers, the Confederates eventually were forced to withdraw. In the chaos and choking smoke, Federal soldiers took 394 prisoners, including 19 officers and 9 battle flags.4

Photos by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Bullet holes are still visible in many of the Carter buildings.
Brown’s, Cleburne’s, and some of Stewart’s troops now stubbornly held the outside perimeter of the Federal entrenchments east of the house. Some tried going over the works, but were either shot or pulled over to be made prisoners. Both sides fired blindly over the top or through the space below the head logs. As their ammunition ran out, soldiers were forced to rummage through their fallen comrades for more. Govan later wrote, that when his brigade advanced to the main line of entrenchments, “here commenced the most desperate fight I ever witnessed which lasted until near midnight. Our men occupying one side of the breastworks, the Yankees the other.” About 300 Confederates were forced to surrender, among them Brig. Gen. George W. Gordon who with some of his command had strayed to the right and now were mingled with Granbury's men.

While the desperate struggle around the Carter buildings was taking place, Lowrey's men and other soldiers from Cleburne's command continued to battle Federals on the main line east of the pike to the cotton gin. Gruesome fighting ensued as the Confederates held onto the outside of the embankments all the while receiving horrible crossfire from the cotton gin on their right. To add to their misery and frustration, the earthworks had been constructed so that the Confederates could not fire without exposing more of their bodies than the Federals. Only feet away on the other side of the mound, Union troops took turns firing on their attackers. Those in the rear reloaded and passed their muskets to those on the front of the defenses. Whenever a Confederate raised his head he was immediately shot. There was nothing else they could do but fire blindly back and forth. For those approaching, the smoke was so dense that the enemy’s works couldn’t be seen until only a few yards from them.

Gen. Lowrey's men did everything that was humanly possible to succeed. The enemy which had been driven from the first line was now ensconced behind a second defensive line and held the Confederates in check. "I threw my brigade into the outside ditch of his massive works," wrote Lowrey, "and my men fought the enemy across the parapet." To this point, half of his men were already dead or wounded, "and the balance could not scale the works. It would have been certain death or capture to every one of them." Leading his men on horseback, Lowrey made it to within 30 feet of the works when his horse was wounded.

Although the men fought bravely, nevertheless their assault was doomed. Ultimately, many more men were killed or captured by the time all hope of success had failed them. Lowrey's Brigade, which had suffered the most casualties at Spring Hill the day before, now experienced further decimation. Finally, Lowrey wrote, "When I saw nothing else could be done, I went to the rear, and began the work of gathering up the fragments of our division.”

The Confederates fought well into the night. About 7:00 PM, Hood finally ordered forward one more division, Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s of Lee's Corps, to help the center. However, his division also was decimated in a courageous attack. Brigade commander, Arthur M. Manigault, was severely wounded. 

Each side had tried and failed to control the few acres of open ground that had been Carter family’s home and farm. By now, darkness covered the bloodied battleground. While Cleburne’s and Brown’s men had partially carried out their objective and held a portion of the works until the end of the fighting, a stalemate was the best that could be reached at the crucial Carter house hill. Even as darkness enveloped the savage scene, the 2 sides continued to fight stubbornly beyond the point of exhaustion. Finally, near 10 PM, the firing died down, and both sides withdrew.

In this, the bloodiest 5-hours of the war, Hood’s loses were appalling—approximately 7,000 killed and wounded—nearly a third of those he ordered into battle. In addition to the unprecedented loss of 6 generals, a significant number of regimental commanders and other officers were killed or wounded. Sixty-five Confederate commanders of divisions, brigades, or regiments were listed as casualties. Thirteen generals were were injured or captured.

