Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Battle of Pickett's Mill at 150

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
For more than 2 weeks in May 1864, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston executed a series of withdrawals of his Army of Tennessee from Dalton to Allatoona in North Georgia while Union Gen. William T. Sherman's army was in pursuit. When Johnston withdrew his army from Cassville on May 19, he fell back first to Allatoona Pass and then to the Dallas area where he entrenched his troops. His army would soon be engaged in a series of battles known collectively as the Battle of Dallas or the Battles of New Hope Church (so named for a small Methodist church there), fought between May 26 and June 4, 1864.

Gen. Patrick Cleburne's Division—in which was serving Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes in Mark Lowrey's Brigade—had earlier taken up position about 3 miles south of the Etowah River, and 2 miles east of Allatoona. On May 23rd, Cleburne's Division, with the rest of Gen. William Hardee's Corps, set out on a series of marches in search of the Federal right flank, which had begun to move across the river. Moving from its position on the Pumpkin Vine Creek, the division marched 6 miles to the Dallas-Marietta road. The next day the corps moved again by way of New Hope Church to Powder Springs. Then on the 25th, it made a return march of the day before.

By the 23rd, Johnston knew of Sherman's new position. Believing that his opponent may be attempting to cross the Chattahoochee on the Confederate flank, on the 24th Johnston began shifting his army to a new line stretching 7 miles from Dallas to New Hope Church. Hardee's Corps (sans Cleburne's Division) would occupy the left at Dallas, Gen. John B. Hood's Corps would form the center, and Cleburne's Division would extend Hood's line on the right.

In the evening of the 25th, Cleburne moved his division to the right of the line near New Hope Church, where elements of Hood's Corps had that morning engaged the enemy in sharp skirmishing. Cleburne' Division was now detached from Hardee's Corps and reporting directly to Hood who was in command of the army's right wing. Late that afternoon, the Confederates in the center of Hood's line, Gen. A.P. Stewart's men, repulsed another attack during a severe thunderstorm. Hood's line continued to hold.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010

Overnight, as Hood's men dug entrenchments in the soggy clay, Sherman began pushing a force northeast toward the tiny community of Pickett's Mill, about 2.5 miles away, in hopes of turning the Confederate's right flank and seizing the railroad at Acworth, several miles in the Confederates' rear. However, the Confederates were ready for the attack. Before daylight on the 26th, Cleburne roused his men for a march on the Dallas-Atlanta road to the mill, which they reached a couple of hours later. His men now form the extended right of the Confederate line. In preparation for an anticipated battle, he directed his men to clear paths behind his line and to his front in order to connect his brigades for rapid movement when needed. He also ordered rifle pits to be dug along the line. His foresight would prove essential to the outcome of the battle.

On today's date in 1864, Cleburne's men made their famous stand at Pickett's Mill on the Little Pumkpinvine Creek. It was named for the grist mill and farmland owned by a war widow whose Confederate husband, Malachi, had been killed in the Battle of Chickamauga the year before. The area of Cleburne's defense formed a narrow front in a heavily wooded and tangled forest. The Battle of Pickett's Mill resulted in saving the right wing of the Confederate army and keeping the Sherman from cutting off Johnston's line of communication to Atlanta.

