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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Defeat at Nashville, 1864

On December 15-16, 1864, Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's ragged Army of Tennessee fought Gen. George Thomas's army at Nashville, finally breaking its 2-week siege of the city. The clash was the last full-scale battle in the Western Theater and one of the most decisive victories for the Union army during the war.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
After the Union victory at Franklin on November 30th, Hood moved his army to Brentwood Hills on the outskirts of the formidable Federal fortifications at Nashville. By the time of the arrival of Hood's army, the Federals, who had held Nashville since 1862, had constructed a semicircular defensive line stretching for 7 miles. The section on the south and west protected the city from attacks from those directions. Forts had been constructed throughout the line. On the north and east, the city was shielded by the Cumberland River. The river itself was protected by a fleet of ironclad boats.

Having the significantly weaker force (outnumbered 3 to 1), Hood settled for an entrenched, de-fensive position where he would await an inevitable Federal attack. His 4-mile line faced north toward the southern portion of the Federal line. Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham's Corps was on the right. Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee's Corps was next to Cheatham's, and Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart's Corps was on the left. Southwest of the city, Hood posted his small cavalry commanded by Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers. On his line, Hood positioned 5 five small forts, or redoubts, with 2-4 guns and about 150 men each.

Cheatham's Corps, Hood's right (east) wing, rested on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad cut. He placed the survivors of  Cleburne's  Division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. James A. Smith, on the right of this wing. Here my Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in Lowrey's Brigade,1 which formed the extreme right position at the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad cut, 2.5 miles from the city. The line, beginning with a small fort, Redoubt No. 1, ran southwest across Rain's Hill, then west across the Franklin Pike, and across the Hillsboro Pike. At that point, the line turned south, connecting with Redoubt 2, then crossed the Hillsboro Pike to Redoubt No. 3. Further to the west were Redoubts Nos. 4 and 5. A stone wall extended along the pike between Redoubts Nos. 3 and 4.

The Nashville State House, 1864
From the Matthew Brady Collection

Soon after arriving at his Nashville defenses, Hood tried to draw Thomas out of the city. He sent 5 infantry brigades and 2 brigades of cavalry 28 miles to the east to attack the railroad between Nashville and Murfreesboro. However, Thomas wasn't fooled, and his garrison at Murfreesboro repelled the Confederate attack on December 7th. In ordering the attack, Hood reduced his army facing Nashville as well and as depriving his force there of its vital cavalry along with its legendary leader, Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. These were critical resources he could well have used against Thomas's impending attack.

Outer Federal line at Nashville, 1864
From the Matthew Brady Collection
Gen. Thomas, who had instructed Hood in artillery at West Point, had taken weeks to prepare the Federal position. Although prodded by the Federal high command, including the U.S. President, to attack Hood's army, he took a cautious approach, waiting for the right moment to annihilate the Confederates in front of him.

While Thomas waited for his oppor-tunity, on December 8th, a severe ice storm struck Nashville, which prohibited any action for either side. The freezing weather continued through December 12th. Although the weather was miserable for both sides, it was most severe for Hood's men, still recovering from their severe losses at Franklin.

By December 14th, the weather warmed and the ice and snow melted. That afternoon, Thomas called his corps commanders together to outline his plan of attack. He would assault the left and right ends of the Confederate line first, followed by a continuous sweeping movement against the Confederates' left, turning that flank. By bringing a constant attack along Hood's entire line, Thomas hoped to exert enough pressure to cause it to break.

The Federal attack finally came on today's date in 1864. Thomas launched a diversionary assault on Cleburne's/Smith's troops on the Confederate right to distract them from the main attack. Two Federal brigades were ordered forward around 8:00 AM, and soon passed beyond the Confederates' skirmish line. However, the attackers were soon trapped, and the survivors were forced into a panicked retreat. Although Thomas's diversion failed, the Federal brigades managed to reform and continued to fire on Cleburne's/Smith's troops, although the Confederate brigades managed to repeal all attacks.

Then came the main attack. At about 2:30 pm the Federals attacked the redoubts guarding the Confederate left wing. They soon overran the artillery at 4 of those positions. In the meantime, Thomas began his frontal assault, capturing the last fort on the Confederate left flank. Stewart's Corps, which suffered severely in the fighting, retreated to a new line of defense about a mile to the south. Reinforcements from Lee's Corps kept the retreat from becoming a rout. With the collapse of the Confederate left, Cheatham's and Lee's Corps withdrew to the new line.

