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.

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

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