By Charlie Crawford, president
Georgia Battlefields Association
Many residents and others who travel through Buckhead are unaware that a major Civil War battle—the Battle of Peachtree Creek—was fought there on July 20, 1864.
Since early May, Federal armies under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had been advancing southward from the Ringgold (GAS) area. Opposing them were Confederates under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. On July 8 and 9, Federals crossed the Chattahoochee River at Sope Creek, Roswell, and Power’s Ferry, and the Confederates withdrew into a defense line that stretched from the present day Crest Lawn Cemetery (off Marietta Boulevard), through what is now the I-75/85 split, and across the north end of Piedmont Park before turning south to protect the city against an advance from the east.
On the morning of Sunday, July 17, Sherman put his three armies in motion towards Atlanta: the Army of the Tennessee (about 35,000 men) moved from Roswell towards Decatur; the Army of the Ohio (10,000) from the Power’s Ferry area through Sandy Springs towards Old Cross Keys; and the Army of the Cumberland (50,000) from Pace’s Ferry and Power’s Ferry southward through Buckhead.
That evening, as Gen. Johnston was planning a counterattack to drive the Federals back, a telegram arrived relieving him from command of the Confederate forces and appointing Gen. John B. Hood in his place. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wanted a general who would fight instead of withdrawing, and—whatever the pros and cons of his decision to remove Johnston—Davis had certainly chosen a fighter when he selected Hood.
As the Federals headed south over the following days, their forces became spread over a wider area. On July 19, when Sherman was handed an Atlanta newspaper reporting Johnston’s dismissal and Hood’s appointment, he consulted Army of the Ohio commander Maj. Gen. John Schofield, who had been Hood’s classmate at West Point. When Schofield indicated that Hood would attack and soon, Sherman ordered his armies to converge more quickly on Atlanta in order to bring his forces within supporting distance of each other. Still, Maj. Gen. George Thomas and his Army of the Cumberland were somewhat separated from the rest of the Federal forces.
When he was removed from command, Johnston was planning a counterattack that would hit Thomas and his Federals as they crossed Peachtree Creek. Hood adapted this plan and ordered an assault for 1 p.m. on Wednesday, July 20. But on the morning of the 20th, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, commanding Confederate cavalry east of Atlanta, reported that the Federals (under McPherson) had taken Decatur and were approaching Atlanta sooner than expected. Consequently, Hood ordered Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. “Frank” Cheatham, who had succeeded to the command of Hood’s former corps, to move his troops farther along the outer defense line to the east and south. Hood also ordered Hardee’s and Stewart’s corps, who were to make the afternoon assault, to move to the right to keep in contact with Cheatham’s men. The movement to the right (east) went farther and took longer than expected, pulling Hardee’s and Stewart’s men away from ground with which they had become familiar and delaying the assault; but the movement also positioned the Confederates opposite Federal divisions—under Williams, Geary, Ward, and Newton—that had had less time to entrench since they had crossed Peachtree Creek more recently than the divisions—under Davis, Baird, and Johnson—farther to the west. In fact, Ward’s Division of Hooker’s XX Corps was still in the low ground (currently the Bobby Jones golf course) immediately south of Peachtree Creek, creating a gap between Geary’s and Newton’s divisions.
The first map shows the situation in mid afternoon of Wednesday, July 20, 1864, as the Confederate divisions under French, Walthall, Loring, Maney (formerly Cheatham’s division), Cleburne, Walker, and Bate are about to attack northward from the outer defense line.
The plan was for Bate’s division to lead the attack, keeping its right along Clear Creek and being first to hit the Federals, followed by the other divisions from right to left; but the plan quickly went wrong: Bate’s men floundered in the swampy undergrowth (now Brookwood Hills) and never fully engaged the Federal infantry, while Federal Gen. Thomas himself, positioned where Peachtree Road crosses Peachtree Creek, directed artillery fire over the hill and into the Confederate troops. Bradley’s Federal brigade swung from Peachtree Road onto the high ground on the north side of what is now Brighton Road and prevented any Confederate attempt to flank the Federal position.
Maj. Gen. W.H.T. Walker’s Confederate division was actually first to strike the Federal line, just north of where Collier Road intersects Peachtree Road (where Piedmont hospital is today). Kimball’s and Blake’s brigades of Newton’s Federal division repulsed the attack. Maney’s Confederate division advanced too slowly to help Walker’s assault, and Gen. Hardee held Cleburne’s division in reserve, waiting to exploit a penetration that never occurred.
Farther west, Loring’s division of Stewart’s corps put only two brigades—Featherston’s and Scott’s—into action, but they came closest to breaking the Federal line, hitting the gap between Newton’s division and Geary’s division. Hearing the firing, the brigade commanders—Wood, Coburn, and Harrison—of Ward’s division rushed their men southward (to about where Redland Road is today) and delivered a shattering fire on Featherston’s brigade as it crested Collier Road. Next in line, Scott’s Confederate brigade overran a Federal regiment (33rd New Jersey) that had been sent forward to scout the area and then heavily pressed the left of Maj. Gen. John Geary’s division.
Walthall’s Confederate division also sent only two brigades—O’Neal’s and Reynolds’—into the attack, with Reynold’s Arkansas troops marching north along Howell Mill Road. Walthall’s two brigades pushed back Geary’s right, bending the Federal division into almost a Z-shape. Through great effort, Geary was able to connect his right flank to the left of the adjacent Federal division under Maj. Gen. Alpheus Williams. Reynolds’ brigade suffered especially from the flanking fire delivered by Williams’ men as the Confederate troops charged down a ravine (now between Norfleet and Springlake Roads).
French’s Confederate division also sent two brigades out of the trenches: They were to support Walthall’s brigades and exploit any breakthrough. As it turned out, they marched to the area but did not attack, losing only a few men to artillery fire.
The second map shows the maximum penetration of the Confederate attacks, between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. on 20 July. By 6 p.m., all the Confederate assaults had been repulsed. Gen. Hardee was contemplating a renewal of the attack, using Maney’s and Cleburne’s divisions, when a message arrived from Hood, indicating that the Federals were pressing the Confederate right between Decatur and Atlanta and ordering Hardee to send a division to Gen. Wheeler’s aid. In response, Hardee sent Cleburne’s division, the only one that had not attacked (though it did receive casualties from artillery fire), and called off any renewal of the assault.
The fighting in this area came to be known as the Battle of Peachtree Creek. About 2500 Confederates and 1900 Federals were killed, wounded, or captured on these fields. The Confederate plan to have seven divisions strike four Federal divisions made sense, but execution of the plan was poor. In summary: Where the Confederates had the numbers (Bate, Walker, and Maney against Newton), they didn’t fight well; and where they fought well (Walthall and Loring against Williams, Geary, and Ward), they didn’t have the numbers.
Gen. Hood would continue his efforts to drive the Federal forces away from Atlanta, resulting in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22 and the Battle of Ezra Church on July 28. By the time the Confederates retreated from Ezra Church late on July 28, Hood had lost over 11,000 men in the 11 days he had been in command. Even President Davis, who had sought an aggressive commander, cautioned against further attacks. The Battle of Peachtree Creek, which unfolded in an area now covered with buildings and highways, was the first battlefield demonstration that Hood would not be able to drive the Federals away from Atlanta.
Tanyard Creek Park is about the only open, green space left from the entire battle area. While Georgia Historical Commission markers (mostly erected in the 1950s in preparation for the Civil War Centennial) dot the area and a stone monument (erected in 1944) sits in front of Piedmont Hospital, the battlefield sits largely unnoticed under the buildings and streets of Buckhead.