On the first day of the Battle of Nashville, December 15, the Federals attacked
 all five forts. Redoubt No. 1 was the last to fall.
Photo by Tom Lawrence, Battle of Nashville Preservation Society

When the battle resumed the next day, the Confederate position, now more than a mile to the rear of its place the day before, was stronger and more compact. On the right (east) end, Lee's Corps was anchored on Peach Orchard Hill. The line continued west along a series of hills leading south from the steep Compton's Hill, later named Shy's Hill in honor of its valiant commander, Col. William M. Shy of 20th Tennessee. Stewart's Corps in the center of the line was fortified behind stacked stone walls and trenches. Cheatham's Corps, which was shifted to the left (west), included Shy's Hill and the line of hills to the south. Through the night, Hood's men had been digging in and fortifying their new line. Consequently, when the attack began on the 16th, the exhausted Confederates would face a fresher and much stronger enemy.

Thomas ordered the attack to begin on the Confederate right in order to draw away troops from the left. His main attack would follow on the left flank. His first attack on Lee's men on Peach Orchard Hill came around 10:00 AM. While Lee's troops repulsed it, Thomas's plan had worked. Shortly after noon, Hood sent 2 of Cheatham's brigades, Smith's/Lowrey's and Granbury's, to reinforce Lee at the Granny White Pike, thinning his lines on and around Shy's Hill. After placing the reinforcements in line, Lee decided they weren't needed, so he ordered them to return. At about the same time, Federal cavalry moved on the Confederate left and rear, reaching almost all of the way to Granny White Pike. To counter this threat, Cheatham stretched his corps further to the south.

Sometime after 3:30, a Federal division under Brig. Gen. John McArthur, began an attack on Shy's Hill. His attack, in connection with other Federal forces, will determine the outcome of the battle. McArthur sent 1 brigade up the left of Shy's Hill. While the defenders there were distracted by the action to the east, McArthur's sent his second brigade to attack. His third brigade, attacking to the east of Granny White Pike, overwhelmed the Confederate force there. Seeing the success along the line, other Union troops charged up Shy's Hill and took it as well. So successful was the assault that the Confederate line gave way from west to east. While many units continued to hold their ground, in the end they had no choice but to retreat with the rest of the fleeing army, south via the Granny White and Franklin Pikes. A portion of Lee's Corps managed to cover the retreat on the Franklin Pike, while a single brigade of cavalry continued to provide cover through the darkness and the rain on Granny White Pike.

Artillery (covered) on the capital steps
From the Matthew Brady Collection
During the night, Hood's defeated and demoralized army headed south towards Franklin on the Franklin and the Granny White Pikes. Pursued by Federal cavalry, Lee's Corps served as rear guard holding off attacks as the army headed to Columbia. Then with Cheatham's Corps guarding the army's rear, the defeated Con-federates were chased through rain, sleet, and below freezing temper-atures. Adding to their suffering, many of these poor men were barefoot and without adequate clothing to brave the elements. Finally, on December 18th, the main pursuing force was compelled to stop due to lack of supplies and the arrival of Confed-erate Brig. Gen. Frank C. Armstrong's cavalry brigade. The army marched under continued Federal harassment, while the cavalry aided Cheatham with rear guard duty.

On December 19th, the retreating army crossed the Duck River at Columbia, destroying the bridges behind them. Joined now by Gen. Forrest and the remainder of his cavalry, they pressed on through Columbia. On Christmas Day, the tattered army arrived on the Tennessee River at Bainbridge, Alabama. The next morning, they crossed over on a pontoon bridge and began their march through Tuscumbia, Alabama and west to Burnsville, Mississippi.2 By the 29th, Thomas gave up his chase.

Hood had taken his army into Tennessee with 38,000 men. After its arrival at Tupelo, the army had fewer than 15,000 left. Although the army's remnants will be reorganized in the days ahead and shipped off to fight in the Carolinas Campaign, it was effectively ruined. Predictably, Hood blamed his defeat on his subordinates and even the soldiers themselves. However, his career was over. At Tupelo on January 13th, he offered his resignation. He will never be given another field command.