Cleburne’s Division, as it had nobly done so often, sustained the greatest loss of any otherover one-half. The Confederates' losses at the Battle of Franklin all but guaranteed the defeat of the Army of Tennessee at Nashville 16 days later. More importantly for the South, it hastened the doom of the Confederacy.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The McGavock Confederate Cemetery

Fourteen men from Great Grandfather Oakes's 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment were buried at McGavock Confederate Cemetery on the Carnton Plantation in Franklin. As many as 5 of these were from his company, Co. D. For Great Grandfather Oakes, like thousands of others, the loss hit on a personal level with the death of a close friend. Thirty-five years later, he wrote a short letter to the editor of the Confederate Veteran to commemorate him:
The Confederacy lost one of her bravest when Comrade [Miley] Steele fell dead at Franklin on top of the breastworks to the left of the pike 5 leading from Columbia into the town. He was never heard to murmur or to disobey, and professed great faith in the cause of the South and in the ability of our leaders. Above all, he was a true Christian, having joined the church at Dalton, Ga., a fact which his relatives never knew.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The Mississippi Section of the McGavock Confederate Cemetery where
424 of Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes's comrades were laid to rest

According to the historians Purdue, the death of Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne had a swift effect on the army and soon the Confederate people. Troops could hardly believe that such a calamity had befallen the army. Some of his men visited the Carnton House on the morning of Dec. 1, for a last look at their general. Gen. William Hardee later commented, “The death of Cleburne cast a deep gloom over he army and the country. Eight millions of people, whose hearts had learned to thrill at his name, now mourned his loss, and felt there was none to take his place.”

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The Carnton Plantation House
After the Battle of Franklin, the bodies of 4 of the 6 slain
Confederate generals were laid for viewing on the lower porch.
Even though Cheatham's, Stewart's, and Stephen D. Lee's Corps had been massacred in the battle, nevertheless, Hood planned to attack again the following morning. Confederate batteries were placed on the high ground at Winstead and Breezy Hills. In their rush in the darkness to get positioned on the heights some of the guns inadvertently were rolled over the dead and wounded. However, by 2 AM, the Federals, leaving their own fallen troops, slipped away under cover of night over the river, burning the bridge behind them. It was just as well. Hood's forces were too decimated to take up another attack. Brigades were left without their generals, regiments without colonels, and other field officers were in too short supply to reorganize the men into anything like a fighting force.

Schofield was amazed at the Confederate attack. His assignment to Cox for the preparation of defensive breastworks had been intended only as a temporary threat to Hood while he evacuated his Federal army. But as it happened, it was Cox's prudent preparations and Opdycke's and other officers' bold actions that saved Schofield’s army from disaster at Franklin.


'Pickett's charge at Gettysburg' has come to be a synonym for unflinching courage in the raw.
The slaughter-pen at Franklin even more deserves the gory honor.
Stanley F. Horn

1 Historian Craig L. Symonds concluded that instead of supervising the action at Spring Hill on the 29th, the disabled Hood had retired to his headquarters at the Thompson Mansion for an early dinner and a laudanum-induced sleep. Moreover, there is strong evidence that Hood knew that night that his troops were not holding the Columbia-Franklin turnpike. Both Cheatham and Stewart wrote later that before he went to bed, he was already criticizing the army for its lack of energy, and in particular for its failure to seize the turnpike. Others agree. 
2 Author and Battle of Franklin historian Eric A. Jacobson provides a compelling narrative of the "Breakthrough" and also the bitter fight at the Cotton Gin, in his video available at the Civil War Trust website. When my wife and I visited the Franklin battlefield in 2010, we were introduced to Eric Jacobson at the museum there. He was gracious enough to spend more than an hour discussing the battle and answering my questions. His book about the Battle of Franklin, For Cause & For Country, is one of the best to be published in recent years.
3 Indeed, the fighting almost everywhere beyond the Federal line was vicious and brutal. As an aged veteran, Frank Cheatham, returned to Franklin where he met a Union veteran who seemed uncertain about being in the company of a former enemy of that terrible battlefield. Cheatham embraced him and said reassuringly, “Any man who was in the battle of Franklin, no matter which side, is my friend” (Sword). Another witness to the carnage, Pvt. Sam Watkins, who fought on the left of the pike, describes his impression like this:
Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles, and creeps, and crawls when I think of it today. My heart almost ceases to beat at the horrid recollection. Would to God that I had never witnessed such a scene!
4 In this counterattack, Federal Major Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin, hero of the Battle of Missionary Ridge and father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was severely wounded.
Great Grandfather's reference to soldiers from his division (Patrick Cleburne's) fighting to the left of the turnpike is the only one I know of. All other reports place the 32nd Regiment in the center of the fighting, but to the right of that road. Of course, in the confusion of the battle, it is very possible that solders like Steele and my great grandfather became mingled with other units and were separated from their commands.

