Friday, December 20, 2013

Reporting to the Naval Repair Base in San Diego

On today's date in 1943, my dad, Frank Dolan, reported to Industrial Command on the U.S. Naval Repair Base in San Diego, California. He will undergo several weeks of training for service on the Navy's newest repair ship, USS Hector.

Providentially, San Diego was also his hometown. Born and raised on a small ranch and dairy farm in Sunnyside, about 20 miles east of the base, Dad will enjoy spending time with his family and childhood friends.

Dad on leave, December 1943

Dolan Brothers Ed, Frank, Elwin, and Brother-in-Law Willie Howel
December 1943

Sources: Frank L. Dolan's Service Records and his personal narrative

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remembering Pearl Harbor | A sailor's first-hand account

My dad, Frank L. Dolan, was an 18-year old U.S. Navy Sailor aboard the auxiliary repair ship USS Vestal during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 72 years ago on today's date in 1941. I am reprinting the original post about his experience on that fateful day.


My dad was a weldor on the Vestal, which was tied alongside the battleship USS Arizona, when the surprise Japanese attack came.* He remembered the events that unfolded at Pearl Harbor on this date in 1941 like this...
Sunday was "holiday routine"… a no-work day. The officers and men would ‘sleep-in,’ but not me. I was eager to get my ratings. So, after morning chow, I went to the foc’sle… which was an upper deck in the forward part of the ship, to do my studying… Noise! A loud noise! A loud, booming noise came! Then came the roar of airplanes. I looked over the starboard (right) side of the ship and saw planes—many planes. Some were overhead, but many were just a few feet above the water. They were launching what I thought were “dummy” torpedoes. "Neat, real neat!" I thought. But when the first one exploded against a battleship’s side, I thought some dumb American pilot dropped a real live torpedo by accident.
Japanese aerial photo of the attack 
Even as torpedoes were exploding on impact against the sides of the battleships, I told myself there must be some mistake. The planes were so close we could easily see the pilots. Then the red ball designation of the Japanese on the sides of the planes came into view. Immediately I was off the foc’csle down the port passageway aft on the main deck and onto the starboard side to watch. Again, I was not really believing what I was witnessing. More torpedo planes, and then came the dive bombers. I had no battle station as at this time we were at peace with Japan, and had only one 3-inch anti-aircraft gun, and a couple of Thompson machine guns on board. Our 5-inch broadside guns were for use against surface craft.
My next move was to head for the weld shop. To get there I had to go down a ladder through the carpenter shop and then amidships to the weld shop. No sooner had I got down the ladder when a bomb came through the carpenter shop hitting the ladder I had just come down. There were numerous casualties in the carpenter shop. One shipmate was decapitated. Immediately, I went to the weld shop. Half of the men there had been sleeping or were just awakening and were asking, "What was up?" The other men and I told them the Japs were here. I looked toward the small hatch opening that I had just come through to get to our shop. "Ski," a shipmate, had just come into the shop looking very pale and wobbly. We grabbed him and laid him on a cot, face-down, as we discovered that both cheeks of his backside were torn off and hardly any flesh remained. This was the result of the bomb that had come through the carpenter shop. In the meantime, another bomb hit the forward part of our ship on the starboard side near where I had been studying a few minutes earlier.
USS Arizona
Dad recalled that at about the time the second bomb hit the forward part of the Vestal, on the starboard side near where he had been studying a few minutes earlier, was when the Arizona exploded. While he was below decks at that moment, he did not then know what had happened, although it was a “shaking experience” for him. “When the Arizona blew up and was broken in two, my first thought from below deck was that our acetylene and oxygen cylinders, which were topside and near the great explosion, had blown up. Soon afterward, we learned that it was the Arizona. And, later on, with all of the burned survivors, we knew for sure what had happened.”

Amazingly, of the 400 men on the Vestal, only 6 were lost, although many were seriously injured. Among the many deeds of brave men, the Vestal’s captain, Cassin Young, received the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions that day. On the other hand, the losses to the Arizona were horrific. More than 1,100 Sailors and Marines still lie entombed within its sunken hull. Over 50 Sailors lie within the submerged Utah.

Dad recounted his experience of this “date which will live in infamy” in his narrative, Pearl Harbor: As I Remember.

* A profound experience from my childhood was to personally meet Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese commander who led the first attack wave on Pearl Harbor, and who immortalized the words, Tora, Tora, ToraWhen I was about 10, my dad insisted that I go with him to a Youth for Christ meeting in San Diego, where this remarkable man and former enemy of the United States was speaking. Years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Fuchida became a Christian in a remarkable conversion to the Christian faith. I wrote about the experience in the post, Meeting God's Samurai.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day

Tomorrow is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, which is observed every December 7th to commemorate those who died in the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on that date in 1941. By Congressional law and Presidential Proclamation, flags may be flown at half-staff in remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice on that "date which will live in infamy."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Grace

A Grace 
You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink. 
Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Collected Poetry, Pt. 1

Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation at 150

Today's observance of Thanksgiving marks the 150th anniversary of the first national Thanksgiving Day, which, unbeknownst to many Americans, has a direct link to the War Between the States. It was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln on October 3rd, 1863,1  in the aftermath of the carnage at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the Union defeat at Chickamauga. The proclamation set the precedent for America's national Thanks-giving observance.

The holiday's history in America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation, and those customs on ancient celebrations from biblical times. Prior to Lincoln's announcement, church leaders or individual states decided their own Thanksgiving holidays, observing days of prayer and thanksgiving at different times in the calendar. They followed the traditions of George Washington, who was the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving in 1789, and the earlier Plymouth colonists who celebrated their first harvest in 1621. In Lincoln's proclamation, he set apart the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." However, since 1941, the holiday is officially celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November.

Ironically and unintentionally, Lincoln's national proclamation went into effect on November 26th, 1863, the day after the defeat of the Army of Tennessee on Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee. As Northerners were celebrating, Gen. Braxton Bragg's beaten army was retreating across the Chickamauga Creek, near where it had witnessed a magnificent victory only weeks before. Serving in the army's rear guard in Patrick Cleburne's Division was my 18-year old Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes.


By the President of the United States of America. 
A Proclamation. 
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union. 
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. 
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth. 
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
1 See the history of the proclamation and a copy of the document at the National Archives website

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Battle of Ringgold Gap at 150

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010

Following the unexpected victory at Missionary Ridge on the evening of the 25th, Union Gen. U.S. Grant's attention turned towards how to send relief to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, supposedly under siege at Knoxville. Consequently, he let slip the opportunity to do serious damage to Braxton Bragg's fleeing and disorganized army. Although some pursuit was attempted right after the Confederates fled, it was turned back largely by Patrick Cleburne's command. The hesitation afforded Bragg's army a slim margin of time to make its escape southeast to the town of Ringgold by the next day, with Dalton, Georgia as its final destination.

Finally, on the 26th, Grant ordered part of his army to Knoxville and directed Sherman and Thomas to send a force to pursue Bragg. On the same day, Bragg was pushing the remnants of his army through Ringgold Gap. Feeling vulnerable about a Federal attack, he ordered Cleburne's Division to again hold off the pursuers until the army had safely retreated to Dalton.

