JENKINS: The Battle of Peach Tree Creek (2014)
The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood’s First Sortie, July 20, 1864 by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr. Mercer University Press, 2014. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0881463965. $35.00.
July 17, 1864, was a momentous day in the history of the ill-fated Confederate Army of Tennessee. On that date, President Jefferson Davis relieved General Joseph E. Johnston from command of the army and replaced him with General John Bell Hood. Hood took command at a desperate time for the Confederates, the Southern army having retreated to the outskirts of the vital rail and industrial center of Atlanta. Johnston later claimed that at the time of his removal, he had devised a plan to attack part of the advancing federal force, the Army of the Cumberland under General George H. Thomas, as it crossed over Peach Tree Creek north of Atlanta—and before it had a chance to entrench. Hood likely adopted Johnston’s general concept of an attack at Peach Tree Creek, but had to modify it as the situation changed. Ultimately, Hood called for two of his three corps commanders, Generals William J. Hardee and Alexander P. Stewart, to launch en echelon attacks against the federals north of Atlanta, the Southerners advancing over a four-mile front of hilly, largely wooded terrain. Hardee’s troops would initiate the attack, hopefully turning the federal flank and driving the Union soldiers back to Peach Tree Creek and across the Chattahoochee River.
The approach of the Union Army of the Tennessee against Atlanta from the east on July 20 frustrated Hood’s timetable to attack at Peach Tree Creek, forcing the Confederates to expend time shifting their lines to their right to cover the eastern approaches to the city. When the Confederates positioned north of Atlanta finally attacked on the afternoon of the 20th, all of Thomas’s federals were south of Peach Tree Creek, and some had seized and started erecting defenses on critical high ground. Although the Confederate assaults overran some advanced Union lines, determined federal counterattacks restored these positions. The uncoordinated Southern assaults, often isolated from each other because of the ravines that broke up the ground, ultimately failed to push back Thomas’s federals. Hood’s losses at Peach Tree Creek, meticulously calculated by author Robert D. Jenkins, Sr., numbered 2,316 men out of between 20-24,000 men engaged, while the federals suffered a total of 2,167 casualties out of approximately 20,000 men present.
The Battle of Peach Tree Creek is the first detailed tactical study of this engagement. Jenkins convincingly demonstrates that General Alexander P. Stewart’s three divisions suffered the heaviest losses among Hood’s troops and pressed home their attacks with greater vigor than the divisions under General William J. Hardee. Jenkins is rightfully critical of Hardee, claiming that the failure of Hardee and one subordinate in particular (division commander General William B. Bate) to assault the Union flank likely cost the Southerners any real chance for victory at Peach Tree Creek.
Jenkins’s book displays several strengths. The author’s intimate familiarity with the terrain of the Peach Tree Creek battlefield allows him to note the exact positions of units down to the brigade and regimental levels. No previous study of the battle has done this. He often provides readers with modern landmarks to locate troop positions, although the battle maps in the book only depict wartime features. The author also went to some lengths to determine the precise casualties of the Union and Confederate units engaged in the battle, all of whom are listed by name in an 87-page roster at the back of the book.
Unfortunately, The Battle of Peach Tree Creek suffers from poor editing. The main text is peppered with repetitive passages, particularly when it comes to enumerating casualties that already appear in the roster. The author’s stated desire to “leave no stone unturned” about Peach Tree Creek is undoubtedly part of why he occasionally offers anecdotes or background about individuals that do not contribute much to an overall understanding of the battle. Is it really necessary, for example, to devote a paragraph to the military background of General William J. Hardee’s father and grandfather, or another paragraph to the military service prior to the battle of a private in the 18th Tennessee?
Despite such issues, The Battle of Peach Tree Creek is a significant contribution to understanding one of the major battles of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. As Jenkins notes, the battle marked a dramatic shift “from the patient defense displayed by General Joseph E. Johnston to the bold offense called upon by his replacement, General John Bell Hood” (xvi). This bold offensive posture resulted not only in Hood fighting several major battles around Atlanta, but ultimately led him into Tennessee in the fall of 1864. There, his army was all but destroyed in the engagements at Franklin and Nashville.
Keith S. Bohannon is Associate Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of numerous book chapters and essays, and he co-edited with Randall Allen the volume Campaigning with “Old Stonewall” (1998).