The Iron Game at Peach Tree Creek

The 73rd Illinois, popularly known as either the Persimmon Regiment for its proclivities at emptying fruit orchards during the 1862 Kentucky campaign or the Preacher Regiment for the profusion of preachers within its ranks (preachers don’t steal fruit, right?), was a tough unit that earned its reputation as part of Phil Sheridan’s hard fighting division of the Army of the Cumberland. After suffering heavy losses at Chickamauga, the 73rd Illinois was folded, along with the rest of the 20th Army Corps, into the newly formed 4th Army Corps and served there for the rest of the war.

          Mid-July 1864 found the regiment marching towards Atlanta where our unnamed correspondent picks up the story of one of the toughest fights of the campaign: July 20th along Peach Tree Creek. His regiment was well out in front of the rest of the Army of the Cumberland that afternoon when he heard a noise that made his hair stand on end- it was the Rebel yell. “Not a clear and distinct yell such as the Yankees give, but a mingling of voices, indescribable, yet hideous. We who had heard that noise at Stones River and Chickamauga knew well its import. It told us that the Rebels were charging. We knew that they were aiming to cut off and capture us; not our regiment alone, but the whole division, and then drive Hooker across the river- this was the program,” he wrote.  

          The correspondent, known only as J. (maybe Colonel James F. Jaquess), had the following account published in the August 6, 1864 edition of the Daily Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois.

 

Headquarters flag for the 4th Army Corps of the Department of the Cumberland. During the battle of Peach Tree Creek, the 4th Corps was under the command of Major General Oliver Otis Howard. Upon the death of General James B. McPherson on July 22nd, Sherman decided to give Howard command of the Army of the Tennessee, a decision which so angered Joe Hooker that Hooker asked to be relieved from command of the 20th Army Corps. Sherman was only too glad to accept and was glad to be rid of his argumentative and at times fractious subordinate.

Two miles from, Atlanta, Georgia

July 27, 1864

          Since I last wrote to you, the army has crossed and got into position on the south side of the Chattahoochee River and has materially lessened the distance between it and the Gate City as some are pleased to style Atlanta. Johnston has been relieved and General Hood placed in command of the doomed army of the South. This change in commanders is doubtless the result of Bragg’s visit to Atlanta, who it is well known bears Johnston no great love. I wish he had visited this army sooner if the removal of Johnston was to be the result; had Hood been placed in command of the army before it left Dalton, he could not now have an army sufficient to have made a fight for Atlanta, that is if he had followed out the same policy he has inaugurated since taking command.

          The morning of July 18th again found the 4th Army Corps in motion once more inaugurating the “on to Atlanta” move. The 20th Army Corps crossed the river the day before and had formed a line of battle to the right of the 4th Corps though not connecting with it. We advanced without much opposition nearly three miles. On nearing Nancy’s Creek, the enemy began to manifest a disposition not to fall back any farther. Our division, which was in front, was deployed into line of battle at the same time batteries were put in position on commanding points. Again the skirmishers (who had been checked momentarily in their advance) moved forward and drove the enemy across the creek; at the same time, Hooker’s forces were seen moving on their flanks, suggesting to the Johnnies a probability of capture if they did not immediately fall back and that, too, in quick time.

General Nathan Kimball's brigade of Newton's division of the 4th Corps consisted of eight regiments, most of them from Sheridan's old Third Division of the 20th Corps. The command consisted of the 36th Illinois, 88th Illinois, and 24th Wisconsin (all from the old First Brigade once under Joshua Sill), the 44th Illinois, 73rd Illinois, 2nd Missouri, and 15th Missouri from the old Second Brigade under Colonels Schaefer and Laiboldt, and the 74th Illinois brought over from Jefferson Davis' old First Division. 


          Our advance was not again stubbornly disputed that day and by 2 p.m. we halted at Buckhead Crossroads, nearly six miles from our starting point. Here we threw up a line of works, a precaution never neglected by our corps commander when we halt near the enemy. Next morning a force was sent out to reconnoiter as far as Peach Tree Creek, or at least for the purpose of finding out whether there were any Rebels north of the Peach Tree. Not much force being found, Wood’s division was advanced with orders to cross the creek if possible. He crossed the creek, surprised the enemy, and captured some 30 prisoners belonging to the famous Rock City Guards [1st Tennessee Infantry].

