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.

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

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