- The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Effort to Save Atlanta by Earl J. Hess
Historians often include the fall of Atlanta in their catalog of turning points of the American Civil War, owing to its bearing on the presidential election of 1864. One may debate at what point during the Atlanta campaign the city's fate became foreordained, but fall it did. Earl J. Hess makes a convincing case for the ways the events surrounding the July 20, 1864, confrontation between Union and Confederate forces in the fields, ravines, and thickets along the reach of Peach Tree Creek helped produce that outcome. In the wake of his previous studies of the battles of Kennesaw Mountain and Ezra Church, Hess continues his detail-rich analytical style in a comprehensive and balanced narrative.
The battle of Peach Tree Creek occurred after a seventy-four-day advance by combined Union armies under the command of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman southward from Dalton, Georgia, to the south bank of the Chattahoochee River during the late spring and early summer of 1864. It was the first major battle fought in the vicinity of Atlanta, and its consequences, for both sides, influenced the subsequent course of events until the Confederate evacuation of the city on September 2. A product of exhaustive research, the author's depiction of the conflict is meticulous and not for the fainthearted. Herein lies both a strength of and a potential impediment to the author's approach to the narrative. Scholars and Civil War enthusiasts will perhaps appreciate Hess' s description of regimental, divisional, and corps-level tactical movements, while casual readers of military history may have difficulty envisioning the overall ebb and flow of the battle. The accompanying maps are helpful but may not alleviate the problem for some. That being said, Hess punctuates his narrative of battlefield tactics with accounts of the engagement written by its survivors, which serve both to return the reader to the human dimension of combat and to remind us all that Civil War battles were horrendous affairs.
Central to the author' s explanation for the Confederate defeat at Peach Tree Creek is the removal of General Joseph E. Johnston from command of the Army of Tennessee on July 17 and the appointment of Lieutenant General John Bell Hood as his replacement. Hess correctly contends that this action by the Jefferson Davis administration was ill-timed and risky. Johnston was popular with the officers and men in the Army of Tennessee, and Hood, the author suggests, was not the best man for the job. The resultant collapse in morale and "fighting spirit" among the Confederate rank and file contributed significantly to the eventual failure of Hood's first effort to save Atlanta (p. xi).
Hess should be applauded for including an environmental component in his chronicle of the battle. The author peppers his narrative with descriptions of the [End Page 183] ways the landscape both affected and was affected by the battle. He devotes an entire chapter to the management of the dead and wounded and the debris on the battlefield—an aspect of battle narratives that is often only superficially recounted. Finally, and perhaps most poignant, Hess concludes his book with the story of failed attempts to preserve the battlefield from unbridled urban sprawl.
The narrative is not without minor annoyances. The author interchanges Confederates and Rebels throughout the narrative, while the colloquial Yankee for Union soldiers appears rarely. Hess also vacillates between condemnation and sympathy in his estimation of the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston—perhaps a reflection of Johnston's own challenging legacy for biographers. Quibbles aside, The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Effort to Save Atlanta stands as a thoroughgoing analysis of the battle on July 20, 1864, and serves as an important addition to the historiography of the Atlanta campaign and the western theater during the American Civil War.