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.

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

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