After serving as the rear guard for Bragg's army, retreating from the disaster on Missionary Ridge, late on the night of the 26th, Cleburne ordered his men to bivouac on the South Chickamauga across from  Ringgold, a North Georgian small town 20 miles southeast of Chattanooga on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, where the main body of Bragg's army was camped. Serving in Cleburne's Division is Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes, in Company D1 of the 32nd Mississippi Infantry. About 2 miles northwest, Hooker's force encamped for the night.

Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne
At 3 AM on today's date, a Friday in 1863, Cleburne received Bragg's order to hold Ringgold Gap at all costs. There were only 4,157 men and 2 cannons in Cleburne's Division to hold back an overwhelming number of Federal troops. Initially, his Confederates will have to face 3 divisions under Gen. Joseph Hooker, numbering nearly 9,000. More will arrive, swelling the Federal force to 16,000. Just like at Tunnel Hill on Missionary Ridge, the odds are again stacked against Cleburne's men.

Shortly after receiving his instructions, Cleburne ordered his men to wade the stinging cold, waist-high South Chickamauga Creek. Volunteers had been sent ahead to light campfires on the opposite bank so the soldiers could warm and partially dry themselves before being deployed to defend the gap. Cleburne had already crossed the creek ahead of his men to make a quick examination of the ground he was ordered to defend.

Ringgold Gap was a steep, narrow, half-mile pass through Taylor's Ridge (known as Taylor Ridge today), about 400 feet high at its crest. The gap in the ridge was barely wide enough to accommodate the creek, with a wagon road and rail line close by. On the opposite, north side of the gap was White Oak Mountain, which rose 350 feet behind the town of Ringgold. The western slopes of both heights were steep and lightly forested. At the gap's western opening, which Cleburne's men would have to defend, the troops had an open field of fire. However, the ground behind them, on the eastern side of the gap was cut 3 times by the meandering stream. In a retreat, his men would have to cross several bridges or ford the creek to make their escape. It was a dangerous position to be caught in.

Source: The Wild Geese
At around 7:00 AM, in a brilliant display of generalship, Cleburne quickly began positioning his troops on or behind every natural defense where they would be the most effective to hinder an attack. He posted most of his troops on and between the 2 ridges guarding the gap with the majority of them along the stretch of White Oak Mountain extending north. He placed 1 of Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey's regiments, the 16th Alabama, on Taylor's Ridge to guard the division's left flank. The other 3 regiments, he placed in reserve in Ringgold Gap itself. Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was posted here with his 32nd Mississippi Regiment (32nd/45th Consolidated). Because the pass was narrow, Cleburne was able to place his regiments in 4 short rows of defense. He had scant artillery, only 2 Napoleon cannons under the command of Lt. Richard W. Goldthwaite, which had to be used in the most effective spot. So, he camouflaged them and placed them in the center, within the mouth of the gap, where they could do the most damage. Cleburne remained here with the cannon to direct the coming fight.

Just a half-hour later, the leading edge of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's column was spotted across the Chickamauga a short distance away. Enemy skirmishers drove the Confederate cavalry2 at the crossing. Cleburne had planned a ruse to give the impression that only a small force guarded the gap. Fooled into thinking that the Confederate force at the gap was weak and demoralized, almost immediately Hooker ordered a direct attack, even before the rest of his force, including his artillery, had come into position to support it. So far, Cleburne's plan was working, but his men still had to receive the full weight of the approaching Federal force.

As Hooker's force approached the town, the Confederate army's train of wagons were still in full view, struggling to pass over the winding creek through and beyond the gap toward Dalton. Cleburne's men were the only barrier between the tail of the Army of Tennessee and the pursuing Federal army.

Just after 8:00 AM, not knowing the Confederate force that faced him, Hooker moved his skirmishers forward across an open field to the trees at the foot of the White Oak Mountain. There they were surprised by skirmishers of Hiram Granbury's Brigade. Granbury's men held their fire until the attackers were within 50 yards, well within killing range. The troops concentrated their fire from concealed positions at the timberline of the mountain. As the Federals recovered, they began to climb the steep ridge, only to be stopped by a Confederate unit under Maj. William A. Taylor who led a charge down the slope. The Federals were sent back in confusion towards the protection of Hooker's headquarters at the Stone Depot.

From the Stone Depot, the Federal command reacted by feeding more regiments into the fight. One regiment was sent out over the same ground to attack the Confederate right flank while another attacked the south slope of White Oak Mountain at the gap. They didn't know it yet, but these troops were heading into Goldthwaite's artillery. Once the Union line was within 150 yards—grape shot canister range—the Confederates opened fire. The right of the Federal line was shredded, and the survivors were sent running for shelter behind the railroad embankment where their fire was largely ineffective.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Restored "Stone Depot" | Western & Atlantic RR Station at Ringgold. Hooker's
headquarters and the position from which he sent his troops forward to assault
the Confederate held ridge and gap beyond. View is from the Confederate side.

Farther to the Federal left, soldiers began moving north up the ridge of White Oak Mountain to seek a way around the Confederates' right. Earlier that morning, Cleburne had ordered Brig. Gen. Lucius Polk to form his brigade in the gap along the road running to the rear and to maintain contact with Granbury's force on the ridge. Polk's Brigade fought with the Federal skirmishers who had ascended nearly to the top of the ridge, and after a half-hour of skirmishing, the Federals were driven back. However, the attackers reformed, and being heavily reenforced, began to move back up the crest.