Cleburne's report of the battle provides a clear and compelling narrative. He sets up the situation this way:
Maj. Gen. Partick R. Cleburne
About 2 or 3 o'clock of the afternoon of the 26th I arrived with my division on the extreme right of the then line of the army, when I was sent to support Major-General [Thomas C.] Hindman. At that point our lines, the general bearing of which was north and south, retired for a few yards to the east. In continuation of this retiring line I placed [Brig. Gen. Lucius] Polk's brigade (of my division) in and diagonally across it, upon a ridge in echelon by battalion to avoid an artillery enfilade from a neighboring position held by the enemy. Resting on Polk's right as placed [Maj. Thomas R.] Hotchkiss artillery, consisting of four Napoleons, four Parrott guns, and four howitzers. Supporting on the right was one regiment of [Brig. Gen. Daniel C.] Govan's, of my division. The remainder of my division was disposed in rear as a second line in support of Hindman's right brigades and my first line. Intrenchments were thrown up in the afternoon and night of the 26th and in the morning of the 27th. The position was in the main covered with trees and undergrowth, which served as a screen along our lines, concealed us, and were left standing as far as practicable for that purpose. On the morning of the 27th, at about 7 o'clock, Govan was sent to the north front on a reconnaissance, with directions to swing to the left in his advance. From time to time, while engaged in this reconnaissance, Govan sent me word that the enemy was moving to the right—his own left.
Source: Civil War Maps by Hal Jesperson
The terrain over which the enemy would have to approach was dense and jungle-like. Cleburne arranged his guns to fire directly into the thick woods in his front. By late afternoon, having made his final arrangements, holding Lowrey's Brigade in reserve and placing Govan to the right of Polk, and Brig. Gen. Hiram Granbury's Regiment to Govan's right, Cleburne was ready to receive the inevitable assault. His line stretched along on a low ridge above the valley of Little Pumpkinvine Creek.

It was just in time. At 4:30 PM, Gens. Thomas J. Wood's and Richard W. Johnson's divisions of Gen. O.O. Howard's corps started their advance towards Govan's and Granbury's front, beginning their fire at the edge of a field within 400 yards of the Confederate line. They were aiming for the top of the slope where Cleburne's distinctive blue divisional flags could be seen clearly. While the Federals were determined to move around the Confederate right flank, they were attempting this feat without the support of Federal artillery. Throughout the battle, 8 solid lines of Federal soldiers assaulted Cleburne's line.

From the edge of the field the fighting was uphill for the Federals. Cleburne remarked that the enemy displayed "courage worthy of an honorable cause—pressing in steady throngs to within a few paces of our men." Their determined advance up the slope was hampered by rocks and thick undergrowth, making their progress slow and deadly under the Confederate fire. During their attack, Cleburne's men "slaughtered them with deliberate aim," the general wrote in his report, leaving their dead in piles. Hotchkiss’s artillery ended up being out of position for using the guns to fire into the enemy approaching through the ravine. But, Capt. Thomas J. Key had moved 2 guns from his Arkansas Battery forward by hand and added to the murderous slaughter.

Slightly to the right of Granbury's front was a cornfield abut 300 yards square, which the enemy crossed, but was met by a detachment from Govan's Regiment (Col. George F. Baucum's) sent to counter this new emergency. The men charged down the ridge toward the attacking Federals and drove them back.

Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey
As this counterattack was taking place, Cleburne ordered Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey to move his men up to the right of Granbury to prolong Granbury's threatened right holding the ridge. Lowrey marched his men "about a mile and a half, most of the way in double-quick," he wrote. Along the way, Cleburne met Lowrey and personally explained the situation with the encouragement to move rapidly and to secure Granbury's right. "Granbury was hotly engaged," wrote Lowrey, "and the enemy had already passed to the rear of his right flank, and was pressing on."