The collapse of the army at Nashville had been the inevitable result of Hood's ill-advised campaign into Tennessee and the doomed attack at Franklin. In that reckless and tragic assault he lost a quarter of his army and decimated his officer corps. While Hood unjustly chose to blame his men for the disaster of his Tennessee Campaign, few agreed with him, then or now. In his official report, Gen. 
P.G.T. Beauregard, Hood's superior, exonerated the loyal and brave soldiers:
The heroic dead of that campaign will ever be recollected with honor by their countrymen, and the survivors have the proud consolation that no share of the disaster can be laid to them, who have so worthily served their country and have stood by their colors even to the last dark hours of the republic.

1 On the 15th, Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey commanded his brigade near the extreme right, where, he wrote, "we handsomely repulsed several severe assaults of the enemy." In the battle on the 16th, he was put in command of Cheatham's old division (recently commanded by John C. Brown who was seriously wounded at Franklin), already in line of battle on the extreme left. Lt. Col. Robert H. Abercrombie was put in command of Lowrey's Brigade. This will be the last time Lowrey will command his brigade, including the renowned 32nd Mississippi Regiment, which he raised in Northern Mississippi in April 1862 and personally led until his promotion after the Battle of Chickamauga. Lowrey will continue to command Cheatham's Division into the Carolinas Campaign, until his resignation in March 1865.
2 Cheatham's Corps arrived in Corinth on January 1st, and encamped there. Lee's corps moved to Rienzi, while Stewart's Corps remained at Burnsville. On January 3rd, Lee's and Stewart's Corps were ordered to continue the march to Tupelo, Mississippi. Cheatham's Corps remained at Corinth until the 9th, when it was also ordered to Tupelo, arriving there on the 12th.

Sources: The Confederates' Last Hurrah, Wiley Sword; Hood's Campaign for Tennessee, William R. Scaife; Mark P. Lowrey AutobiographyOfficial Records, Vol. 45, Pt. 1

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Remembering a fallen comrade at Franklin

One of my great delights in recent years was to run across a short letter to the editor of The Confederate Veteran magazine, written over a century ago by my great grandfather, Nathan R. Oakes, in which he memorialized a fallen comrade, mortally wounded in the famous 1864 Battle of Franklin. In 1899, Great Grandfather Oakes published the following tribute:
The Confederacy lost one of her bravest when Comrade Steele fell dead at Franklin on top of the breastworks to the left of the pike 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.
A simple, yet fitting memorial for a dear friend who fell in that terrible struggle between North and South at Franklin.*

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Mississippi section of the McGavock Confederate Cemetery
Franklin, Tennessee
Fighting to the death would be a terrible thing to experience, but it was even more brutal in the Civil War, especially in the Army of Tennessee, which had seen it share of victory and defeats at horrendous human cost. The disappointments and deprivations of war took a tremendous toll on soldiers' morale. Food was always in short supply, medical relief was often non-existent, and death was ever present.

However, on the brighter side, spiritual relief was readily available. One of the lesser discussed dimensions of soldiering in the Southern army was the ample presence of pastoral care. 

Army chaplains and local pastors regularly preached to gathered troops. Bibles and Christian literature were freely distributed. In the Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma in 1863, and at Dalton in 1864, great spiritual revival broke out as the Christian gospel was freely preached. A fascinating and edifying account of the teaching and evangelistic work of these godly ministers is contained in W.W. Bennett's, The Great Revival in the Southern Armies. Here is one excerpt about the ministry among Gen. S.A.M. Wood's Brigade, stationed at Wartrace, Tennessee, in which my great grandfather and his comrade served. On this and many other occasions, their own commander, Baptist minister Col. Mark Lowrey, participated.
In General Wood’s brigade a meeting of great interest has for several weeks been under the supervision of Rev. F.A. Kimball, chaplain of the 16th Alabama, assisted mainly by Colonel Reed, Chief of Provost Marshal Department, in Hardee’s corps, Col. Lowery [sic], of the 45th and 32nd Mississippi, the result of which has been one hundred conversions. In the same brigade, Chaplin Otkin, of Lowery’s [sic] regiment, has been conducting religious services, which, from the best information received, has been productive of great good in restoring many wanderers to their former enjoyments and inducting about forty-five souls into the kingdom of Christ. 
On an earlier occasion, British observer Col. Arthur Fremantle, who published a journal of his tour of the Southern army, Three Months in the Southern States, April-June, 1863, witnessed another Christian service in Gen. Wood's camp, led by Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliot:
I was present at a great open-air preaching at General Wood's camp. Bishop Elliott preached most admirably to a congregation composed of nearly 3000 soldiers, who listened to him with the most profound attention. Generals Bragg, Polk, Hardee, Withers, Cleburne, and endless brigadiers, were also present. It is impossible to exaggerate the respect paid by all ranks of this army to Bishop Elliott; and although most of the officers are Episcopalians, the majority of the soldiers are Methodists, Baptists, &c.
In one of these Christian services, no less than the commander of the Army of Tennessee, Gen. Braxton Bragg, came under the influence of Bible teaching and was baptized. Months later, his successor, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, was also baptized.