Seeing those Union forces moving to his right, Cleburne ordered Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey to move his command, including Great Grandfather's 32nd/45th Mississippi, from their position in the gap to the top of the ridge in order to hold the Confederate right. According to Cleburne:
I ordered General Lowrey to move his command up the hill and assist General Polk in defending that position. Moving rapidly ahead of his command General Lowrey found the First Arkansas again heavily engaged, but heroically holding its ground against great odds.  Assuring the regiment that support was at hand, he brought up the Thirty-second and Forty-fifth Mississippi in double time, and threw them into the fight at the critical moment. The enemy gave way and went down the ridge in great confusion. Lowrey now brought up the two remaining regiments of his brigade and Polk up the two other regiments of his command. The enemy, constantly re-enforcing, made another powerful effort to crown the ridge still farther to the right.
Gen. Lowrey had galloped off ahead of his troops and reassured Polk's men that help was coming up the ridge right behind him. Then he hurried back to speed his brigade along, feeding each of his companies into line as they arrived. In his report, Gen. Lowery wrote of the action:
I moved my brigade at once by the right flank, and after ascending the hill I heard firing several hundred yards to the right, and, leaving a staff officer to bring up the command, I went in haste to see what it meant. I found the First Arkansas Regiment engaging the enemy´s skirmishers, who had already gained the top of the hill. After assuring this regiment that support was at hand, and directing them to hold their position, I hastened to the head of my brigade, which was coming up the ridge at a double-quick with the right flank to the enemy, and the bullets from the enemy's guns already flying down the line, I knew that nothing but the most prompt and rapid movement could save the position, and that I could not take time to put the whole brigade in position before moving upon the enemy. Hence, on reaching the head of the column, composed of Hawkins' sharpshooters and the Thirty-second and Forty-fifth Mississippi Regiments, I commanded, by company into line, and deployed the column on the tenth company, continuing the movement to the front with all possible rapidity at the same time. I sent Lieutenant Hall, my aide-de-camp, to bring up the next regiment in the same manner, and I went with the first to their important work, and nobly did they perform it. Our spirited fire, the sight of re-enforcements, and a terrific rebel yell combined to strike terror to the foe, and he fled in confusion.
By now the opposing lines were only 100 feet apart. Col. Aaron. B. Hardcastle, leading Great Grandfather's 32nd/45th Mississippi, described his regiment's arrival:
On arriving on the top of the ridge, Brigadier-General Lowrey gave the command, "by company into line," and then, "on the tenth company deploy column, and move rapidly forward, obliquing [sic] to the right, and take position on the crest of the ridge to the front," which movements were executed rapidly, and under a hot fire of the enemy at short range, and, from the fatigue occasioned by the toilsome ascent of the steep ridge, some little confusion occurred, and the four right companies formed on the right and the remainder of the regiment on the left of the First Arkansas Regiment, which was in position on the ridge The enemy were near gaining the tip of the ridge when we arrived and drove them back in disorder and confusion, inflicting a heavy loss on the enemy.
Other Federal regiments were sent to support the troops struggling on the ridge, some coming within a few yards of reaching the summit. In order to counter this new threat, Polk and Lowery shifted their forces to the right. Col. Hardcastle's report continues:
In about three-quarters of an hour the First Arkansas Regiment moved to the right, and I then formed my left on the right wing, and reformed my regiment in good order while subject to a heavy fire from the enemy.
Observing that the Federal forces continued to move to the Confederates' right flank, Polk moved his defending regiments to the threatened position and sent orders for the 5th Confederate Regiment to move to the top of the ridge. In his report, Gen. Polk stated:
After a considerable delay, about 12 m., the enemy commenced moving a column rapidly by the left flank on a road running some 200 yards from the foot of the ridge. I again moved by the right flank and watched their movements. Having moved by the left flank some half mile, the enemy by a rapid movement threw their line in a column of regiments and advanced up the hill. They were again met by the same stubborn resistance that before repulsed them. General Lowrey coming to my assistance with one of his regiments, I had it moved in rear of my line until the enemy had advanced within 40 yards of my line, when I ordered it up in line with First Arkansas Regiment, and at the same time throwing Second Tennessee down the hill upon the left flank of the enemy, they were again driven back to the foot of the hill in great confusion.
The Confederates on the ridge made excellent use of the terrain to deliver enfilading fire into the ranks of the advancing Yankee regiments. Gen. Lowrey reported:
The Thirty-third Alabama Regiment was soon brought up and formed on the left of the Thirty-second and Forty-fifth Mississippi, and the Forty-fifth Alabama on their left, while Brigadier-General Polk came up with two regiments and formed them on the right. The enemy, in the meantime, was pressing up the hill with great, determination, but the heavy fire from our advantageous position rendered their ascent impossible. But as they continued to move to the right, it was necessary for our line also to move to the right and to leave a bare line of skirmishers to hold the crest of the hill on the left. When Brigadier-General Polk was severely pressed, he sent to me in great haste for assistance, when I moved the Forty-fifth Alabama Regiment in double-quick to his support, and the general said as his ammunition was nearly exhausted they were just in time to save the position. When my ammunition was nearly exhausted and I had sent for more, my men and officers gave me assurance with great enthusiasm that they would hold the position at the point of the bayonet and with clubbed muskets if the enemy dared to charge them. The position was held until I was ordered to retire from it, which was done in good order.
It was a fight at close quarters. At one point, men fought with pistols and even resorted to hurling rocks. Gen. Cleburne credits the rocks thrown by the men as having actually knocked down attackers resulting in their capture. In his official report, Cleburne sums up Polk's and Lowrey's defense of the ridge in the Federals' second attempt to take it:
A peculiarity of Taylors Ridge is the wavy conformation of its north side. The enemy, moving up in a long line of battle, suddenly concentrated opposite one of the depressions in this wavy surface and rushed up it in heavy column. General Polk, with the assistance of General Lowrey, as quickly concentrated a double line opposite this point, at the same time placing the Second Tennessee in such a position as to command the flank of any force emerging from it. The attack was again defeated and the enemy hurled down the hill, with the loss of many killed on the spot, several prisoners, and the colors of the Seventy-sixth Ohio Regiment. The colors and most of the prisoners were captured by the First Arkansas.
Years after the war, Lowrey wrote about this critical phase of the struggle at Ringgold Gap:
The victory was ours and the enemy was gone down the hill in perfect confusion. A deafening shout of triumph went through our line, and General Polk, as if enwrapped in the glory of our success dashed up to me, and seizing me by the hand exclaimed, "Just in time to save us, General!" The men, observing the rapture of their brigade commanders, again pierced the heavens with their shouts of triumph, greatly to the annoyance, no doubt, of the discomfited columns of the enemy.
Lowrey went on call the defense at Ringgold Gap "the most glorious triumph I ever witnessed on a battle field." Due to his role on this date, perhaps he should be allowed a little poetic license. Certainly, the division deserved the same high praise for its triumph at Tunnel Hill only 2 days before, when the odds against it were nearly twice as high.

Author Peter Cozzens writes of Lowrey and Polk, "Seldom, in fact, was a unit commander in the Army of Tennessee better served by his subordinates than was Cleburne at Ringgold Gap." Cleburne reported, "To Brigadier-Generals Polk and Lowrey and Colonels Govan and Granbury, I must return my thanks. Four better officers are not in the service of the Confederacy." 

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker
During the 2 hours that Polk and Lowrey were defending the Confederate right on White Oak Mountain, Hooker sent in troops to renew the assault on the Rebel's weaker left on Taylor's Ridge. A little before 11:00, Federal regiments were sent through the fire of Goldthwaite's guns to the Chickamauga Creek towards Taylor's Ridge. They attacked Confederate skirmishers of Lowery's lone 16th Alabama Regiment but were halted. Supporting Confederate snipers and return fire from the attackers kept both forces in a stalemate while other enemy forces began to advance. The Federals charged the Confederate line, but with supporting fire from the artillery, the defenders drove back their attackers. By noon, Hooker had finally begun to bring up his artillery and started to shell the gap and the ridges on either side.

Thankfully for the Confederates, at noon Cleburne received word from Lt. Gen. Hardee that the Confederate supply wagons were now well beyond Ringgold, so he could withdraw his division from the gap. Cleburne made plans for a staged withdrawal. By 1:00 PM, the Rebels began withdrawing both cannon by hand under a rough screen constructed of brush. An hour later, Cleburne withdrew his skirmishers, burnt the bridges, and began forming a new line a mile in his rear. Col. Hardcastle reported that he left behind a small picket force of men from the 32nd/45th Regiment behind to watch the enemy. Other regiments did the same.

Gen. Grant arrived at Ringgold at 11:30 AM, in time to witness the Confederate triumph. He soon ordered Hooker to break off his attack and allow Cleburne's Division to withdraw. Professional army Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, victorious in his assault of Lookout Mountain only 3 days before, was entirely outgeneraled by his volunteer army counterpart, Gen. Patrick "Stonewall of the West" Cleburne at Ringgold Gap. Although Hooker will be severely criticized for his leadership at the Battle of Ringgold Gap, he will retain his position through the Atlanta Campaign.

