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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Atlanta

   

BATTLE OF PEACHTREE CREEK

In becoming commander, Hood took on the task of stopping, or better still defeating, Sherman. How was he to do it? On July 19 his cavalry reported that McPherson and Schofield were moving toward Decatur, six miles east of Atlanta, and that Thomas was beginning to cross Peachtree Creek, five miles north of the city. Thus a wide gap existed between the two wings of the Union army. Hood at once decided to exploit it. At a late-night conference with his top generals he outlined a plan whereby, come tomorrow, Wheeler and Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, who now headed Hood's former corps, would hold McPherson and Schofield in check while Hardee's and Stewart's Corps, under the operational command of Hardee, attacked Thomas's forces and drove them back to the banks of the Chattahoochee and Peachtree Creek at the point where the latter flowed into the former, trapping and destroying them. Then the following day the whole Confederate army would fall upon and crush McPherson and Schofield.


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BATTLE OF PEACHTREE CREEK
Sherman's army advanced southward from the Chattahoochee in two groups. One, consisting of McPherson's Army of the Tennessee and Schofield's Army of the Ohio, marched to the Decatur area where it severed the Georgia Railroad and then turned west toward Atlanta. The other, Thomas's Army of the Cumberland (IV, XIV, and XX Corps), moved on Atlanta directly from the north. Hood, perceiving the wide gap between the Union forces, decided to exploit it. On the afternoon of July 20, Hardee's and Stewart's Corps assailed Thomas south of Peachtree Creek. Although the Confederates achieved some initial successes against the surprised Federals, their attack failed owing to poor coordination and inadequate strength.

If successful, this plan would result in the greatest victory of the war. Unfortunately for the Confederates, it was based on the premise that McPherson and Schofield were advancing toward Decatur when in fact they were advancing from it and so were closer to Atlanta than Hood thought. Consequently, late on the morning of July 20 Wheeler, whose cavalry, fighting dismounted, opposed Mcpherson's advance along the Decatur-Atlanta road, had to call for help from Cheatham on his left. This caused Cheatham to shift to his right, which in turn obliged Hardee and Stewart to slide rightward also, thereby delaying their attack, which had been scheduled to begin at 1 P.M., by several hours.

MAJOR GENERAL BENJAMIN F. CHEATHAM

Yet Hardee's and Stewart's redeployment actually enhanced their prospects of success, for it placed most of Hardee's Corps beyond Thomas's left flank, which was held by Newton's division of the IV Corps—that corps' other two divisions were with Schofield—and put Stewart's Corps in position to assail the mainly unentrenched XX Corps instead of the strongly fortified XIV Corps, whose commander, General John Palmer, did not share the prevailing Union view that there was little or no danger of a Rebel attack north of Atlanta. In short, luck was with the Confederates; now all they needed was skill and determination.

Both of these qualities were conspicuous for their absence in Hardee's assault. Bate's Division on the right literally got lost in the Peachtree Creek bottomlands and thus did not engage the enemy, at least not seriously. In the center Major General W. H. T. Walker's Division delivered a series of disjointed charges that Newton's troops, fighting from behind hastily improvised breastworks, easily repelled. And on Hardee's left Cheatham's Division, headed by Brigadier General George Maney, either did not attack at all or else went to ground on beholding Yankee trenches. With about 15,000 available troops, Hardee failed to dislodge, much less overpower, Newton's 3,200 men.

ON-THE-SCENE SKETCH BY THEODORE H. DAVIS SHOWS GENERAL HOOKER'S POSITION DURING THE BATTLE OP PEACHTREE CREEK ON JULY 20. (COURTESY OF AMERICAN HERITAGE PRINT COLLECTION)

Stewart's attack, in contrast, was everything that Hardee's was not. Delivered with great ferocity by Loring's and Major General Edward Walthall's Divisions—Stewart had to hold back Major General Samuel French's Division and two brigades to cover his left flank—it nearly broke through the XX Corps, which was caught off guard and for the most part undeployed and unfortified. Loring's and Walthall's four brigades, however, simply lacked the strength to sustain their advances against Hooker's nine brigades, which quickly rallied, and so they had to retreat. Undaunted, Stewart called on Hardee to renew the attack. Hardee concurred and ordered forward Cleburne's Division, hitherto held in reserve. But before Cleburne's crack troops could charge, Hardee received word from Hood that Wheeler urgently needed assistance, whereupon he canceled their assault and sent them to the east side of Atlanta. So ended the Battle of Peachtree Creek. In it Hood, who lost at least 2,500 men, was foiled in his attempt to smash one-half of Sherman's army as a prelude to doing the same to the other half. Yet Sherman deserved no credit for the Union victory, which cost nearly 2,000 casualties, most of them in the XX Corps. Because he was east of Atlanta, where he expected Hood to make a stand if he made one at all, he did not even know the battle had taken place until he received at midnight, six hours after it ended, a message from Thomas informing him of it. Moreover, during the height of the fighting along Peachtree Creek he sent an order to Thomas to occupy Atlanta, as there was no strong enemy force to oppose him. Finally, he did nothing to push forward McPherson, who, instead of sweeping aside Wheeler's cavalry with his 25,000 infantry, advanced with such cautious slowness on Atlanta that nightfall found him still more than a mile from the city. It was a case of Snake Creek Gap and Resaca all over again, and again Sherman must share the responsibility with McPherson.

THIS PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN AFTER THE BATTLE OF PEACHTREE CREEK SHOWS THE GRAVES OF SOME WHO PERISHED THERE. (USAMHI)

The failure to drive Thomas into the Chattahoochee disappointed but did not discourage Hood: Sherman's army remained divided and hence vulnerable. Learning that McPherson's left flank was exposed—Sherman had sent off the cavalry that should have been screening it to raid the railroad between Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia—Hood on the night of July 21 sent Hardee's Corps and Wheeler's cavalry swinging around that flank with orders to march to Decatur, then in the morning to pounce on McPherson from the rear, routing his forces and opening the way for Cheatham's troops to join with Hardee's and Wheeler's in doing the same to the rest of the Union army east of Atlanta. Meanwhile, Stewart. whose corps had fallen back to the city's north-side fortifications, would hold Thomas in check.

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