Sources: Advance and Retreat, John B. Hood; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; For Cause & For Country, Eric A. Jacobson; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Five Tragic Hours, James Le McDonough & Thomas L. Connelly; Mark P. Lowrey Autobiography; Military Reminiscences of the Civil war, Jacob Dolson Cox; Co. Aytch, Sam Watkins; Confederate Veteran, Vol. 8; Official Records, Vol. 45, Pt. 1

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Lost Opportunity at Spring Hill, 1864

At dawn on today's date in 1864, Gen. Patrick Cleburne moved his elite division to the Duck River crossing at Davis's Ford. His leading brigade, Mark P. Lowrey’s—in which was serving Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes in the 32nd Mississippi Regiment—was first to cross the river on a pontoon bridge at the ford 4.5 miles southeast of Columbia, and almost due south of Spring Hill.

Confederate Gen. John B. Hood
Lowrey's Brigade was accompanied by the army's commander, Lt. Gen. John B. Hood.1 The rest of the division was in the lead of Cheatham's Corps, which followed it across by 7:30 AM. By 9:30, the remainder of the striking column was north of Duck River.

The corps marched ahead 18 miles to the small farm town of Spring Hill.2 On this route the troops were about 4 miles east of and parallel of the Columbia-Spring Hill pike and were screened by woods. Unfortunately, they were spotted, and the nervous men kept in constant readiness for an attack. When they reached open country, the troops left the road and marched across fields towards town. All in all, it was an exhausting march.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Gen. Hood had devised a plan for trapping Schofield's army at Spring Hill, which he communicated to Cleburne and Benjamin Cheatham while at the Rutherford Creek crossing. Cleburne was to assist Cheatham, whose leadership role on this date would be second only to Hood. Cleburne was to attack Spring Hill without waiting for the rest of the command to arrive. William Bate’s and John C. Brown’s Divisions were instructed to support Cleburne, and a portion of Alexander P. Stewart’s Corps was to move northwestward to the Columbia pike and then southward toward Columbia.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
An excellent animated map of Spring Hill is available at the
Civil War Trust website
At 3 PM, Cleburne’s Division reached Rally Hill pike, at a ford across the Rutherford Creek, about 2.5 miles southeast of the town and Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's army. A local farmer handed out tobacco to the passing men, while another local woman dispensed cooked pork.

Cleburne’s men waded across a small tributary of Rutherford Creek and continued along a wagon road to the foot of a critical knoll south of town, which was defended by Gen. Luther Bradley’s brigade. Hood met Cleburne along the road and ordered him to form his 3 brigades en echelon to the left of the road, facing west. Bate had been ordered to form on his left and Brown was advancing to form on his right. It was now after 3:30 PM.

Lowrey’s Brigade led the attack, followed by Daniel Govan’s an Hiram Granbury’s. Behind Cleburne's men were the 2 other divisions of Cheatham’s Corps, along with Stewart’s Corps and Edward Johnson’s Division of Stephen D. Lee’s Corps. The remaining 2 divisions of Lee’s corps demonstrated in front of Columbia to hold Schofield there. The Confederate force at this position consisted of about 20,000 men.

Around 4 PM, after some delay, Cleburne ordered his brigades forward to attack Bradley's fortification on the knoll. Hood then rode about a half-mile south of Rally Hill Road to where Bate's Division was deployed.