With the Federals showing no further signs of attacking, Cleburne ordered his men to bivouac behind Ringgold Gap and to build fires to fool the enemy. That night, he ordered his division to march southward where it would take up outpost duty at the town of Tunnel Hill, just north of Dalton, Georgia. The final stage of the fall campaign is now at an end.

In the Battle of Ringgold Gap, Cleburne's Division successfully held its position through 5 hours of heavy fighting before falling back towards the main Confederate army it had valiantly guarded. Against serious odds, Cleburne's defense of Ringgold Gap was a complete success. Outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, he lost only 20 killed and 201 wounded.3 His attackers suffered more than twice that with 509 killed and wounded.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne's Statue, Ringgold, Georgia
Unveiled October 9, 2009

On February 9, 1864, the Confederate Congress at Richmond passed a Joint Resolution of Thanks to Cleburne and his men for their "distinguished service" performed at the Battle of Ringgold Gap:
Resolved, That the thanks of Congress are due, and are hereby tendered, to Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, and the officers and men under his command, for the victory obtained by them over superior forces of the enemy at Ringgold Gap, in the State of Georgia, on the 27th day of November, 1863, by which the advance of the enemy was impeded, our wagon train and most of our artillery saved, and a large number of the enemy killed and wounded.
1 From Capt. F.S. Norman's report of Co. D: "... was engaged in the Battle of Ringgold Nov. 27th had 3 men wounded 1 mortaly [sic], 1 severly [sic], 1 slightly, have since gone into winter quarters."
2 Another ancestor of mine, Great Great Grandfather David Crockett Neal, fought in the 6th Tennessee Cavalry in Wharton's Division at Ringgold Gap.
3  Lowrey reported the brigade's losses: "My loss was slight, but 4 killed and 35 wounded."

Sources: Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue;   The Shipwreck of Their Hopes, Peter Cozzens; Mountains Touched With Fire, Wiley Sword; Mark P. 


To view my blog about my great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, and the
32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in which he served in the Army of Tennessee,

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Battle of Missionary Ridge at 150

On today's date in 1863, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was defeated in the Battle of Missionary Ridge, the penultimate battle in the Chattanooga Campaign. My Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes* was a participant, who fought in Patrick Cleburne's Division on the north end of the ridge. His division was only one to experience any success against the onslaught of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Federal army attacking the Confederate position from the valley below.

By the night of the November 24th, Gen. Grant erroneously believed that Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had gained Tunnel Hill at the north end of Missionary Ridge in the battle earlier that day.1 Based on this supposition, at midnight he issued an order for Sherman to attack the Confederates in his front on the morning of today's date in 1863. Sherman's objective was to turn Bragg's flank, which meant seizing the position from South Chickamauga Creek to Tunnel Hill. At the same time he issued orders to Maj. Gen. George Thomas to simultaneously attack the Confederates' center on Missionary Ridge. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker would join the attack from his newly won position at Lookout Mountain, move to the south end of the ridge near Rossville, and then advance northward on Missionary Ridge.

Source: Cartography Services by Hal Jesperson

The appearance of Hooker's column was the intended signal for the advance of Thomas's troops, who were then to attack the enemy's center on Missionary Ridge. But that morning the Federals discovered that the Confederates, although they had evacuated Lookout Mountain, had concentrated their entire army on Missionary Ridge. Instead of retreating, they were prepared to make a stubborn defense. They had successfully resisted all Sherman's assaults the day before, had fortified the north end of the ridge, and had reinforced the troops at the center.

Hooker started from Lookout Mountain about 10 AM, but was detained several hours at Chattanooga Creek thanks to the Confederates having burnt the bridge in their retreat from Lookout Mountain. He was held there until about 2 PM. Consequently, Hooker's force was seriously behind schedule and did not reach the point where he was expected.

By noon on the north end of Missionary Ridge, where Great Grandfather Nathan R. Oakes was fighting in Mark P. Lowrey's Brigade of Patrick Cleburne's Division, the Confederates had repulsed every assault by Sherman's troops. Sherman now had 6 divisions under his command—nearly a third of the army's strength at Chattanooga. Before noon, Sherman was sent another division, Baird's, for good measure. In total, Sherman had nearly 30,000 troops concentrated on his front. Confronting Sherman were just 6 brigades of abut 4,000 troops: Smith's, Govan's, and Lowrey's of Cleburne's Division; Brown's and Cummings's of Stevenson's Division; and Maney's of Walker's Division.

By now, Bragg's entire Confederate Army of Tennessee was behind a defensive position along Missionary Ridge. Fifteen batteries, comprising about 50 guns were placed on its summit. There were also 2 siege-guns near Bragg's headquarters. The Confederate force on top of Missionary Ridge was about 1 mile from the Federal lines. The slope of the ridge, which was steep and rough, was about 600 yards in width, its average height about 400 feet. The Confederates had dug a line of rifle pits at the base of the ridge and a line of breastworks on the crest. The soldiers also had constructed breastworks at various intervals on the slope of the ridge.

During the morning, the Confederate movements seemed to indicate to the Federals that they were massing against Sherman on the north end of the ridge. Grant wrongly assumed that, in order to do this, they necessarily were weakening their center. Actually, the Confederate troops seen were those who had been withdrawn from Lookout Mountain and its adjoining valley following yesterday's loss. Grant believed that Sherman's situation on the north end of Missionary Ridge was turning critical so that an attack was required soon in order to relieve him.

Without having heard from Hooker's columns, and fearful for Sherman's situation, Grant made an spontaneous decision: He ordered Thomas to move his 4 divisions forward to take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, a near suicidal mission. That being accomplished, his men were to reform their lines, then scale the cliffs and take the top of the ridge. By 4 PM, the Federal charge had begun. and 23,000 Yankees in a 2-mile battle line rushed forward and drove the Confederates from their works at the foot of the ridge.

While the order had been to wait to reform at the base of the ridge, the attackers came under fire from Confederate fire above. Their situation was untenable. They had to either advance or retreat, or be killed by the fire from above. Without waiting for further orders, the advancing troops made their decision and at once began climbing the cliffs.

Until that moment, most of the Confederates atop Missionary Ridge could not have imagined that enemy soldiers would attempt the climb, especially under incredible cannon and rifle fire. But amazingly, that's just what Thomas's men did. The Confederates were simply shocked and overwhelmed. Batteries couldn't depress their guns enough to fire in the invaders. Bragg had no reserves to send forward to fortify the positions being overrun. Hundreds of Confederates simply surrendered while thousands fled. In less than an hour and a half from the time the advance began, the Federals were in control of most of the ridge position that the Confederates had held for the past 2 months. Neither Grant nor Thomas could have imagined that Thomas's attackwhat was designed to be secondary to Sherman'swould actually be the decisive one today. It was, in fact, the turning point of the battle.

On the south end of the ridge, Hooker had finally advanced his men from Lookout Mountain, and units began reaching Rossville Gap at the south end of Missionary Ridge. Around 4 PM, they began their attack. With little resistance from the corps of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge2 his troops moved northward along the top and both sides of the ridge until they met up with Thomas's men. By the evening of the 25th, the Hooker's and Thomas's forces held the middle and south ends of Missionary Ridge, and the Confederates were in retreat. Except for the north portion of the ridge, where Cleburne's and Cheatham's Divisions of Hardee's right wing still held on, Missionary Ridge was entirely under Federal control.

