The Battle of Peachtree Creek was fought in Georgia on July 20, 1864, as part of the Atlanta Campaign in the American Civil War. It was the first major attack by Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood since taking command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The attack was against Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union army which was perched on the doorstep of Atlanta. The main armies in the conflict were the Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas, and two corps of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by Lt. Gen. John B. Hood. The battle of Peachtree Creek was the first battle fought by Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee.
Sherman had launched his grand offensive against the Army of Tennessee early May. For more than two months, Sherman’s forces, which consisted of the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio sparred with the Confederate Army of Tennessee, then under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston. Although the Southerners gained tactical successes at the Battle of New Hope Church, the Battle of Pickett’s Mill, and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, they were unable to counter Sherman’s superior numbers. Gradually, the Union forces flanked the Confederates out of every defensive position they attempted to hold. On July 8, Union forces crossed the Chattahoochee River, the last major natural barrier between Sherman and Atlanta.
Retreating from Sherman’s advancing armies, General Johnston withdrew across Peachtree Creek, just north of Atlanta, and laid plans for an attack on part of the Army of the Cumberland as it crossed Peachtree Creek. On July 17, he received a telegram from Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieving him from command. The political leadership of the Confederacy was unhappy with Johnston’s lack of aggressiveness and replaced him with Hood. In contrast to Johnston’s conservative tactics and conservation of manpower, Hood had a reputation for aggressive tactics and personal bravery on the battlefield (he had already been maimed in battle twice). Hood took command and launched the attempted counter-offensive.
On July 19, Hood learned that Sherman had split his army; Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland was to advance directly towards Atlanta, while the Army of the Ohio (under the command of Major General John M. Schofield) and the Army of the Tennessee (under the command of Major General James B. McPherson) moved several miles east, apparently an early premonition of Sherman’s general strategy of cutting Confederate supply lines by destroying railroads to the east. Thomas would have to cross Peachtree Creek at several locations and would be vulnerable both while crossing and immediately after, before they could construct breastworks.
Hood hoped to attack Thomas while his army was still in the process of crossing Peachtree Creek. By so doing, the Southerners hoped to fight with rough numerical parity and catch the Northern forces by surprise. Hood thus hoped to drive Thomas west, further and further away from Schofield and McPherson. This would force Sherman to divert his forces away from Atlanta.
Throughout the morning of July 20, the Army of the Cumberland crossed Peachtree Creek and began taking up defensive positions. The XIV Corps, commanded by Major General John M. Palmer, took position on the right. The XX Corps, commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker (the former commander of the Army of the Potomac who had lost the Battle of Chancellorsville) took position in the center. The left was held by a single division (John Newton’s) of the IV Corps, as the rest of that corps had been sent to reinforce Schofield and McPherson on the east side of Atlanta. 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 would attack on the right, while the corps of General Alexander P. Stewart would attack on the left. Meanwhile, the corps of General Benjamin Cheatham would keep an eye on the Union forces to the east of Atlanta.
Hood had wanted the attack launched at one o’clock, but confusion and miscommunication between Hardee and Hood prevented this from happening. Hood instructed Hardee to ensure that his right flank maintained contact with Cheatham’s corps, but Cheatham began moving his forces slightly eastward. Hardee too began side-stepping to the east to maintain contact with Cheatham, while Stewart began sliding eastward as well in order to maintain contact with Hardee. It was not until three o’clock that this movement ceased.
The Confederate attack was finally mounted at around four o’clock in the afternoon. On the Confederate right, Hardee’s men ran into fierce opposition and were unable to make much headway, with the Southerners suffering heavy losses. The failure of the attack was largely due to faulty execution and a lack of pre-battle reconnaissance.
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) was captured by the Rebels, as was a 4-gun Union artillery battery. Union forces counterattacked, 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 to 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. Estimated casualties were 4,250 in total: 1,750 on the Union side and at least 2,500 on the Confederate.
Many historians have criticized the Confederacy’s tactics and execution, especially Hood’s and Hardee’s. Johnston, although fighting defensively, had already determined to counterattack at Peachtree Creek; in fact, the plan for striking the Army of the Cumberland as it began to cross Peachtree Creek has been attributed to him. His long rear-guard retreat from Kennesaw is understandable, as Sherman used his numerical superiority in constant large-scale flanking movements. Moreover, although he had lost an enormous amount of ground, Johnston had whittled Sherman’s numerical superiority from 2:1 down to 8:5.
Replacing him with the brash Hood, practically on the eve of battle, has generally been regarded as a mistake. In fact Hood himself, as well as several other generals, sent a telegram to Davis seeking a remand of the order, advising Davis that it would be
“dangerous to change the commander of this army at this particular time.”
Additionally, although Hood’s general plan was plausible, the federal forces being divided, the failure of the units to be formed and positioned prior to the Union’s crossing the river, Hardee’s failure to commit his troops fully, and Hood’s decision to continue the attack when he discovered he had lost his advantage, resulted in a severe and predictable defeat.
Adjutant Claudius V. H. Davis of the 22nd Mississippi regiment was awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Battle of Peachtree Creek by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He was killed while carrying the colors and went down waving the flag.
First Lieutenant Frank D. Baldwin, Company D, 19th Michigan Infantry, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Georgia, July 12, 1864. Under a galling fire ahead of his own men, and singly entered the enemy’s line, capturing and bringing back two commissioned officers, fully armed, besides a guidon of a Georgia regiment. Captain Baldwin later received a second Medal of Honor for action at McClellan’s Creek, Texas, November 8, 1874. Citation: Rescued, with 2 companies, 2 white girls by a voluntary attack upon Indians whose superior numbers and strong position would have warranted delay for reinforcements, but which delay would have permitted the Indians to escape and kill their captives.
The battlefield is now largely lost to urban development. Tanyard Creek Park occupies what was near the center of the battle and contains several memorial markers. Peachtree Battle Avenue commemorates the battle. All are located in the western part of Buckhead, the northern section of the city which was annexed in 1952. The play Peachtree Battle is a comedy about life in the upscale area.