During his ride, Hood apparently decided to modify his original plan, which led to much confusion later in the day. Without notifying Cleburne or Cheatham, Hood ordered Bate to cross the fields northwestward to the pike, seize it, and then move south to Columbia. Instead of supporting Cleburne, Bate’s Division became the force to march to the pike and then on toward Columbia.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The Knoll on the Spring Hill Battlefield, looking northwest in the direction of
Cleburne's attack. Lowrey's Brigade marched up the center of this photo.

About 4:15, Cleburne’s advancing division, with Lowrey on the right, Govan in the center, and Granbury on the left, reached Bradley’s line. Lowrey’s and Govan’s brigades charged the right side and wing of the Federal line, while simultaneously Nathan Forrest’s cavalry charged the front. Cleburne and Forrest directed the attack, riding side by side with swords drawn. Later, Forrest recalled the advance as having been made “with a promptness and energy, and gallantry which I have never seen excelled.” Gen. Lowrey later wrote about this battle,
Late in the evening, General Forrest attacked the enemy at Spring Hill, and I moved rapidly to his assistance. The enemy had moved out one mile from the village, and had made strong breastworks of fence rails, and occupied a strong position, from which the cavalry had failed to move him. The moment I arrived on the ground I formed a line and moved against the enemy, drove him from his works, and pursued him about a mile through an open field.
As soon as Granbury could come up and formed, he followed to my left, and Govan was brought up and held in reserve. Granbury did not get into the engagement, as the whole of the enemy's line to my left gave way as my line advanced, but the line to my right stood firm, and as I advanced, I left them in my rear.
Gen. Bradley, who was severely wounded in this assault, wrote, “we were soon furiously attacked in front and on the right flank, a brigade of the enemy swinging completely around the right of the Forty-second Illinois and the Sixth-fourth Ohio. We gave them a very destructive fire and somewhat staggered them in front, and had we had some support on the right, and the right flank not been turned, we could have held our ground." Lowrey’s and Govan’s Brigades, charging with fixed bayonets, swept away the Federal line before them, causing the enemy's entire right wing to collapse. Most of the Federal front retreated to avoid capture.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Near the crest of the knoll, looking south,
over the ground on which Lowrey's men attacked

As Lowrey's attack cleared the top of the hill, then through woods and into an open field beyond, his men received intense fire from a Federal regiment on his right. Unknowingly, the troops had charged at a perpendicular angle to a concealed line of Federal breastworks along the wooded knoll to their right. While reforming his men under the assumption that the Federals were going to charge his right, Lowrey said he delivered "a few shots from [his] right flank to keep them demoralized..." Then he rode to inform Cleburne who personally led Govan’s Brigade in a successful charge, and with Lowrey's Brigade, pursued the Federals into a retreat toward Spring Hill. It was nearing sunset.

Many of these fleeing Federals sought protection behind their artillery across the Columbia turnpike. However, Granbury’s Brigade drove the Yankees with their guns in a retreat further to the outskirts of Spring Hill. It was now time for the brigadiers to reorganize their scattered men and reform their lines.

Fearing an advance by the enemy, Cleburne intended to assault this new line before it was fully formed. As Lowrey’s and Govan’s Brigades were being quickly reformed for a new attack, Cheatham abruptly halted it, and ordered Cleburne to await a concentrated attack that could overwhelm the Spring Hill defenders. Believing that Stanley's strong artillery fire portended a much larger force on Spring Hill, Cheatham was convinced that to take the town, it would be necessary for Cleburne to have the support of both Bate and Brown.3 However, Cheatham was unaware of Hood’s revised orders for Bate to move southward on the pike toward Columbia. So Cheatham's orders for Cleburne and Bate no longer reflected Hood’s revised plans.