The only Confederate success of the day was with Patrick Cleburne's men fighting at Tunnel Hill, and they were beating the strongest of the 3 armies—Sherman's—attacking Missionary Ridge. If it hadn't been for Cleburne's valiant men holding back Sherman's massive force on the north end of the ridge on today's date, it would have been an overwhelming disaster for Bragg and his army. As it was, it almost didn't happen.

Just 2 days before, Cleburne had been ordered to vacate his position on Missionary Ridge to join Gen. James Longstreet in his Knoxville Campaign. While supervising the transfer of troops at the Chickamauga Station on the 23rd, Cleburne was ordered to return to Missionary Ridge immediately: Thomas had begun his attack on Orchard Knob, and Sherman was not far behind. As the Federals were winning Lookout Mountain on the 24th, Cleburne was positioned at Tunnel Hill (a point on Missionary Ridge about 250 yards north of the actual railroad tunnel) with orders to stop Sherman and ensure a secure line of retreat if that became necessary. After briefly skirmishing with the enemy on a forward, detached ridge, Cleburne's men dug in around Tunnel Hill for the night.

The Battle of Missionary Ridge opened for Cleburne's men at Tunnel Hill at 10:30 AM with a Federal artillery barrage against Brig. James A. Smith's Texas Brigade as Sherman's renewed his attack on the north end of the ridge. Historian Wiley Sword writes:
... Cleburne's duel with Sherman loomed as a classic contest of generals, arguable the best against the best. The crucial question was that of applied combat leadership. The fight on the north end of Missionary Ridge thus was a momentous collision with immense stakes. For Cleburne, it was the test of a lifetime. For Sherman, it was the best chance of his career. No wonder that it would become one of the Civil's War's most remarkable encounters.
Cleburne's after battle report of the Battle of Tunnel Hill is captivating and compelling narrative, well worth repeating here:
Up to 10.30 a.m. the enemy contended himself with severe skirmishing, and a heavy artillery fire from batteries erected by him during the night on the detached hill. About this hour he drove in Smith's skirmishers, and possessed himself of the breastworks which Smith had abandoned that morning. A heavy attack on the tunnel and on Smith's line was now imminent. General Hardee sent me directions to take my position at the tunnel, and to take charge of everything in that quarter and to the right of it. The enemy was now in sight, advancing in two long lines of battle, his right stretching far beyond my left, his left stretching beyond Smith's right, where farther view of it was prevented by the woods that covered and bordered the detached hill....
At 11 A.M. the first serious fight of the day commenced. It was heavy along Smith's whole line, and extended some distance south of the tunnel. The right of the enemy's line, exposed to the fire of several pieces of artillery planted over the tunnel, and met by a brigade sent by General Hardee to the foot of the ridge, swayed backward and forward for some time, but did not dare to advance nearer than 400 yards, and finally lay down, contenting itself with sending forward a large body of skirmishers and sending to the rear a much larger number of stragglers. The enemy's left, however, under shelter of Smith's abandoned work of the night before, and protected by the woods on that flank, and by the precipitous, heavily wooded sides of Tunnel Hill, advanced rapidly on Smith's line, and finally made a heavy charge on Swett's battery on the apex of the hill. The artillerymen stood bravely to their guns under a terrible cross-fire, and replied with canister at short range, but still the enemy advanced. When he had reached within 50 steps of the battery, Brigadier-General Smith charged him with the right of Mill's regiment and the left of the Seventh Texas, Smith's north front pouring into him from the breastworks a close volley at the same time. The enemy was routed and driven back to his cover behind the hill-side and abandoned work.
Brig. Gen. Smith and Colonel Mills were both severely wounded as they led their men in this charge. Brigade command now fell to  Col. H.B. Granbury. A half-hour later, the Federals charged again. Granbury's men held with help from the artillery (and some long-range musket fire from Lowery's men posted on an adjoining hill to the north), but they received heavy casualties. In fact, reported Cleburne, in just a few minutes so many artillery commanders were killed or wounded in succession that Grandbury was forced to draft infantry to work the guns. However, in spite of the losses, the Federal attackers were again driven back. But Cleburne's men were not finished yet.

By noon, Sherman's first attack was over. Nearly 6 hours had passed since Sherman was to have launched an attack to take Tunnel Hill. However, all he had accomplished was to invite serious damage to 2 of his attacking brigades. In the brief lull before the next attack, Cleburne rushed to make several important changes, seemingly anticipating Sherman's next move. Some additional help was sent by Hardee in the form of artillery fire and a couple of supporting regiments. Cleburne's report continues:
About 1 P.M. it was evident that another grand attack was soon to be made on my division. In a few minutes after it commenced. The enemy again lined Smith's abandoned works, and from them kept up a close, incessant fire on Smith's north front, and particularly on the artillery on top of the hill. Simultaneously a charge was made on the west face of Tunnel Hill. Warfield's regiment was thrown forward outside of the work to the crest of the hill, looking into the Tennessee Valley, to meet this charge. Key['s battery] fired rapidly into the charging line as it crossed the open ground at the west foot of the of ridge, but it was soon under shelter. At the steep the enemy's line now seemed to form into a heavy column on the march, and rushed up the hill in the direction of the batteries. Warfield's fire stopped the head of the charging column just under the crest. Here the enemy lay down behind trees, logs, and projecting rocks, their first line not 25 yards from the guns, and opened fire. Tier after tier of the enemy, to the foot of the hill and in the valley beyond, supplied this fire and concentrated the whole on a space of not more than 40 yards, till it seemed like one continuous sheet of hissing, flying lead. This terrific fire prevented Warfield's men from moving sufficiently forward to fire with effect down the hill, but otherwise it only swept over our heads. The cross-fire from Smith's abandoned work was, however, more fatal. It took Warfield in flank and was constantly disabling men near the top of the hill.
It was about 1:30, and the fierce attack had now lasted more than a half-hour, with serious damage done to the advancing Federals. Key's Battery was forced to depress its guns to the extreme, firing shell and canister down the sharp incline as the enemy returned fire. Discovering the near impossibility of reaching the enemy by direct fire, and running low on ammunition, some of Cleburne's men found hurling large rocks and rolling great boulders down the steep slope to be more effective than rifle fire.