Granbury's men indeed were having a difficult time holding their position. At the critical moment, Lowrey threw his regiments into the fight as each arrived. Then on horseback he personally assisted Col. Samuel Adams in his brigade's fight to hold the hill. From Cleburne's report:
[Lowrey's] arrival was most opportune, as the enemy was beginning to pour around Baucum's right. Colonel Adams, with the Thirty-third Alabama, which was the first of Lowrey's regiments to form into line, took position on Baucum's right and advanced with him, his seven left companies being in the field with Baucum, and his other four in the woods to the right. Baucum and Adams, finding themselves suffering from the enemy's direct and oblique fire, withdrew, passing over the open space of the field behind them. The right companies of Adams, which were in the woods, retired to a spur which rises from the easterly edge of the field about 200 yards from its southerly edge, where Baucum's and Adams' left companies rested. Here they halted. Captain [William E.] Dodson, with fine judgment perceiving the importance of the position—it would have given the enemy an enfilading fire upon Granbury, which would have dislodged him—and making his company the basis of alignment for the remainder of Lowreys, now coming into position. This retrogade movement across the field was not attended with loss as might have been expected, the enemy not advancing as it was made. It was mistaken, however, for a repulse, and some of my staff officers hearing that my line had broken hastened forward [Brig. Gen. William A.] Quarles' brigade, of [Maj. Gen. A.P.] Stewart's division, just then providentially sent up by General Hood to re-establish it. Lowrey, being under the same impression, detached his two right regiments (which had not been engaged) under Colonels [W.H.H.] Tison [Great Grandfather Oakes's regiment] and [A.B.] Hardcastle, and had them quickly formed in support of Baucum and Adams. The error, however, was soon discovered, and my line being ascertained to remain in its integrity, Quarles' brigade was conducted to the rear of Lowrey, and formed as a second line. The Fourth Louisiana, Colonel [S.E.] Hunter, finding itself opposite an interval between the two regiments of Lowreys line (caused by Baucum's resting closer upon Granbury on his return from the advance, than he had done at first), under the immediate superintendence of General Quarles, advanced with great spirit into the field, halted, and delivered a very effective fire upon the enemy in his front. After some minutes Quarles withdrew this regiment and formed it behind the field, where they continued their fire across it. General Quarles and his brigade have my thanks. During these movements the battle continued to rage on Granburys front, and was met with unflagging spirit. About the time of Quarles getting into position night came on, when the combat lulled. For some hours afterward a desultory dropping fire, with short, vehement bursts of musketry, continued, the enemy lying in great numbers immediately in front of portions of my line, and so near it, that their footsteps could be distinctly heard. 
Lowrey's men, pouring fire from the ridge into the Federal flank, provided the blow the Confederate right needed to stop a further advance. Concerning the importance of his troops' action at the climax of this battle, Lowrey wrote,
Here, again, a victory was secured by a dash, that could have been secured in no other way. Granbury's gallant Texans fought as but few troops would have fought, and the destruction of the enemy in their front was perhaps the greatest that occurred during the whole war, considering the number engaged and the length of time. But the position could not have been held had not the right flank been secured, and I am quire sure this could not have been held if I had waited to put my whole brigade in position, and move them all up at once. Indeed, it was one of those times in which the victory trembled in the scale, and the lives of many men, and probably the destiny of an army hung upon a moment of time.
Later around 10 PM, Cleburne sent forward Granbury's and Lowrey's men as scouts to determine what lay in their front. Cleburne writes:
Granbury, finding it impossible to advance his skirmishers until he had cleared his front of the enemy lying up against it, with my consent, charged with his whole line, Walthall, with his brigade, from Hindman's division, whom I sent to his support, taking his place in the line as he stepped out of it. The Texans, their bayonets fixed, plunged into the darkness with a terrific yell, and with one bound were upon the enemy, but they met with no resistance. Surprised and panic-stricken many fled, escaping in the darkness, others surrendered and were brought into our lines. It needed but the brilliancy of this night attack to add luster to the achievements of Granbury and his brigade in the afternoon. I am deeply indebted to them both. My thanks are also due to General Lowrey for the coolness and skill which he exhibited in forming his line. His successive formation was the precise answer to the enemy's movement in extending his left to turn our right. Time was of the essence of things, and his movement was the quickest. His line was formed under heavy fire, on ground unknown to him and of the most difficult character, and the stern firmness with which he and his men and Baucum's regiment drove off the enemy and resisted his renewed attacks without doubt saved the right of the army, as Granbury had already done before.
As the sun came up the next day, Cleburne's men looked out upon a scene of terrible destruction with hundreds of dead and dying men everywhere. Lt. Thomas J. Stokes of Cleburne's Division, who participated in this final charge, wrote home in May 1864 to his sister, Mary Gay, about the dreadful aftermath of the battle:
The next morning I had the privilege of walking over the whole ground, and such a scene! Here lay the wounded, the dying, and the dead, hundreds upon hundreds, in every conceivable position; some with contorted features, showing the agony of death, others as if quietly sleeping. I noticed some soft beardless faces which ill comported with the savage warfare in which they had been engaged. Hundreds of letters from mothers, sisters, and friends were found upon them, and ambrotypes, taken singly and in groups. Though they had been my enemies, my heart bled at the sickening scene. The wounded nearly all expressed themselves tired of the war.
About 24,000 soldiers participated in the fierce fighting. The struggle was often face-to-face with many of the Federal attackers falling within 10 feet of Cleburne's line. Despite the ferocity of the battle, Cleburne stated that his division's casualties were but "few." He reported 85 killed and 363 wounded out of 4,683 armed men he took into the fight. These were mostly from Granbury's, Govan's, and Lowrey's Regiments (Lowrey's received the most casualties at 1831) since Polk's men, who were on the left of the line, were not engaged. The total loss for the Confederates was around 500. The Federals lost 1,600 in killed, wounded, and missing, fulfilling what one Yankee soldier and writer Lt. Ambrose Bierce later called a "criminal blunder" in the "Crime at Pickett's Mill."