Given the situation as he now saw it, Cheatham ordered Brown to begin an assault as soon as his division was in line of battle, and for Cleburne and Bate to take up the attack successively. At dusk, the Confederates were rapidly forming to overwhelm the enemy on Spring Hill. By 5 PM, Brown’s Division on the extreme right sent their skirmishers forward. Forrest provided support for Brown’s advance on their right flank, from across the Rally Hill pike.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
An excellent animated map of Spring Hill
is available at the Civil war Trust website
Nighttime came early at this time of year with the sun setting before 5 PM. Now near dark on a moonless night, Bate began his approach on the Columbia turnpike, having moved in line of battle almost 2 miles across the fields from Rally Hill Road. He was still acting under Hood’s original orders to take the pike and sweep southward. When Bate’s skirmishers were within 100 yards of the pike, they saw Federal troops and wagons coming north heading toward Spring Hill. His skirmishers fired on the head of the Federal column, driving it from the road and creating confusion. While bringing his line into position to strike the flank of the Federal column, Bate received an order from Hood to pull back.

Meanwhile, Cleburne, who had prepared an advance further to the north to destroy Stanley's wagons and artillery, also received an order from Cheatham to remain where he was until further orders. He kept his division in readiness for an attack until after dark. But Cheatham's order never came.  After darkness fell, without further orders, Cleburne ordered his brigades to bivouac in line of battle, facing the town, below the knoll from which they had driven Bradley.

What transpired next has baffled participants and historians ever since.

About 6:45 PM, Granbury’s men, lying down in the dark about 90 yards from the Columbia turnpike, heard the advanced element of Schofield's division passing toward Spring Hill. Cleburne, under orders to wait for the signal to attack, held back his men while the Federals passed them. At 7:30, after the Federal column had quietly moved passed, Cleburne drew back Granbury’s Brigade and placed it facing the pike on the left extension of his other brigades. By 8 PM, Bate, who in the darkness had had difficulty finding Cleburne’s left, now faced the road, extending Granbury’s line. At 10:00, Edward Johnson’s Division, temporarily under Cheatham’s command, formed an extension of Bate’s line, which altogether stretched Cheatham’s line for nearly 2 miles along the turnpike. By 10:45, the main Federal column passed Cleburne’s troops. Cleburne sent word to Hood, but Hood took no action. Thus the opportunity for one of the greatest victories of the war was lost.4

By 2 AM, the last of Schofield’s divisions had passed Hood's men. Many of his troops could see Confederate campfires to the east as they quietly moved by. By daybreak, the enemy had reached Franklin, 14 miles north of Spring Hill, astounded at their good fortune. Schofield, nearly caught in Hood's trap, somehow had managed to get away.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The Absalom Thompson House, Hood's headquarters, November 29, 1864

Hood's plans for the 29th had gone terribly awry. The engagement resulted in considerable loss for both sides with no real advantage for the Confederates. The Union forces lost around 350 killed and wounded, while Confederate losses were around 500. The greater loss for the Confederates may have been the drastic reversal in mood that came over the army, which had a direct impact on the battle the next day.

Schofield had been entirely successfully with extricating his whole force from Spring Hill. By the morning of the 30th, he was was at Franklin building a new line of fortifications. Finally realizing what had happened, an enraged Hood began looking for officers to blame rather than accepting responsibility for the breakdown of his command. He immediately ordered a pursuit, and by the end of the day, would recklessly hurl his army into the climatic Battle of Franklin.5

