Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Battle of Peach Tree Creek by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr.

As the title, The Battle of Peach Tree Creek - Hood's First Sortie - 20 July 1864,  implies Robert Jenkins' book is about the first engagement that General John Bell Hood fought after he replaced General Joseph Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee.

General Joseph Johnston
The forces in the conflict were the Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Major General George Henry Thomas, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by Lieutenant General John B. Hood. Hood's army had 44,400 in three corps under Generals William J. Hardee, Cheatham, and Alexander P. Stewart. Jenkins' narrative provides historical backgrounds on the commanders and the units involved in the battle. The battle actions are described on a unit-by-unit basis.
General John B. Hood
The  detailed account of the engagement includes observations from generals and privates. A soldier in Kentucky's Orphan Brigade remembered, "a slight engagement took place on Peach Tree Creek, on the afternoon of July 20, in which the Kentucky Brigade participated, and suffered some loss, mainly in skirmishe[r]s under Lieutenant [George W.] Conner, who charged those of the enemy and drove them across the creek."  Colonel Nisbet of the 66th Georgia described the action along the Buckhead Road atop Cardiac Hill, "I thought I would certainly see my 'Valhalla' that day. I lost one-fourth of all of my officers and men engaged." Corporal John Raper of the 57th Indiana described the artillery barrage that greeted a Rebel brigade. "Load after load as fast as the artillerymen could handle their pieces followed - a continuous shower of murderous iron. No troops on earth could stand that long, for they were in an open field at point-blank range."  

General George Thomas
During the morning of July 20, the Army of the Cumberland crossed Peach Tree Creek and began taking up defensive positions. The XIV Corps, commanded by Major General John M. Palmer, was on the right. The XX Corps, commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, was in the center. The left was held by only John Newton's division of the IV Corps. The Union forces began preparing defensive positions, but had only partially completed them by the time the Confederate attack began.

The few hours between the Union crossing and their completion of defensive earthworks were a moment of opportunity for the Confederates. Hood committed two of his three corps to the attack: Hardee’s corps attacked on the right and Stewart's corps assaulted attack on the left. General Benjamin Cheatham corps watched Union forces to the east of Atlanta.

Battle of Peach Tree Creek
Hood wanted to begin the attack at one o'clock. Confusion and miscommunication between Hardee and Hood delayed the advance for three critical hours. Much of this time was spent in moving to the east to maintain contact with Cheatham's corps that was moving eastward. This forced Stewart to also slide to the east to keep in contact with Hardee. The movement finally stopped at three o'clock and the attack finally started around four o’clock, Hardee’s men ran into tough opposition, suffered heavy losses, and were unable to gain ground.

Jenkins analyzes the failure of Hardee's attack on the Union right. He writes that the evidence supports the conclusion that while Hardee "did give orders to advance, he failed to deliver a decisive attack against the enemy, and he apparently failed to relay the intent of Hood's order to make a determined advance."   

On the Confederate left, Stewart’s attack was more successful. Two Union brigades were forced to retreat, and most of the 33rd New Jersey Infantry Regiment (along with its battle flag) were captured by the Rebels, as was a four-gun Union artillery battery. Union forces counter attacked, however, and after a bloody struggle, successfully blunted the Confederate offensive. Artillery helped stop the Confederate attack on Thomas' left flank.

A few hours into the battle, Hardee was preparing the send in his reserve, the division of General Patrick Cleburne, which he hoped would get the attack moving again and allow him to break through the Union lines. An urgent message from Hood, however, forced him to cancel the attack and dispatch Cleburne to reinforce Cheatham, who was being threatened by a Union attack and in need of reinforcements.
The Union lines had bent but not broken under the weight of the Confederate attack, and by the end of the day the Rebels had failed to break through anywhere along the line. Jenkins reports 2,498 casualties over the three days of fighting of which 2,316 were lost during the charge.

An unexpected result of the Battle of Peach Tree Creek was General Joe Hooker's resignation after he was not selected to replace General McPherson after the later was killed at the Battle of Atlanta.

An important aspect and perhaps contributing factor in the Confederate defeat was the removal of General Johnston on the eve of a battle that might have resulted in the defeat of Sherman's army.

The book contains an extensive list of the Confederate and Federal casualties at Peach Tree Creek. Jenkins includes battle maps that illustrate the developments on July 20. There are also pictures of many of the combatants who participated in and wrote stories about the battle.

Robert D. Jenkins is a native of of Mississippi who grew up in Chamblee, Georgia. He has been a student of the Civil War since fourth grade when he did a project on "War in Georgia." He continued his research on the subject with The Battle of Peach Tree Creek.  He is a graduate of Georgia Southern (BBA) and Mercer University (JD).  Mr. Jenkins is an attorney in Dalton, Georgia.

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