It is also well documented that Brig. Gen. Mark Lowery frequently exhorted his 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, and later his brigade, from the Scripture, often in the moments before leading them into battle. I have read such accounts at Tullahoma, the Atlanta Campaign, and here at the Battle of Franklin. How very different from 21st century battle scenes in America's secular War on Terror.

But evangelistic preaching wasn't the only means of spreading the Christian gospel through the army. According to one author and observer, James D. Porter, in Vol. 9 of Confederate Military History, during the war, Bible societies were organized for the publication, sale, and gift of Bibles for dissemination in the Confederate army. Christian newspapers were published in many places and thousands of copies were regularly circulated. Tens of thousands of religious tracts and books of "Camp Hymns" were also distributed. Even the American Bible Society, headquartered in New York, donated thousands of Bibles and smuggled them to Rebel troops via a Confederate agent. And for Confederate POWs held in the north, the U.S. Christian Commission of the YMCA conducted devotional meetings and distributed Bibles and Christian literature to them.

With the presence of many Christian denominations, pastors and chaplains in the Confederate army established a trans-denominational institution whereby preachers of different denominations could administer the sacraments and receive new members into the fellowship of the church. The organization was named "The Army Church," and its articles of faith represented a charitable attempt toward spiritual unity among the disparate Christian groups. In the Army Church, professions of Christian faith—or "joining the church" as many soldiers at the time referred to Christian conversion—were recognized by all ministers as authoritative and acceptable, regardless of denominational preference. Sunday schools and Bible classes abounded to train men in the faith. In these classes many men also learned to read and write with the Bible as their text.

It was in one of these many camp meetings in Dalton, Georgia, that Great Grandfather Oakes witnessed his friend, Miley Steele, come to saving faith in Christ. It must have really impressed him that he would remember the incident so vividly 35 years later. Equally impressive was the way my great grandfather recalled the change it brought in Steele's life. How poignant was his concern that decades later Steele's family might receive some additional comfort from that fact.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
The beautiful and  tranquil McGavock Confederate Cemetery in Franklin
where Steele, and nearly 1,500 of his comrades-in-arms, are buried.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited the McGavock Confederate Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee, where Sgt. Miles J. Steele lies with the unknown. Steele, along with Great Grandfather Oakes and all true believers who have died in Christ, await that last trumpet call, which will raise the dead to eternal and imperishable life (1 Corinthians 15).

We memorialize the seemingly countless Americans who throughout our history have fallen on fields of battle around the world, and we are grateful for their sacrifice for our country. Jesus' saying, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15), is certainly appropriate for Miley Steele's sacrifice, and also the myriad fallen we should always remember. But the Savior would also have us recall his earlier command to "love one another as I have loved you." His was the greater sacrifice that made possible God's love for fallen rebels like us. Now, it's our turn to go and do likewise.

According to Tennessee's Williamson County Historical Society, Burials, Vol. II (1975): "Steele, Miles J.; B[orn] Jan. 23, 1844 (or 1841); Fell mortally wounded in the Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30 & died Dec. 10, 1864. 'He sleeps among the unknown in CSA cemetery in Franklin, Tenn. He died in the hope of the (unable to read rest).'"

