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

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