Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Battle of Peachtree Creek at 150

Having forced the Confederate Army of Tennessee to withdraw across the Chattahoochee River, by today's date in 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman had pushed the last of his Federal troops across the river northwest of Atlanta in pursuit. Sherman began to move his 3 armies to capture the city. He sent Gen. James B. McPherson in a wide sweep southeast to destroy the Georgia Railroad near Decatur. He sent Gen. John Schofield's army west of McPherson, and Gen. George Thomas's army west toward Peachtree Creek.

Source: House Divided

As if to complicate matters for the Confederates, their commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was removed from command on the 17th and replaced by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. While inheriting the largest Confederate army at that time, which may have numbered nearly 63,000, Hood faced a superior force totaling 100,000 men, anxious to take Atlanta as its prize.

Hood, known for his bold fighting abilities, felt he knew just the remedy for the low morale following Johnston's removal: A battle victory at Atlanta. On today's date in 1864, he will have the opportunity to deal a significant blow to Sherman, or so he hopes.

By July 19th, Hood's battle line now had the Confederate left resting near the Pace’s Ferry Road, and the right covering Atlanta. He was informed that Sherman had divided his forces, offering Hood, in his words, "one of the most favorable occasions for complete victory which could have been offered; especially as it presented an opportunity, after crushing his right wing, to throw our entire force upon his left.” Accordingly, he planned a major, decisive attack.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Hood held council with his corps commanders and issued orders for battle the next day. He told them that Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry would fend off federal forces approaching from the east, while Lt. Gen. William Hardee's and Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart's Corps (2 divisions each) would attack Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland after it crossed the Peachtree Creek. From there these 2 corps would drive Thomas along the south bank of the creek into the cul-de-sac it formed with the Chatta-hoochee River. Hardee was ordered to launch the attack, striking Thomas on his left flank. The battle was ordered to begin at 1 PM the following day.

Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne’s Division, in which Great Grandfather Nathan Oakes was serving in Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey's Brigade, was to be held in reserve. At the start of the battle, his brigade was on left of the division in front of Peachtree Creek, with his left resting on the Peachtree Road, about a mile from the creek and about 4 miles from Atlanta. His men were positioned in a line of works which his brigade had built the day before.

Cleburne was to hold his 3 brigades in readiness to reinforce and exploit the anticipated breakthrough. Cleburne deployed his brigades behind Maj. Gen. William H.T. Walker’s Division, moving his artillery to the front where it could fire over the heads of the attackers and into the Federal lines.

At noon, on today's date in 1864, only an hour before the attack was to begin, Cleburne received orders to shift his position a mile to the right. Hood also ordered Cheatham to move toward his right flank where Wheeler was calling for reinforcements for help in the fight with McPherson. To avoid opening a gap in his line by these movements, Hood also ordered Hardee to move to the right to close the opening. This was a difficult move involving thousands of men, and the changes caused confusion and delay. As a result, the attack along Peachtree Creek was not only late, it ended up taking place over ground that the unit commanders had had no opportunity to examine. Consequently, the attack on Thomas's line was weak. Maj. Gen. William B. Bate, commanding Hardee’s Division on the right, never found the enemy. For Walker, directly in front of Cleburne, the delay had given the Federals an opportunity to prepare breastworks, from which he was driven back.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
A section of the picturesque Peachtree Creek today, near where the fighting
occurred. During the battle, it was a difficult muddy and marshy channel to cross.

Concerning his brigade's part in the battle Lowrey reported,
Early in the afternoon I followed the remainder of [Cleburne's] division in the trenches about one mile to the right, relieved a line of skirmishers in front of the position where I halted, and then, with the remainder of the division, moved back to our original position. The enemy having crossed Peach Tree Creek in force and advanced his lines some distance toward our works, and Granbury’s brigade having changed position and formed on my left, I advanced with the balance of the division in support of Walker’s division. My brigade was immediately in rear of Stevens’ brigade, which attacked the enemy in his works and was repulsed. After a little skirmishing with the enemy, in which I lost 2 killed, 39 wounded, and 4 captured (total 45), I was relieved by Mercer’s brigade, and again returned to my original position.
Though some other units had partial success, particularly Maj. Gen. William W. Loring’s Division of Stewart’s Corps, Hardee’s attack went nowhere. He also soon learned that Walker's attack had been repulsed. He then ordered Cleburne to commit his division to the fight. But at that moment, a order came from Hood informing him that the enemy was turning the army’s right, directing Hardee to send a division there at once. Hardee changed Cleburne’s orders and sent him instead to the right to support Wheeler and Cheatham. Of course that meant that the attack along Peachtree Creek would lose what little momentum it had. Without Cleburne’s troops, the weak attack at the creek had little chance of success. Nightfall ended the assault.

As ordered, Cleburne marched his division away from the battle, south through Atlanta, traveling along the Decatur Road. About midnight, he rested his men for a couple of hours on the edge of town along the railroad before continuing on to reinforce Wheeler's dismounted cavalry about 2 miles outside of Atlanta. They took up position outside the outer defenses in a line up the slope of Bald Hill.

By now, unable to press his attack against Thomas, Hood consequently ordered the troops to withdraw, leaving Thomas the victor at Peachtree Creek. Hood would later blame the defeat on Hardee for his lack of timeliness and boldness, when, in fact, the battle had been mismanaged by Hood.* In fact, under the circumstances, Hardee and his men seemed to do everything that could have been expected of them.

* Later in his report, Hood unjustly maligned Hardee's men, claiming claimed that the troops “did nothing more than skirmish with the enemy. Instead of charging down upon the foe as Sherman represents [in his Memoirs] Stewart’s men to have done, many of the troops, when they discovered that they had come into contact with breastworks, lay down and, consequently, this attempt at pitched battle proved abortive.”

Sources: Pat Cleburne: Confederate General, Howell & Elizabeth Purdue; The Army of Tennessee, Stanley F. Horn; Advance and Retreat, John B. Hood; Stonewall of the West, Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory, Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Atlanta, Jacob. D. Cox; Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898, Dunbar Rowland; Official Records Vol. 38, Pts. 3 & 5


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,

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