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, July 21, 2014

Cleburne's Defense of Bald Hill, 1864

Overnight on July 20-21, 1864, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne was ordered to assist Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's dismounted cavalry holding on the right of the Confederate line, extending from the outer defense works up the slope of Bald Hill.* Wheeler was facing 2 Federal divisions, which were attempting to dislodge him from his strategic position.

Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne
Cleburne marched his division from the fight at Peachtree Creek, south through Atlanta, along the Decatur Road, until at 1 AM on today's date, his troops, including Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes in Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey's Brigade, arrived at their new position. Lowrey's Brigade took up position on the left of the division, on the left of the railroad.

There in the darkness Cleburne’s men filed into line of battle, expecting enemy fire. Cleburne placed a single regiment north of the railroad, with the rest of his 3 brigades as far south as feasible. He placed 2 regiments of Granbury's Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. James A. Smith, south on the northern edge of the crest of Bald Hill. The rest of the line on the crest of the hill was held by 3 cavalry brigades totaling 2,000 men, commanded by Wheeler. Wheeler’s orders were to extend the line south of the hill.

Cleburne's men were mainly exposed, and proper defenses had to be dug out of the hard clay as quietly as possible. Almost at once, the sound of their work alerted the Federals gunners, and the artillery at a higher elevation about 600 yards away, opened fire on them. One enemy battery was able to enfilade Cleburne’s line, and 40 men were killed by the unseen enemy, even as the rest hurried to build breastworks.

Daylight on the morning of today's date in 1864, revealed how exposed Cleburne’s position really was. With no possibility of choosing better ground, the Confederates came under cannon and fire from sharpshooters. Lowrey reported: "I found on all my line, except a small portion of my right, light works, which had been constructed by the cavalry on ground badly selected. The enemy was in our immediate front and soon commenced sharpshooting and shelling, which, in consequence of his advantageous position, were very annoying and dangerous to my men." About 9:30 AM, Col. Samuel Adams of the 33rd Alabama in Lowrey's Brigade was conducting an inspection of his line when he was killed.

Source: Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events, Volume 1, Franklin M. Garrett

About 8 AM, the enemy launched its assault on the Cleburne/Wheeler line, preceded by a furious cannonade of canister and solid shot. Wheeler's men on the hill on Cleburne’s right fired off a single volley, then broke and ran, yelling to Cleburne's men to do the same. When the cavalry fled the Federals were able to reach the top of Bald Hill and gain the confederate breastworks. With his flank now exposed, Cleburne ordered Gen. James A. Smith's Brigade to counterattack on the north slope and regain the lost ground. Together with regiments from Lowrey's and Govan's Brigades, plus the reorganized cavalry, the Confederates temporarily recovered the 200 yards of lost works. However, they were forced to retreat before reinforcements could arrive.

Cleburne sent a message to Gen. John B. Hood for support. Hood sent Cheatham’s Division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. George Maney. Cleburne ordered Maney to extend his right flank. With his position now reinforced, Cleburne fought off a series of Federal attacks that lasted all day. The woods and terrain afforded some opportunity for Cleburne's sharpshooters to pour in enfilading fire into the extreme right of the Federal line. However the Federals soon moved up a battery onto the hill and shelled the woods, effectively silencing the sharpshooters.

Throughout the rest of the long, hot day, Cleburne’s Division continued its struggle under constant pressure along its entire front but managed to repulse Federal assaults probing for weak spots. Enemy artillery continued to sweep their flanks and shelled the front of their meager defenses, thus removing any opportunity to advance or countercharge. The terrain provided no advantage to Cleburne's troops who were caught in a crossfire. Cleburne later reported to Hardee that it was the bitterest fight of his life. Considering the viciousness of the battle the next day, one can only imagine the severity for his men on this date.

Ultimately, the Federals were able to secure their lodgment on Bald Hill, soon to name it Leggett's Hill in honor of the general in command. They threw up a line of works facing Atlanta, with their line running northeasterly to protect their flank. Their defenses on the hill also extended a half mile to the south, along Flat Shoals Road, on a continuation of the ridge. From this forward position they could shell the city and would make a stubborn defense in the Battle of Atlanta tomorrow.

Cleburne's Division suffered severely, being harassed by constant rifle and cannon fire, and it sustained some 300 casualties. The Federals suffered, too, receiving 728 causalities in their capture of Bald Hill. Lowrey again reported for his brigade: "The brigade remained in this position during the day, improving their works and continually in readiness to resist an assault of the enemy, which was threatened all the day long. My loss during the day was 6 killed and 42 wounded."

At the sun set, and the exhausted men settled into their shallow trenches. They had been marching and fighting continuously since the morning of the previous day. But their work was not yet over. Fearing that Gen. McPherson might move his entire army toward Atlanta, Hood pulled his army back to his inner fortifications. That evening, Cleburne received orders to abandon his line and fall back into the city. There they would ready for another attack tomorrow.

Cleburne pulled his troops back in silence, the last men leaving the line by midnight. Lowrey's Brigade withdrew under the cover of a detail of about 180 skirmishers deployed in front of the regiment's position. The fight on Bald Hill on the 21st was over. Tomorrow, Cleburne's men will be reassigned to assault the same hill from the rear.

* Sadly, there is little left of Bald Hill today, although a rise east of the city is still visible. Only a state marker indicates its location. Bald Hill, now known as Leggett's Hill, was located on the present day Moreland Avenue, along Interstate 20. When the Interstate was completed by the 1960s, the hill had been leveled, obliterating much of the ground where the fiercest fighting took place on July 20-22, 1864.

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Howell; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Decision in the West, Albert Castel; Official Records, Vol. 38, Pts. 3 & 5

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