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Plaque at New Hope Church

There will be much more fighting to come in the Atlanta Campaign. But on this date in 1864, Cleburne's brilliant stand at Pickett's Mill, repulsed the attack of Howard's corps and saved the right wing of the Confederate army. Just as importantly, his division kept Sherman from cutting off Johnston's supply line to Atlanta. Gen. Hood later wrote about Cleburne and his division at Pickett's Mill: “He was for the first time under my immediate command at New Hope Church where his Division... achieved the most brilliant success of Johnston’s campaign.” Historian Craig L. Symonds observed that "Cleburne’s success at Pickett’s Mill proved that Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap had not been flukes. For a third time, his command had decisively repelled an attack by a much larger force, and for a third time he had saved the army from potential disaster."2 

On the morning of the 28th, Johnston sent Bate's Division on the left against the Federals near Dallas. This time it was the Confederates' turn to be repulsed. After that attack, there were no other general engagements in the Dallas/New Hope Church vicinity. By June 4th, Sherman managed to concentrate his 3 armies around New Hope Church and move part of his force eastward around the Confederate right. Johnston had no choice but to evacuate overnight to a new position 10 miles south. Heavy rains prevented Sherman from immediately pursuing.

1 My Great Grandfather recalled in a letter to the editor of the Confederate Veteran, Vol. 7 (1889), that his close comrade in Co. D, Miley Steele, “was never wounded until the engagement at New Hope, Ga., where he was wounded in the thigh.” Steele would recover and continue to fight in Co. D through the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.
In his memoirs Gen. Sherman made scant mention of the Battles of New Hope Church. He also failed even to acknowledge his soldiers' honorable sacrifice in the Battle of Pickett's Mill.

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey's AutobiographyThe Battles of New Hope Church, Russell W. Blount, Jr.; War So Terrible, James Lee McDonough & James Pickett Jones; Advance and Retreat, John Bell Hood; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol 1; Life in Dixie during the War 1861-1862-1863-1864-1865Mary A. H. Gay; Memoirs of Gen. William T. ShermanOfficial Records, Vol 38, Pts. 3 & 4


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,

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The other Pearl Harbor disaster, 1944

Today is the 70th anniversary of the West Lock disaster at Pearl Harbor, an incident that few of us know much, if anything, about. The accident, which occurred on a quiet Sunday, just after 3 PM on this date in 1944, began following an explosion in a staging area for Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) and other amphibious assault ships in West Loch.

The West Lock was a scene of great activity in May as ships were being loaded with ammunition, gasoline, and other cargo in preparation for the June invasion of the Mariana Islands in "Operation Forager." An accidental explosion occurred on an LST as she was being loaded with mortar ammunition. Three ships were lost in the explosions and the devastating fire that quickly that spread to other vessels in the harbor.

