HOOD’s First Sortie, 20 July 1864
The West in the US Civil War is in general very under-represented in the literature which seems far more ready to produce yet-another-Gettysburg book. Even so, from time to time a book comes out to fill in one of the gaps with an excellent battle study.
This book succeeds in being one of those for the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, the first battle around the city of Atlanta, and the first for John Bell Hood as the leader of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The author claims to have started with a smaller history of the Mississippi regiments that his ancestors served in that paid a high cost in the battle, and then enlarged the project to include the entire battle. It is a good thing that he did.
The MARCH TO Atlanta – May to July 1864
In the winter of 1864, U.S. Grant was named general in chief of the war effort, and he named General W.T. Sherman as the general in the West. His mission was to advance to Atlanta and take the city. Joseph E. Johnston was tasked to stop him. The campaign started in the ridges and mountains of North Georgia and required the guarding of a single rail line for supply. Sherman had a considerable advantage in numbers, but at this point in the war the use of field fortifications on defense by the veteran troops made attacking a prepared position costly and likely to fail. Even a few hours of preparation could make a line that could hold against almost anything thrown at it.
The problem Johnston had in defense is that Sherman had enough men to eventually outflank any position he held. And Sherman, for the most part, was content to find the main position, entrench part of his men in front, and send the rest marching to the flanks. Johnston was skilled at detecting and checking these moves before they could lead to a disaster, but he had to give ground to do so.
An even more serious problem was Johnston’s poor relationship with the President of the CSA, Jefferson Davis. This had been the case for years, and at this point Davis had no confidence in him and was forced by political pressures to use him. He sent John Bell Hood west to take over an army corps….and to report to him unknown to his commander. And Hood took every chance to undermine Johnston.
Personally, I’ve always liked “Old Joe” Johnston, and his task here was a daunting one. That said, he probably could have done more to retard Sherman than he did. There was one attempt at a counterattack at Cassville, but Hood called it off due to a mistaken sighting of forces on the flank. Johnston erred in not overriding this, and Hood reported to Davis that the failure was all on Joe Johnston.
So when Sherman neatly flanked Johnston out of the line on the Chattahoochie River, the last major river before Atlanta, Davis had had enough and fired Joe Johnston and replaced him with Hood, as Sherman approached the suburbs of the city.
Peach Tree Creek
North of Atlanta, Peach Tree Creek runs across the line of advance of Sherman’s Army. They needed to cross this creek in the face of Hood’s army. Johnston himself had planned to strike the US forces of the Army of the Cumberland, one of Sherman’s three armies, as they crossed the river and defeat them. Then he was fired, and Hood took up the plan, but had to delay a day to take up the reins of the army. This gave time for more forces to cross the creek, and to begin entrenching.
Hood was also finding that pulling off an attack was a bit more difficult than writing nasty-grams to the President. It turned out that the forces needed to be shifted sideways to avoid being outflanked, which cost even more time. It was now afternoon and the US had had even more time to concentrate and cross the creek.
The attack went in, and had some momentary successes where US troops were caught unaware or in flank. In other spots, the line was fortified and the cost of the assault was high. The Mississippians broke one line, but then were caught in crossfires from supporting units and suffered severely. In other spots, the Rebels didn’t try very hard to overcome a line that seemed too strong. This would bear bitter fruit in subsequent battles as Hood came to believe that this sensible caution was a kind of cowardice that needed to be cured by a diet of frontal attacks.
So after some tense hours the battle ended with no real result aside from the casualties.
What neither Hood, or apparently Johnston knew when making this plan was that Sherman had sent about a third of his army on a wide circle to the east of Atlanta, which was entirely unguarded. Only a few regiments of cavalry were delaying these 30.000 men from walking into the city. A little less caution by the Union General McPherson and Atlanta would have fallen that day.
As it was, reserve forces had to be rushed to block the path, which was just as well rather than be bloodied in a frontal attack at Peach Tree. Hood now had to plan a second battle for the day after tomorrow, to take McPherson in the flank and drive him back. The troops that fought at Peach Tree Creek would form this flanking column, and would have to march all night to do it.
COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
Like most battles, this one has come in for a lot of recriminations afterward. Should Davis have fired Johnston? Could the attack have routed Thomas? Could Sherman have been driven back?
Davis probably did the right thing by replacing Johnston, although doing it earlier would have been better. The relationship was so poisoned that no information was moving between the two, leaving only Hood’s lies. That said, Hardee might have been a better choice, even though he had declined command in the past.
The delay of a day may not have mattered much. If they got there too early, there would be no forces on the south side of the creek to attack. Punishing a brigade or so wouldn’t reverse the tide of the war. And ironically, a more successful attack might have led to Sherman forcing McPherson to expedite his movement from the east, and led to an early capture of the city!
Hood just did not have the force to totally defeat Sherman’s three armies, even at the end of the long supply chain. Wishing for that is like wishing for a miracle. By this point, a win made the other side fall back a mile or so and come on again, and a loss meant you fell back a mile or so and stood again. Hood managed to delay the fall for some time, but failed in the end. It isn’t clear that Hardee or Joe Johnston would have done better.