Cleburne continues:
The fight had lasted unceasingly for an hour and a half, and the enemy seemed to be constantly re-enforcing. The First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee, of Maney's brigade, Colonel [Field] commanding, was moved in front of the work, and placed on Warfield's right, the latter officer and his gallant regiment, still nobly holding their exposed position, although the regiment was diminished in numbers and almost out of ammunition. It was at this critical period of the day that Lieutenant-Colonel Warfield suggested to me that our men were wasting ammunition and becoming disheartened at the persistency of the enemy, and proposed a charge down upon them with the bayonet. Brigadier-General Cumming gallantly proposed to lead the charge with two of his regiments. I immediately consented, and directed General Cumming to prepare for the charge and went to the left to see that a simultaneous charge was made on the enemy's right flank. I now ordered the left of Mills' (Texas) regiment, being the extreme left of my division, to make the charge on the enemy's flank the moment that Cumming charged them in front, and I remained at the breastwork myself to see the execution of the order.
In the meantime General Cumming, having placed the Fifty-sixth Georgia 10 paces in rear, moved forward to the charge; twice he was checked and had to reform. Warfield's (Arkansas) regiment with empty guns, and the gallant First and Twenty-seventh Tennessee prepared to share his next effort. At the command the whole rushed forward with a cheer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders, simultaneously leading the left of Mills' (Texas) regiment on the enemy's flank. The enemy, completely surprised, fled down the foot, the Texas troops on the left pursuing him beyond the foot and nearly across the open ground in front. Our charging columns returned with many prisoners and stand of colors; a fresh force of the enemy, attempting to follow us as we returned from this charge, was quickly met and routed by the Fiftieth Tennessee and with troops of my division. Immediately on his last repulse the enemy opened a rapid and revengeful artillery fire on Tunnel Hill from his batteries on the detached hill, and under cover of this fire he went to work felling trees and fortifying his position.
The Rebel charge began at 4:00 PM, and, along with hand-to-hand fighting, it sent the Federals running. In less than an hour, another charge was organized to drive the remaining forces from the base of Tunnel Hill. Overall, it was magnificent fighting, that resulted in halting Sherman's attempts to capture Tunnel Hill.3 For 7 hours, and against odds 7 to 1, Cleburne's men had held Tunnel Hill against determined forces.

But the Confederate success had come at great cost in terms of the brave lives lost. Cleburne's work was not in vain, although he was about to receive disheartening news from further down the line: The south and center lines had collapsed and the Confederates there had been routed. By 6:00 PM, only Hardee's and Cleburne's troops stood in the path of a complete Federal sweep of Missionary Ridge.

The consequence for Cleburne's exhausted men will mean even more sacrifice if the army is to be saved. As Cleburne reported:
Soon after the final defeat of the enemy in front of Smith's position I received a dispatch from General Hardee to send to the center all the troops I could spare, as the enemy were pressing us in that quarter. I immediately ordered Generals Cumming and Maney, with their respective brigades, to report accordingly, and went myself to push them forward. Before I had gone far, however, a dispatch from General Hardee reached me, with the appalling news that the enemy had pierced our center, and were on Missionary Ridge, directing me to take command of my own, Walker's and Stevenson's divisions and form a line across the ridge, so as to meet an attack upon my flank, and take all other necessary measures for the safety of the right wing.
In the general retreat of Bragg's army that day, Cleburne’s Division, the only organized Confederate force left, served as rear guard. Cleburne will do everything in his power to save the army. He immediately ordered Brig. Gen. States Rights Gist, commanding Walker’s division, to form his troops across the ridge. Next, he ordered all vehicles that could be spared to cross the Chickamauga Creek. He sent Lucius Polk orders to send a force to the Shallow Ford Bridge and hold it at all cost. He also sent Govan’s brigade to meet the enemy’s advance on the Shallow Ford Road.

From Cleburne's report:
Soon after night was upon us, and General Hardee ordered an immediate retreat across the Chickamauga, and that Smith’s (Texas) brigade should remain in position and bring up the rear, General Lowrey attacked and drove back the enemy’s skirmishers in his front and then retreated. By 9 P.M. everything was across except the dead and a few stragglers lingering here and there under the shadow of the trees for the purpose of being captured, faint-hearted patriots succumbing to the hardships of the war and the imagined hopelessness of the hour. I now ordered Smith’s brigade to move in retreat. Sadly, but not fearfully, this band of heroes left the hill they had held so well and followed the army across the Chickamauga.
Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey, whose brigade was the least battered from the all-day fight, was ordered to launch a counterattack to drive back the Yankee skirmishers from in front of the ridge and mask the division's withdrawal from Missionary Ridge. Then, under cover of this attack, the rest of his command fell back to the bridge behind the division. The 32nd Regiment was one of the last to fall back, and Co. D, my Great Grandfather's, took up the rear to defend it while the regiment withdrew.4 

By about 10 PM, nearly 12 hours after the first Federal assault that morning, Cleburne’s Division arrived on the northern bank of the East Chickamauga Creek. After burning the Shallow Ford Bridge to slow up Sherman's pursuit. the division joined the tattered army assembling at Chickamauga Railroad Station.

While the Battle of Missionary Ridge had been a disaster for the Confederate army, Cleburne’s actions and the bravery of his men that night surely saved Bragg’s Army of Tennessee from destruction. Trailing the army's retreat, Cleburne's men's bravery and sacrifice will again be called upon at Ringgold Gap on the 27th.

Gathering his beaten army at the Chickamauga Station the night of the 25th, a despondent Bragg wired Richmond a terse report summarizing the disaster:
After several unsuccessful assaults on our lines to-day, the enemy carried the left center about 4 o'clock. The whole ground gave way in considerable disorder. The right [i.e., Cleburne's Division] maintained its ground, repelling every attack. I am withdrawing all to this point.
1 Sherman had taken what he thought was the north end of Missionary Ridge, but actually he had taken a completely separate rise known as Billy Goat Hill. Across a deep ravine was Cleburne's Division, fortified at Tunnel Hill, the northernmost portion of the actual ridge. Sherman took no further offensive action that day, and, instead, ordered his men to dig in on Billy Goat Hill.
2 Bragg blamed Breckinridge for the disaster that resulted from the collapse of his corps. At Dalton, Bragg immediately relieved Breckinridge of command and even accused him of being drunk at the time.
In his memoirs years later, Sherman still had not come to grips with his loss at Tunnel Hill. Instead of acknowledging his assigned role as the main attack on Missionary Ridge that day, he portrayed his part as diversionary to Thomas's assault on the center: "The object of General Hooker's and my attacks on the extreme flanks of Bragg's position was, to disturb him to such an extent, that he would naturally detach from his centre as against us, so that Thomas's army could break through his centre. The whole plan succeeded admirably; but it was not until after dark that I learned the complete success at the centre, and received General Grant's orders to pursue on the north side of Chickamauga Creek… "Sherman's close friend and commander, U.S. Grant, covered for his subordinate by recasting the attack as secondary to Thomas's main attack in the center of Missionary Ridge.
4 Capt. F.S. Norman of Co. D wrote in his report: "... built rudeworks of logs under fire of the enemy during the morning of the 25th, was by these works during the day was thrown out as skirmisher at night to hold the enemy in check, while the regiment marched off..."

Sources: Civil War times, 1861-1865, Daniel Wait Howe; Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; ChattanoogaA Death Grip on the Confederacy, James Lee McDonough: The Shipwreck of Their Hopes; Peter Cozzens; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Mountains Touched With Fire, Wile Sword; Muster Roll of the 32nd Mississippi Infantry, Tommy Lockhart; Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman; Official Records, Vol. 31, Pt. 2


* To view my blog about my great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, and the
32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in which he served in the Army of Tennessee,

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 years since C.S. Lewis

Photo by James Daigh of JFK on El Cajon Blvd in San Diego
Source: Tom Shess/Pillar to Post
I had just turned 11 years of age the week before President John F. Kennedy was shot. It was a devastating day for any of us old enough to remember it. Perhaps it was more vivid for me since I had just that June lined up with 250,000 other San Diegans to catch a glimpse of him riding in his motorcade to deliver the commencement speech at San Diego State College. My parents thought it an important enough of an event to take me out of school for the day. Who could have dreamed that JFK would be assassinated in Dallas only 5 months later.