The cause of the initial explosion is uncertain. However, lack of experience in the handling of ammunition and other explosive cargo was the suspected cause. Few of the officers and men involved in loading the explosives had actual experience or training in handling it. Welding operations being carried on nearby could have been a contributing factor, but smoking was also suspected as triggering the explosions.

Twenty-nine LSTs were berthed in the lock to receive supplies from the West Loch Naval Ammunition Depot. Each LST was loaded with thousands of pounds of fuel and oil along with 6,000 cubic feet of ammunition stowed on the decks, under the guns, and in the amphibious craft onboard. Each LST had a 199-man crew plus about 200 Marines or Soldiers as part of the invasion force. The situation was ripe for disaster.

The official investigation revealed that the first explosion occurred on board LST-353, where heavy ammunition was being loaded. Gasoline stored in drums on adjoining ships was accidentally ignited, and in moments several LSTs were ablaze. The flames prevented crews from casting off lines and breaking free of the other ships. Then a second explosion came moments later, and a third—the most violent—followed shortly thereafter. It was a scene of smoke, chaos, and confusion, with men either blown overboard or leaping into the water to escape the flames.

Smoke billows upward from West Lock on May 21, 1944, when disaster struck
a nest of LSTs readying for the Saipan assault.
National Archives Photo  

The official account listed 27 dead and 100 missing. However, other sources state the final death toll at 163 servicemen, with a further 396 wounded. Six LSTs were sunk, 2 already carrying smaller, fully loaded amphibious crafts. Several more LSTs were damaged and/or run aground. Four could not be repaired in time for the invasion. Seventeen tracked landing vehicles (LVTs) and eight 155 mm guns also were destroyed.

With the reinforcement of the fleet coming from elsewhere, and through quick repair efforts, amazingly Operation Forager was only delayed by a single day, with the invasion commencing essentially as planned 3 weeks later.

While at the time, thousands of service personnel and civilian residents knew about the disaster, it received very little publicity then or later. The incident was cloaked in secrecy, and by the time it was declassified in 1960, most had forgotten about it completely. Even many sailors on duty nearby on the island knew little about it. My dad, Frank Dolan, was stationed onboard the USS Hector* in another area of Pearl Harbor. At the moment of the explosion, he and a few of his buddies were at the recreation area at Aiea Landing, about 4 miles away. From a high ridge they witnessed the LST’s blowing up and the spreading fire that followed. He had all but forgotten the disaster until a few years ago it was brought to mind in a documentary about the discovery of the remains of a fifth Japanese midget submarine used in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

For the Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers present at West Lock on today's date, however, few of them would ever forget the "Second Pearl Harbor Disaster."

The rusted hulk of USS LST-480 still visible at West Loch. The remains honor
the 163, sailors, marines, and soldiers who died and 396 wounded in a fuel
and ammunition explosion on May 21, 1944.
Source: Star Bulletin


Only 2 months later, on July 17, 1944, there was another disastrous explosion at a Navy yard, this one in the San Francisco Bay area. At Port Chicago Naval Magazine, 320 men were instantly killed when ammunition that they were handling blew up. Nearly 400 others were injured. The majority of the dead were African American sailors, at that time serving in the racially segregated military.

Navy crews were loading 2 naval vessels bound for the Pacific Theater with active munitions when the explosives ignited in a horrific series of blasts. Felt throughout the area, the explosions broke windows 30 miles away, hurled debris thousands of feet into the air, and obliterated both ships. Tragically, the blast instantly killed everyone killed at the waterfront—Sailors, Marines, Navy Armed Guard, Coast Guardsmen, Merchant Marines, and working civilians. It was WWII's worst home front disaster.

* While stationed at Pearl Harbor during this period, Dad performed welding repairs to many of these LSTs for the upcoming campaign.

Sources: United States LST Organization"Pearl Harbor's Second Disaster Remembered," US NavyLST-225 War Diary, May 1944