There is a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may. If in the next life we are permitted an insight into the events of this life and their causes, we shall be surprised to find how much Providence, and how very little human agency and planning have to do with all really noble and grand achievements. And how little credit is due to many who pass among us as great.
Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, 1886 (Quoted in The Last Hurrah, Wiley Sword)
1Gen. Lowrey later wrote about the events of the earlier portion of this day in 1864:
When the enemy began the retreat from the vicinity of Columbia, Tenn., a large portion of our army crossed Duck River at Davis' Ford, five miles above Columbia. My brigade crossed first early on the morning of the 29th of November, and moved in advance all day. We moved to intercept the enemy at Spring Hill, Tenn., but were compelled to move cautiously, for we were expecting continually to meet the enemy. The enemy made one bold demonstration on our moving columns in the evening, I suppose for the purpose of detaining us. Lt. Gen. Hood was with me in person a good part of the day, and directed me to attack the enemy wherever I found him, without regard to his numbers or position.
2Spring Hill and the vicinity saw a lot of Civil War action, and the Army of Tennessee was present on more than one occasion. While the army was stationed here in May 1863, cavalry officer, Gen. Earl Van Dorn, was murdered at his headquarters by a jealous husband. My Great-Great Grandfather David Crockett Neal’s 6th Tennessee Regiment provided the escort for Van Dorn's body to Columbia, Tennessee. Later, Van Dorn's remains were brought back to Mississippi and buried at Wintergreen Cemetery in Port Gibson.
3Earlier, Brown’s Division had followed Bate’s across the Rutherford Creek. Beyond the stream, he reached Rally Hill Road at 4:30. However, he had not attacked due to his belief that a Federal line in front of Spring Hill threatened his right flank. Having neither artillery nor cavalry, he waited for Cheatham's arrival. Approving Brown's decision, and without notifying Cleburne, Cheatham rode off to report the situation to Hood. Earlier, Hood had sent Stewart's Corps for support. However, Stewart had become lost during the afternoon before arriving at the northern end of the Confederate line to block the pike north of Spring Hill. Having also received confused orders, Stewart rode back to find Hood for clarification.
4Gen. Cheatham, whose own performance at Spring Hill was lacking, later wrote an extensive article in the Southern Historical Society Papers to correct some of Hood's misrepresentations about the Spring Hill battle ("The Lost Opportunity at Spring Hill"): Concerning Hood's decision to end the fight, "I was never more astonished than when General Hood informed me that he had concluded to postpone the attack till daylight. The road was still open—orders to main quiet until morning—and nothing to prevent the enemy from marching to Franklin."
5Author and Battle of Franklin historian Eric A. Jacobson provides an interesting narrative of the Spring Hill Affair on the site of the battlefield: See Civil War Trust website. When my wife and I visited the Franklin battlefield in 2010, we were introduced to Jacobson at the museum there. He was gracious enough to spend more than an hour discussing the battle and answering my questions.

Sources: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Wiley Sword; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; For Cause & For Country, Eric A. Jacobson; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Five Tragic Hours, James Le McDonough & Thomas L. Connelly; 
Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, Dunbar Rowland; Mark P. Lowrey Autobiography, Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites; Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 9; Official Records, Vol. 45, Pt. 1

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Setting the stage for Spring Hill

On a cold and snowing evening on today's date in 1864, Confederate Gen. John B. Hood called together his infantry and cavalry corps commanders to outline his strategy for Spring Hill. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry was ordered to move up the Duck River and seize several fords, while the rest of the infantry arrived. This would allow Hood to lay a pontoon bridge across the Duck River at Davis's Ford. From there the army will march on the Davis's Ford Road to Spring Hill, 12 miles north of Columbia, on the main road to Nashville. Two of Stephen D. Lee's divisions will be left at Columbia with the artillery to hold the army of Gen. John Schofield, Hood's old West Point roommate, on the north bank of the river.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham's Corps, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in Gen. Patrick Cleburne's Division, was encamped between the Mount Pleasant and Pulaski Pikes, near the St. John's Church at the intersection of a road to the little community of Ashwood. The beauty of the church with its quiet grove and peaceful cemetery was hard to ignore. Cleburne re-marked, “This is the most beautiful and peaceful spot I ever beheld... It is almost worth dying to be buried in such a beautiful spot.” His words will have an even more poignant meaning in a few days.

The stage is being set for some of the most grim and vicious fighting of the war.