Kennedy's death, though 50 years have past, is still a vivid memory. But another great man, C.S. Lewis, died just an hour earlier on the same day. His life has come to have an even greater influence on me. So on this 50th anniversary of Lewis's death, I would like to recall the "greatest lay champion of basic Christianity in the twentieth century."*

I first encountered Lewis several years after his death. Like other devoted followers, his life and work only became important to me long after he left this life. I was first introduced to him, not through his popular fictional works like the Chronicles of Narnia books or his Planetary novels, all of which I now have read many times, but through his non-fiction essays and sermons, many of which are now published in God in the Dock and other volumes. Since the early 70s, I have read most of the books this great man published in his lifetime, as well as many others by and about him and his literary work since then.

I believe in Christianity as I believe
that the sun has risen: not only
because I see it, but because by
it I see everything else.  C.S. Lewis
Born on November 29, 1898, as Clive Staples Lewis, his early years were spent in County Down of Northern Ireland, the younger of 2 boys. Lewis remembered his mother as the one who nurtured him with “cheerful and tranquil affection” and encouraged his early intellectual life. Because of the wet climate, Lewis spent much of his time indoors with his brother, Warren, drawing, writing, and yearning for the distant green hills on the horizon. When he was 4, young Lewis decided that he should be called “Jacksie”, which was later shortened to “Jack,” the name by which he was known to his friends for the rest of his life. His childhood was filled with the presence of books, and before he could even write, he was dictating stories. 

By the age of 10, the Lewis boys lost their mother to cancer. In the pattern in which he had been schooled, Lewis’s father sent the boys off to a boarding school in England. It was a dreadful experience, and later Warren described it as one of being given as “helpless children into the hands of a madman.” 

Jack Lewis never had the relationship with his father that he had enjoyed with his mother. They were never able to communicate. A well-intentioned parent, the senior Lewis was also emotionally stormy and morose, an illogical but larger-than-life Irish lawyer. Since he was never able to understand his boys, he never knew what their first boarding school was really like. 

Later, in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis observed that life in this boarding school was early training for the Christian life: It taught him to live by hope or faith. During these years, Jack approached his religion seriously, agonizing for hours in prayer before he would allow himself to crawl exhausted into bed. This distorted view of Christianity was an endless torture that he was only too happy to abandon. At 13, he entered an English preparatory school where he stayed until he was 15. It was during this phase that he confessed to taking up smoking, cultivating an interest in the occult, falling into atheism, and becoming unchaste. Later, Lewis summed up this part of his life as that when he lost his faith, his virtue and his simplicity. Later in life he was freed from immoral behavior, his atheism, and his preoccupation with the occult. However, he never did deny his taste for tobacco. 

In spite of the bad habits he acquired, Jack Lewis did benefit greatly from his preparatory schooling: His introduction to serious education started an imaginative inner intellectual and “spiritual” life. At 15, in spite of a high fever on the day of his final examination, he won a scholarship to Malvern College. The school environment did not suit Lewis, and by all standards was a profane and unpleasant atmosphere for him. Nevertheless, he did make the best of it and took refuge in intellectual pursuits. He developed a stuffy and superior attitude as a defense against the pervasive homosexuality and the ruling upper classmen athletes who hazed the younger students. His retreat was his studies. His favorite literary pursuits were the poetry and romance of Norse mythology. Later, he wondered whether his adoration of the false gods of the north in whom he did not believe was actually God’s way of developing in him the desire and capacity for true worship. He was captivated by myths, and later it was his appreciation of myth that led to his conversion from atheism to a belief in the true God. 

Lewis was 16 when the First World War began. He left Malvern College to live in Surrey to study with an elderly Scottish tutor. So glad was he to leave Malvern for a better life that he later wrote that it felt like “waking one morning to find that income tax or unrequited loved had somehow vanished from the world.” His father’s old teacher became Lewis's tutor and mentor. The tutor was a confirmed atheist, but he did instill within Lewis a mind for precision and logic. His dialectical approach was like mental combat to Jack, and it was an intellectual environment in which the young man's mind thrived. Indeed, arguing became for Lewis what athletic competition had been for the jocks at Malvern. 

During this period, Lewis read abundantly. He also began to buy books—lots of books. One of the most important was a Christian fantasy by George MacDonald. MacDonald turned out to be the most important single influence in Lewis’s life—more than all his favorite writers and teachers. It's ironic that it was during these years of formative atheism that Lewis was confirmed in the church in Belfast and took his first communion—in total disbelief. Sadly, he lied his way into the church only to satisfy his father’s wishes.

Lewis was next accepted into the University College at Oxford. However, by now England was deep into the Great War, and by his 19th birthday he found himself in the front line trenches in France. Suffering the horrors of trench warfare, like so many others, he eventually became a causality. He returned to England to recover from his wounds, and then reentered Oxford. Back at Oxford, Lewis enjoyed the company of admirable friends, and eventually followed 2 of them out of serious atheism. He was a long way from being a Christian, but he had decided that the universe was not entirely meaningless. While he did not yet believe in God, he was moving away from a materialistic view of the universe toward absolute idealism. 

I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences,
attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the
noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.  C. S. Lewis 

Lewis began teaching at the university. While teaching philosophy, he was forced to be more specific about his idea of the Absolute. He soon became convinced that he was shutting something out. His alternative was to either open up or keep himself closed to God. He freely chose to expose himself whatever the consequences. From that point on, he was challenged by everyone around him to live his philosophy instead of playing at it intellectually. It was a crisis period for him as he was confronted by his own badness. Concerning this period of his life, Lewis wrote, “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” God was closing in on him.

Indeed, that was how Lewis pictured the process of his conversion—God’s “unrelenting approach… That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me… I admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night [in the spring term of 1929], the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” At this point, Lewis did not yet believe in the Son of God, the atoning sacrifice for sin. Nevertheless, he became a churchgoer. History and his own reason had led him to choose Christianity among the religions, but he put off acceptance of a Savior because he knew that the incarnation would bring God near in a new way, and he wasn’t sure he wanted God that close. However, in intellectual honesty, Lewis knew that his reluctance to accept Jesus as the Christ was not grounds for evading the truth.

Two Christian friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, influenced him in the final stage of his conversion. But there was one final step he had to take for himself. It happened one sunny morning in 1931, while he was riding in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle. “When we set out," Lewis recalled, "I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Lewis could not have known at the time, but his life on earth was just half over when the Cat finally caught the mouse.

The second half of Lewis’s lifethe Christian halfbegan at the age of 32. It was to proceed successfully and happily monotonously for another 23 years, until it closed on a special 9-year chapter of love and loss.

Until this time, and for another 20 years, Lewis had lived with and cared for a woman he came to call his “foster-mother.” Not long after, his brother Warren, who had by now enjoyed a distinguished military career, also came to live with him permanently. Lewis and Warren were the best of friends, a sentiment shared by both men since their childhood. Their 2 great pleasures were their long walks together in the country and their intellectual conversation all evening with a small group of friends, later to be known as the “Inklings.” 

