During the first week of July 1864, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army fell back from its defensive position on Kennesaw Mountain with William T. Sherman’s armies in pursuit. Johnston’s destination was the fortifications along the west bank of the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee was the Rubicon of the Confederacy of sorts, as it was the last natural defensive barrier to the west of Atlanta, yet once again, Sherman outflanked Johnston’s army by sending men around the Confederate right. Once over the river, the Federal Armies of the Tennessee and of the Ohio pushed east toward Decatur and the Georgia Railroad, while the Army of the Cumberland headed south toward Peach Tree Creek, just four miles north of Atlanta.
The Confederate crisis was at its boiling point, and with no indication that Johnston was going to take the fight to the enemy, on July 17, Jefferson Davis sacked his senior commander and replaced him with John Bell Hood, who fancied himself a pupil of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. However, Hood lacked the strategic insight of Lee and the tactical acumen of Jackson and would prove to be a destructive force hitherto unseen by the Confederacy—and not in any way they needed.
As George H. Thomas’s army moved forward, his IV and XX Corps held the center and left, with the XIV Corps on the right.
Hood planned to take the fight to the enemy. On July 20, the Confederate Army of Tennessee would engage with, isolate, and destroy the Army of the Cumberland before Sherman’s other two armies could render assistance. If the Confederates struck hard, with luck they might wreck half of Sherman’s force before the rest of it could respond.
Things went wrong for Hood from the start. A Union force threatened the Confederate right east of Atlanta. In reaction, Hood had to move his whole line in that direction. This had a domino effect, as Lt. Gens. William J. Hardee’s and Alexander P. Stewart’s corps spent an additional 90 minutes shifting to new positions a half-mile to their right. By this time, the last of the Army of the Cumberland had crossed Peach Tree Creek and began entrenching.
Hardee, on the right, did not advance until nearly 3:30 p.m., sending Maj. Gen. William H. T. Walker’s division against the Federal left. As Walker’s men advanced, the Yankees opened on them with musketry and cannon fire. The Southerners made repeated charges until about 6 p.m. without breaching the enemy works. Brigadier General George Maney attacked next, taking up Walker’s assault. For a while, Confederate attackers overlapped the Union line, but a quick adjustment shored up the Federals, and all of Hardee’s attacks failed.
Major General William W. Loring’s division of Stewart’s corps took up the attack next, moving down the valley of Tanyard Creek (Early’s Creek), without success. Another Confederate force managed to overrun a portion of the Union lines, but this success was short lived.
Major General Edward C. Walthall’s Confederate division created a crisis on the other Federal flank. Another brief breakthrough was quickly repulsed by the Yankees. Walthall’s left brigade, under Brig. Gen. Daniel Reynolds, drove in skirmishers of Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams’s division and even took a portion of its main lines. Federal counterattacks and enfilading fire forced Walthall back, causing his attack to fall apart. As darkness approached, Stewart ordered his troops back into their trenches.
By 6:00 p.m., the Battle of Peach Tree Creek was over. Hood’s attack had failed.