President Benjamin Harrison instantly recognized the waters of the Chattahoochee River when he visited Atlanta in 1891.
As his train car made its way to the city after a stop in Marietta, the president identified the waterway as they crossed, saying, “Here is the Chattahoochee River.” The Atlanta artillery fired its canons 44 times in his honor when the train passed over it.
It was a fitting welcome for a man who knew Georgia only as a soldier and a commander. Now he was returning as the most powerful man in the country.
During his stop in the Gate City, the one thing he wanted to do was visit the battlefield of the Battle of Peachtree Creek in Buckhead, a place he knew well. It proved more difficult than he or the leaders of Atlanta could have known.
April 15, 1891 Georgia Gov. William Northen and Atlanta Mayor William Hemphill greeted the president and his entourage, which included Harrison’s wife, members of his family and several cabinet members. Harrison is considered the first president to do a whistle-stop tour, where politicians made speeches from an open platform of a railroad car in towns and cities across the country.
In Atlanta, he and his traveling party disembarked. The president would attend a reception at the governor’s mansion later that evening, but he wanted to visit the Peachtree Creek battlefield that afternoon.
A lawyer and politician when the Civil War broke out, Harrison helped organize the 70th Indiana Infantry. He enlisted as a second lieutenant, but Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton promoted him to colonel of the regiment despite the fact he had no military experience.
Harrison’s regiment fought at Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Lost Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain before arriving in Buckhead that fateful July afternoon.
By then, Harrison commanded a brigade consisting of the 102nd, 105th and 129th Illinois Infantry regiments, plus the 79th Ohio Infantry and his own 70th Indiana.
His report dated Aug. 12, 1864 is a riveting, first-hand account of the two-hour Confederate offensive. It begins, “I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my brigade in the battle of July 20 (Peach Tree Creek):”
The battle raged from Howell Mill to Brookwood Hills along present-day Collier Road. Atlanta would fall Sept. 2; the Battle of Peachtree Creek was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
Harrison closed his report by writing, “I desire before closing this report to speak of the bravery and soldierly conduct displayed by the officers and men of my command. The advance was so fierce, steady and well sustained that nothing could withstand it, and was only equaled by the firmness with which, having gained the ridge, they held it against all the attempts of the enemy to repossess it.”
The battlefield held an important place in the heart and mind of the president. According to a newspaper account, several of the finest carriages in Atlanta met the party at the railroad station and traveled north on Peachtree Street.
Around Samuel Walker’s mill, near the exposition grounds, the president stepped out of the carriage and walked about a quarter of a mile up a dirt road. According to the Atlanta Journal, the area was very much in the country. It was an odd sight to see the president of the United States walking up a country road in a “sober suit and a derby hat.”
According to Susan Bernard Kessler in her book “Buckhead: A Place for All Time,” the president and his party surveyed what is today Piedmont Park in Midtown from roughly the location of the Piedmont Driving Club.
It seems the Atlanta leadership didn’t know where the Battle of Peachtree Creek was fought. The journal stated the president visited a battlefield, but he didn’t see the battlefield he had come to see. As far as I know, he didn’t see any battlefield.
He returned to the city to attend the reception with the governor, having failed to lay eyes on the hallowed ground where he lost 32 men and his soldiers withstood an overwhelming offensive with far fewer men.