Sources: Confederate Veteran, Vol. 7, January 1899-December 1899; Confederate Military History, Vol. 9, James D. Porter; Three Months in the Southern States, April-June, 1863, Arthur Fremantle

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Forward to Nashville

Although his army had been decimated at the Battle of Franklin days before,* nevertheless the rash commander of the Army of Tennessee, Gen. John B. Hood, ordered his men—now reduced to barely 23,000 in numberon to Nashville on this date in 1864. Later in his memoirs, he explained his incredible decision to advance his shattered army:
In truth our army was in that condition which rendered it judicious [that] the men should face a decisive issue rather than retreat—in other words, rather than renounce the honor of their cause, without having made a last and manful effort to lift the sinking fortunes of the Confederacy... the troops would I believed, return better satisfied even after defeat if, in grasping at the last straw, they felt that a brave and vigorous effort had been made to save the country from disaster.
It would be astounding if many of his men on this date would have agreed. For them Franklin was nearly the last straw.

Hood moved the remnants of his army to to Brentwood Hills on the outskirts of Nashville. For the beleaguered Confederate troops, the Federal fortifications at Nashville must have seemed daunting. And the enemy's force was continuing to grow. By December 10th, the Union force will number 72,000.

As Hood deployed his troops, it was painfully apparent that his force could not form a continuous line to oppose the Federal army. In spite of the odds, he placed Gen. Stephen Lee's Corps in the center. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham's Corps was on Lee's left and Gen Alexander P. Stewart's Corps on the right. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry, along with some infantry, was sent toward Murfreesboro. Hood promised reinforcements to follow.

Hood's pathetic siege of Nashville will stretch on for another 2 miserable weeks. The harsh weather and short supplies will ensure that his men endure far more suffering than the Federal troops they are opposing.

By the time Hood's army marched out of Franklin and took position on December 2nd, his command structure was undergoing serious reorganization, including Great Grandfather Nathan's Oakes's division, Cleburne's. Following Cleburne's death, Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowery was put in temporary commanded of the division. Lt. Col. Robert H. Abercrombie commanded Lowrey's Brigade. Maj. Andrew E. Moody was given command of the of the combined 8th and 32nd Mississippi Regiments (Great Grandfather was in the 32nd). Lowrey commanded Cleburne's Division until the arrival of J.A. Smith. On December 16th, in the 2nd day of the Battle of Nashville, he was given command of Brown's Division. Lowrey will continue to command that division into the Carolinas Campaign, March 1865.

Source: Advance and Retreat, John B. Hood

The Fallen Hero, Patrick Cleburne

Among the hundreds of Confederate dead in the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864, were 6 Confederate generals, including Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne. His body was found on the battlefield lying on his back. His boots, watch, sword belt, and other valuables had been looted from his body. He lay only 40 yards south of the earthworks at the Carter cotton gin, not far from where my Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes fought that day under his command.

His body was removed and placed with the other bodies of fallen generals—Adams, Granbury, and Strahl—at John McGavock’s residence at the Carton House, awaiting transportation to Columbia, Tennessee. Plenty of Cleburne’s men were moved to tears upon learning of their leader's death. A host of them came for a last look at their beloved commander.

During the evening of December 1st, Cleburne’s body lay in the parlor of Dr. William J. Polk’s residence. At 3 PM on today's date, Chaplin Charles T. Quintard conducted a ceremony in the Polk parlor. Then Cleburne's body was moved for burial at Rose Hill Cemetery, only a few blocks away.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
St. John's Church, behind which is Ashwood Cemetery

Later, Cleburne's remains were buried in the cemetery, behind St. John’s Church, near the Polk family plot. It was the very spot where only 1 week earlier, Cleburne had remarked to his friend, Gen. Govan, on the beauty of the chapel and cemetery, “It is almost worth dying to be buried in such a beautiful spot.”

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Cleburne Monument
Maple Hill Cemetery, Helena, Arkansas
Cleburne's body remained at Ashwood Cemetery for 6 years. In 1870, his remains were once again disinterred, and he was returned to his adopted hometown of Helena, Arkansas, with much fanfare. He now lies in the Maple Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Cleburne's headstone, lying at the base of
his monument in the Maple Hill Cemetery,
Helena, Arkansas

The location where Cleburne was killed in on the Franklin battlefield was reclaimed and is now known as Cleburne Park.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Cleburne Park, Franklin, Tennessee

Where this division defended, no odds broke its line; where it attacked, no numbers
resisted its onslaught, save only once; and there is the grave of Cleburne.
Gen. William J. Hardee

Source: The Confederacy's Last Hurrah, Wile Sword