Peach Tree Creek
July 20, 1864
Estimated casualties: 6,506 (1,710 Union, 4,796 Confederate)
Wooden headstones along the line of battle south of Peachtree Creek
North and west of Atlanta nearly 100,000 men waited while General William Tecumseh Sherman made a decision. With only the Chattahoochee River and General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee between him and the city, he could move either south or east from Marietta to cross the mighty river that cuts through the center of Georgia from northeast to southwest. It was the last great physical barrier between Sherman and his prize.
Each choice had tactical advantages but Sherman was a strategic thinker. By cutting the rail line to the east he would increase the amount of time it would take for re-enforcements to arrive from Richmond, lengthen Johnston's lines of communication and reduce the Confederate Army's access to grain and meat from Georgia's agricultural belt between Atlanta and Savannah. Yet unscathed, East Georgia offered Johnston much more food than Alabama, whose crops and cattle had been repeatedly scavenged.
Johnston had the important advantage of knowing the country by occupation, and not from imperfect maps.
General Jacob D. Cox
Sherman's Battle for Atlanta
Sherman's plan was simple. George Thomas and his Army of the Cumberland would cross the Chattahoochee then hold the Confederate Army of Tennessee in place while James Birdseye McPherson and Schofield moved east to sever the rail connection to Savannah. Johnston, though had a surprise for the red-haired Ohioan. Rather than defend the Chattahoochee River he would wait until Sherman crossed Peachtree Creek, then attack while the army was split in two.
Unfortunately, Jefferson Davis replaced the cautious Johnston with John Bell Hood on July 17, 1864, (see Hood Takes Command) for while Johnston would only commit to reacting, Hood foolishly committed to acting upon the advances of the Union Army. Along quiet Peach Tree Creek north of Atlanta General Hood's intentions became all too well-known to George Thomas.
Atlanta, being a city of considerable size, no one is likely to have, before visiting it, a conception of the rough character of the approaches to it. There are no plains about it. The country is rolling and thickly wooded. The undergrowth is dense, with a few openings for cultivation. The creeks cut deep and run crooked. It is just the country to bring on a rough-and-tumble fight between hostile forces, where neither commander can anticipate precisely the place or the time of the conflict.
Oliver Otis Howard
Advancing to the south had been easy for the Union Army in May, as they out-flanked the Rebel Army again and again. Ground became harder to come by in June and by July what had once been measured as miles a day could be measured in feet.
After being repulsed by Rebels during a attempt to cross Peach Tree near Howell's Mill late in the day on July 19th, Union General Jefferson Davis crossed further east and gained high ground south of the rain-swollen river. From this advantage, Davis took the crossing at Howell's Mill. A third crossing was built just east of these.
Concentrating to a line about a mile wide The Army of the Cumberland crossed Peach Tree. Immediately east of Thomas was the flank of McPherson's Army of the Tennessee and Schofield's Army of the Ohio forming a secondary line some eight miles in length. Originally set to attack at 1:00pm, the presence of these troops forced Hood to delay the initial assault until after 3:00 that afternoon while he strengthened his right flank.
The five hours of battle did not go well for the Rebels. Hood had lost the tactical advantage of having the Union Army split by the river; most of the Union Army had crossed by the time the battle started that afternoon. Now, instead of attacking an enemy split by a physical barrier, elements of the Confederate Army were advancing on three divisions of the Union Army entrenched on high ground.
Rather than attack as a single unit the Rebels rolled down the Union line. Only Major General John Newton's division appeared to give way, but quick action by units on his left and right saved the day, catching the advancing Rebels in a withering enfilade. In the middle of the Union line a gap between "Fighting Joe" Hooker's XX Corps and Howard's VI Corps developed because of the inaccurate maps of the Union Commanders. Hood's troops completely missed the gap, failing to exploit this crucial error.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE CUMBERLAND,
July 20, 1864 - 6:15 p. m.
Maj. Gen. W. T. SHERMAN,
Commanding Military Division of the Mississippi:
The enemy attacked me in full force at about 4 p. m., and
has persisted until now, attacking very fiercely, but he was repulsed
handsomely by the troops all along my line. Our loss has been heavy,
but the loss inflicted upon the enemy has been very severe. We have
taken many prisoners, and General Ward reports having taken 2 stand
of colors. I cannot make at present more than this general report, but
will send you details as soon as I can get them from my corps commanders.
Very respectfully, yours, &c.,
GEO. H. THOMAS,
Major-General, U. S. Volunteers, Commanding.
Continued attacks by the Confederates failed to produce results. At sunset the Rebels called off the assault without any gains. Union commanders set about the task of burying the dead, and by their count more than 800 Confederate soldiers were put into the ground. With this many dead it tends to indicate that Hood underreported his losses by at least 2,000 men.
During the battle General Sherman's headquarters were at the Augustus Hurt (Howard) House (present-day Carter Center) while General Hood stayed at the Windsor Smith House (present-day Oakland Cemetery).
Much has been written about Hood executing the plans put forth by General Johnston. In fact, the attack implemented by Hood was significantly different than the plan laid out by Johnston.