St. John's Church in Ashwood, located between the towns of Columbia and Mt. Pleasant, is still a beloved historical site in Tennessee's Maury County. Built by Leonidas Polk, and his 3 brotherscousins to the 11th President or the United States, James K. Polkthe church and cemetery are made up of land owned by brothers. The Polks also donated the material for the church, which was built by slave labor and completed in 1842. As a plantation church, it provided a place of worship for the Polk families, their slaves, and their neighbors. Leonidas Polk served as its first rector before becoming the first Bishop of Louisiana and later a general in the Confederate Army. Lt. Gen. Polk was killed a few days before the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain at the head of the First Corps.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
St. John's Church
It is almost worth dying to be buried in such a beautiful spot Patrick R. Cleburne

During the war, the church was used as a Confederate hospital, as were many public buildings and private homes in the area. The cemetery lies behind the church where Gens. Cleburne, Granbury, and Strahl were buried following the Battle of Franklin. Later their remains were removed and reinterred in other states, although their gravesites at St. John’s were never used again.

All but one of the original Polk brothers are buried at St. John’s. Bishop Gen. Leonidas Polk was buried at Christ Cathedral in New Orleans where he served as Bishop. His nephew, Brig. Gen. Lucias E. Polk of Cleburne's Division, severely wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, is also buried here, as are other Confederates.

Over the years the St. John's congregation dwindled, and today regular services are no longer held. 

Five miles southwest is the town of Mount Pleasant, also in Maury County. Among other things, it is the birthplace of the famous Confederate Sam R. Watkins, known for his memoir, Company Aytch: Or, a Side Show of the Big Show, an important primary source about the common Confederate soldier's experience. Born in the Ashwood/Mount Pleasant community, Watkins served in Company H of the 1st Tennessee Infantry (the “Maury Greys”), and most of his war experience was in the Army of Tennessee.

His colorful Civil War account is always fascinating, sometimes comical, and at a few points, simply horrifying. One of the most haunting passages is his account of the Battle of Franklin, which he opens with these words:
Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from the butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there.

Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Est. 1807
In addition to Sam R. Watkins, soldiers from the Civil War, the War of 1812,
and the Revolutionary War are buried here, too.

Watkins's unit often fought near Great Grandfather Oakes's regiment, as it did in the Battle of Franklin. Watkins survived the war, one of only a hand-ful of original recruits from his company. Twenty years later, with a "house full of young 'rebels' clustering a-round my knees and bumping about my elbows," he wrote his remarkable account.

On our excursion through Tennessee a few years ago, I just had to take a short side trip to visit his gravesite in the Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Maury County. 

Sources: Five Tragic Hours, James Lee McDonough & Thomas L. Connelly; Episcopal Church and Visual Arts

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A fast march to Columbia

On November 19, 1864, Gen. John B. Hood began his Tennessee Campaign from Florence, Alabama, to take the Federal stronghold at Nashville. He sent Gen. Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry to clear the way to Columbia, Tennessee. Hood planned to quickly advance his army and defeat Gen. John Schofield outside Columbia, then move on to take Nashville.

Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
Hood sent his 32,000-man army northward in the snow and freezing rain from the Tennessee River by 3 different roads. Cheatham’s Corps, with Patrick Cleburne's Division (in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in Lowrey's Brigade) in the lead, was assigned the western road through Waynesboro. One brigade, Mercer’s, was left behind to guard the river crossings. On today's date in 1864, Cleburne set out with his 3 other brigades—Govan’s, Lowrey’s, and Granbury’s—northward in the middle of a sleet storm. The rain soon stopped, but the sun melted the snow and left the roads in a terrible condition. By evening, the head of the column crossed the Tennessee state line.

On the 20th, Federal Gen. George Thomas in Nashville ordered Schofield to prepare to fall back to Columbia. The next day, Schofield began moving his 26,000-man force from Pulaski to Columbia along the Duck River, 41 miles south of Nashville. He reached it on the 24th, just in time to keep Forrest's cavalry from seizing the river crossings. Schofield ordered his men to build entrenchments on the north side of the river while he awaited reinforcements from Nashville.

