Earlier this week, the anniversary of one of the most significant battles in our nation’s history passed once again with little to no fanfare.
On July 20, 1864, a Union army, under the leadership of George H. Thomas, met a Confederate army under the recently installed John Bell Hood along Collier ridge. More than 40,000 soldiers collided in a bloody and pitched fight for two hours late in the afternoon.
The result was a Union victory.
It may be somewhat hyperbolic to write a short battle played a significant role in our nation’s history, but I like to play fast and loose with the “what ifs.”
The Battle of Peachtree Creek, as it is known, was one of many that made up the Atlanta Campaign during the Civil War. The fall of our city — a key logistics hub — was the beginning of the end of the war.
But the battle that took place in Buckhead was a failure that might not have been.
I am not a Confederate apologist. I’ll go a step further. I’ve read books on war as well as the critical campaigns. I watched Ken Burns’ epic documentary. I have written more on the Battle of Peachtree Creek than just about another subject.
However, I have long felt the Civil War obsession around Atlanta and the South was a bit much.
It’s a fascinating subject, no doubt. But does it warrant historic markers detailing troop movements all over Atlanta? Not in my opinion, given there are many historical sites and events that remain unmarked.
I will now very lightly dissect what happened at the Battle of Peachtree Creek and how things may have gone differently if not for a decision made more than 500 miles away.
The Confederate Army charged with holding off the Federal advance was the Army of Tennessee, under Joseph E. Johnston. A West Point graduate and a civil engineer, he was intelligent and patient.
He faced three Federal armies: the army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio. The United States named its armies after rivers, thus the Tennessee and the Ohio, whereas Confederate armies took their names for their states.
Outmanned nearly 2 to 1, Johnston continuously but strategically retreated. The Chattahoochee River served as the last natural barrier and was well fortified. Federal troops simply outflanked the defenses and crossed on July 8 with little resistance.
At Peachtree Creek, Johnston planned to go on the offensive against the Army of the Cumberland.
It was not to be. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, having grown impatient with the constant retreating, relieved him of his command. On the eve of the fateful battle, Hood took over, serving as lieutenant general.
Hood ordered the attack July 20, 1864 at 1 p.m. Because of communications issues and not knowing where the enemy was, it didn’t occur until 4.
That was an omen. The assault was brutal but largely ineffective. The Federal lines held. It was a loss for the Confederates and a costly one at that.
The already-outnumbered South suffered 2,500 causalities, while the North suffered 1,750.
Firing Johnston and replacing him with Hood is generally seen as the reason. No one knows what would have happened had Johnston launched the assault he had carefully planned. It certainly would have come off sooner, and perhaps the Federal position would not have been as well defended.
The city of Atlanta fell on Sept. 2. My great-great-great-granddad, Alfred Austell, was among the eight men who rode out under a white flag with Mayor James Calhoun. The war, which had for many become a bloody quagmire, was suddenly winnable.
Two months later, the United States reelected Abraham Lincoln over Democrat George McClellan, whose position was to maintain the Union but not abolish slavery. The Democratic platform, however, was an immediate end to the war and a negotiated peace with the Confederacy.
If Johnston had been successful, he might well have delayed the fall of Atlanta. A small victory may have restored some hope to the lost cause. I have no doubt Gen. William T. Sherman would eventually take Atlanta, but a successful attack would have slowed the advance.
If Atlanta is still standing on Nov. 8, perhaps a weary nation tired of the bloodshed changes course and elects a man whose party platform was to end the conflict and allow slavery to continue.