When he was 35, only 3 years after his conversion, Lewis published the classic, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Thirty-four other books would follow over his remaining life. Pilgrim’s Regress was an allegorized account of his own spiritual journey leading to his conversion. It's not the easiest reading for many, myself included. Of it Lewis wrote, “It was my first religious book and I didn’t then know how to make things easy… [I] hoped for no readers outside a small ‘highbrow’ circle.” While the book didn’t have the impact he might have hoped, it is still being sold and read and quoted throughout the world today, 80 years after its release. 

A note about Lewis and the audiences for which he wrote: He always tried to identify the audience he addressed. Especially when discussing topics of spiritual importance, he wanted to be precise and clear. For many today who read him, at least at first, Lewis may seem difficult to understand. While he aimed to be clear to his audience, not all of his writings and published lectures are as accessible as others. Even some of the critics of his day didn't appreciate that Lewis tried to give consideration to his audiences. In one of his replies to a critic (“Rejoinder to Dr Pettenger”) Lewis expresses this concern: “My task was… that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine… into the language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand… if real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about 100 years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.” (God in the Dock). In another place he wrote, "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." He was a writer and a teacher who sincerely tried to connect with his listeners and edify his students. So, don’t give up on Lewis. He is still reaching out to you! 

It is funny how mortals always pic-
ture us as putting things into their
minds: in reality our best work
is done by keeping things out.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Lewis continued to write over the second half of his life. The Allegory of Love was his big breakthrough in 1936. It was a literary study of medieval literature and assured Lewis a respected place in the literary scholarship world. However, it is his “religious” writings that are best remembered by most of us. Another highlight in his career as an author was The Screwtape Letters in 1942. Interestingly, he did not consider it to be one of his best books (neither, by the way, did his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, the one to whom he dedicated it!). Lewis preferred The Great Divorce (1947), one of my favorites, but it was Screwtape that won him fame among the general public and even earned him a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. Three years later, he published the first of his Narnia series. These came after his famed planetary trilogy (1938-45), which I reread every couple of years. Lewis enjoyed his writing and lecturing immensely. No doubt, if he had had more time, he would have written much more.

By now, Lewis was earning a substantial income. Only later, did we learn that he gave away at least two-thirds of his royalty income. He would have given away even more if his dear friend, lawyer, and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, had not begun to handle his finances. Lewis chose to live modestly in a pleasant country home, the Kilns, furnished his home simply, and tended to dress shabbily. One of his friends called him “surely one of the most cheerful givers, according to his means, who ever lived.”

His life conformed to the sacrificial unselfishness he believed in as a Christian. One form that his unselfishness took was his willingness to reply to strangers who wrote to him. As his fame grew, so did the many letters he received from admirers as well as detractors. Lewis never failed to answer personally. His hand grew arthritic as his time on earth grew shorter, but he answered everyone who contacted him personally. Thankfully, these letters to children, the spiritually distressed, the seekers, and others have been collected into 3 large, handsome volumes and published for the general public. They give amazing and personal insight into this noble man.

Circumstances began to change in Lewis's final nine years. In 1954, he left his post at Oxford after 30 years, for a much better position at Magdalene College in Cambridge. Though his years on the faculty at Oxford had been distinguished, and he had received wide acclamation from thousands outside the college community, Lewis was never fully accepted by the college. Many there felt that his practical Christianity precluded him from reaching higher status as an academic there. By contrast, he was received with honor at Cambridge where he was made a professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, a special position created for him there. 

Affliction is often that thing which pre-
pares an ordinary person for some sort
of extraordinary destiny.  C.S. Lewis

By 1954, Lewis had become friends with an American author, Joy Davidman. At the time, she was married to author, William Lindsay Gresham, whom she had met in the Communist party. The Greshams became Christians through the influence of Lewis’s books. Sadly, however, their marriage was damaged beyond repair by Gresham’s alcoholism and philandering, and in 1953, Joy moved to England with her two sons. Following her divorce, Lewis and Joy were married in a civil ceremony to enable her to remain in England. They remained neighbors but did not live together as husband and wife. But that changed when Joy was diagnosed with cancer in 1957. While she lay dying, an Anglican minister married the two of them in a Christian ceremony at her bedside. Miraculously and in an answer to prayer, she unexpectedly recovered. Three more extremely happy years were to follow until her death in 1960. 

During these same years, Lewis’s own health was deteriorating. He gave little attention to his own ailments, which began as an enlarged prostate, resulting in bad kidneys, followed by heart damage. His kidney problems apparently caused his osteoporosis, which became both painful and crippling. His condition spelled the end of the country walks that were so much a part of his life. After Joy’s death, Lewis continued with his work, busy as ever, but his wife was gone and his health was deteriorating. In 1961, he published A Grief Observed, a painful but hopeful analysis of his profound loss. 

In 1962, Lewis set to work on his final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. On a summer day of 1963, uremia caused Lewis to slip into a coma. He was not expected to recover, but by the afternoon he was alert and ordered his afternoon tea, something he considered essential and never to be missed. In one of his letters later that year, he commented that “[death] is rather fun after all—solemn fun—isn’t it?” He knew the end was near, so he sent a formal resignation to Cambridge. 

On today's date in 1963, he was sick at home in the Kilns. He had his late afternoon tea, and then he died shortly thereafter. His passing may have been better remembered if he hadn’t preceded President Kennedy in death by only an hour. C.S. Lewis was quietly buried under a yew tree in a little churchyard where he was a member in Headington. So grief-stricken was his brother and friend, that he couldn’t bring himself to attend the funeral. Warren's loss was summed up in the Shakespeare quote he had inscribed on the stone, “Men must endure their going hence.” Ten years later, Warren was buried there, too. 

Death has not stopped the influence that C.S. Lewis still has on me and countless others. By far, more thousands of people have come under the Christian teaching of Lewis than he ever experienced in life. Many of us owe deepest appreciation to him for the insights into the faith and the encouragement to live our lives in self-conscious obedience to the Almighty God behind the universe we know. Perhaps these are best summarized in his book, Mere Christianity, originally delivered as radio talks to his countrymen during the Second World War.

Meanwhile the cross comes
before the crown and tomor-
row is a Monday morning.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Over the years since I first encountered Lewis, I have grown to love the things that my teacher also loved. Indeed, that's been one of the best blessings of our friendship. Lewis saw himself as a “mere Christian,” someone who owed everything to the sovereign God of the universe who caused all things to work together for the good of his children. Through his Christian life, Lewis chose to focus his work and teaching on the practical and essential elements of the faith. These he saw as “Mere Christianity,” a theme he discovered in the Puritan, Richard Baxter. It was the name that Lewis preferred to describe the common ground that all orthodox Christian share—the essential Christian message, and the title of an enduring book.

So today, on the 50th anniversary of the death of this great man, I'm taking some time to revisit some of his writings, to thoughtfully reflect on the life of a great Christian saint, and to thank God for the powerful effect C.S. Lewis's writing still has on me.

* This quote is from Katherine Lindskoog, and much of the biographical information is from her, too.