By the 26th, Cleburne's Division was approaching Columbia along with Cheatham's Corps via the Mt. Pleasant Road. By the 27th, the rest of Hood's army closed in on Columbia, forcing Schofield to abandon the town and withdraw a mile and a half to the north. Across the river 2 Federal corps blocked further advance. It was rainy and cold, turning to snow, when the Confederates went into bivouac to await the arrival of the supply wagons.

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Five Tragic Hours, James Lee McDonough & Thomas L. ConnellyHood's Campaign for Tennessee, William R. Scaife; Official Records, Vol. 45, Pt. 1

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sherman's March to the Sea

On today's date in 1864, Union Gen. William T. Sherman began his infamous march across Georgia to Savannah. He has finally been granted his wish to "make Georgia howl!" Sherman marched his 62,000 troops on the Decatur road, with 20-days' provisions. Behind him, Atlanta lay in ruins, while his gleeful troops sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Sherman faced little opposition in his campaign except for skirmishing with Joseph Wheeler's cavalry. He left a 60-mile wide path of destruction on his way to Savannah, which he reached by December 21st. At the conclusion of his march the conquering general wrote, "we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies."*

Sherman's "hard hand of war" terrorized the countryside, destroying all sources of food and leaving behind a hungry and demoralized people. It was psychological warfare in the most destructive campaign against a civilian population during the war, earning Sherman the epithet, "Nero of the Nineteenth Century." His March to the Sea was the first instance of a country bringing the might of its industrial and military prowess to destroy a population's ability to support war. And it was the harbinger of the policy of total war, which will be adopted in the 20th century.

Source: North Georgia Encyclopedia

As Sherman departed Atlanta on his campaign of havoc and destruction, Confederate Gen. John B. Hood was more than 200 miles northwest, crossing the Tennessee River to Florence. Hood's plan was to march on to Nashville, and after taking the Federal garrison there, to invade Kentucky. His long range goal was to unite with Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. Or so he hoped.

* Much earlier in the war, Sherman had adopted a practice of bringing his "hard hand of war" to Georgia citizens. One infamous incident was his forced exile of the Rosewell Mill Women during his earlier Spring campaign.

Sources: Decision in the West, Albert Castel; North Georgia Encyclopedia; Life in Dixie During the War, 1861-1865, Mary A.H. Gay

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Crossing the Tennessee River | Hood's grand plan

Gen. John B. Hood's Army of Tennessee had been at Tuscumbia since October 31, 1864 awaiting the arrival of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest and his cavalry. Hood ordered a mile-long pontoon bridge built over the Tennessee River. Patrick Cleburne’s Division, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving, began crossing on this date in 1864, with bands playing and the soldiers marching in a column of fours. The bands continued to play as other divisions crossed the river. Once across, Cleburne bivouacked his division in Florence, Alabama, where Hood set up his headquarters.

The next day, the famous cavalry general and his 6,000-man column arrived in camp. Apparently, he and his troops immediately became the objects of much curiosity. Several of the brigade bands got together to serenade the general, and it turned into an impromptu outdoor concert.

Source: Wikipedia

Also on the 14th, Federal. Gen. John M. Schofield arrived at Pulaski, Tennessee, about 50 miles northeast of Hood's position. He took command of about 26,000 Federal troops that were assembling there. His orders were to delay Hood's advance in order to gain time for Gen. George Thomas's sizable force to concentrate at Nashville.

Finally across the river and bolstered by with Forrest’s cavalry, Hood unveiled his grand plan for a Tennessee Campaign: He would march the army north into Middle Tennessee and retake Nashville, 115 miles to the north. He believed that there were few Federal soldiers in Tennessee, meaning his campaign would not require much fighting if he could move his army fast enough. He convinced Gen. 
P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate Western theater commander, of the soundness of his plan and assured him that he would move “at the earliest possible moment.” Instead, rains forced repeated postponements. Short on supplies, on November 30, Hood issued another General Order to inform his troops of his plan, calling on them to accept a period of short rations with “a cheerful spirit.”

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Wiley Sword; Hood's Tennessee Campaign, William R. Scaife; Official Records, Vol. 45, Pt. 1