          In the evening, a portion of our division crossed the creek to the support of Wood’s division. The morning of the 20th found Wood’s division relieved by ours and moving to the left, getting into position immediately to the right of Stanley, his right and our left being connected by a skirmish line. About noon, the 3rd Division of the 20th Army Corps crossed the creek and formed on our right, filling up the gap existing between our right and Geary’s left Geary commands the 2nd Division of the 20th Army Corps and had crossed and got into position the night before. The interval that existed in the line between Geary and Newton was a flat field which was commanded by a hill in front which was still held by the Rebel skirmish line; but from which they were soon dislodged by skirmishers thrown out by the 3rd Division immediately after its crossing.

          The position of our troops on the south bank of the Peach Tree Creek at 1 p.m. was as follows: on the right in a good position well-fortified was 2nd Division of the 20th Corps; next to that occupying a flat field commanded by the surrounding ridges is the 3rd Division of the same corps; to the left of and opposite upon a ridge that gradually loses itself in the above named flat field is the 2nd Division of the 4th Corps, occupying works which they built the night before. Our right depended upon Ward’s division (3rd) for support; with that gone, we would not long hold our position against a superior force and Ward, to remain upon the south side of the creek, must advance his line of battle to the crest of the ridge already occupied by his skirmishers. For him to do this, our whole line must advance. Consequently, at 1:30, the order to advance was given and was responded to by a shout by the 74th and 88th Illinois regiments, who were on the skirmish line in our front; the shout plainly told the Rebs that the “Yanks were coming for coming for them.”

Our Correspondent? Maybe
Colonel James F. Jaquess, 73rd Illinois

          The Johnnies fired one volley at the advancing skirmish line and then fell hurriedly back, our men following them nearly half a mile when they halted, and the line of battle immediately commenced throwing up works. Houses and fences rapidly disappeared before the hands of the fortifiers. The 74th and 88th Illinois were relieved from the skirmish line by the 73rd Illinois and 15th Missouri. General Nathan Kimball ordered the skirmishers to advance immediately, charge, and drive the enemy from their works, an order which we found out later in the day was easier given than executed. Forward at the sound of the bugle we moved, the 73rd on the right with its right flank unprotected, and the 15th Missouri on the left with its left flank unprotected. To these two regiments was assigned the task of driving the enemy from and capturing their works. Forward moved our skirmishers under a galling fire from the Rebel skirmishers who were posted behind good works but little in advance of their line.

"Yesterday we had another bloody battle. The Rebels flanked and charged our brigade, and soon the whole division was engaged. They drove us a short distance with heavy loss, but we drove them in return, producing sad havoc in their ranks. The fighting was desperate. They charged on one of our batteries, took two of the guns, kept them only about 10 minutes when most of the were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. Think of men fighting with clubs and swords..." ~Surgeon Jesse W. Brock, 66th Ohio

          We pushed forward to the Collier House from which we could distinctly see the enemy’s main line of works. Our left, under the protection of timber, advanced father than the right. But soon there came a yell, wafted on the breeze from the left. Not a clear and distinct yell such as the Yankees give, but a mingling of voices, indescribable, yet hideous. We who had heard that noise at Stones River and Chickamauga knew well its import. It told us that the Rebels were charging. We knew that they were aiming to cut off and capture us; not our regiment alone, but the whole division, and then drive Hooker across the river- this was the program.

          Before we commenced falling back, the left of our line of battle was hotly engaged with the enemy; a heavy column was also moving down a hollow on our right with a view to break through between General Hooker and our division and assail us on the right flank, thereby making our capture sure. The 15th Missouri had already been driven back. Nothing could be gained by remaining where we were; besides, if we remained there a short time longer, we would doubtless have had the pleasure of visiting Atlanta in advance of our army.

Corps badge of the Second Division of the 4th Army Corps

          We fell back and formed on the right of the First Brigade of our division. By this time, the whole line was engaged and the roar of musketry I have never heard equaled except at Chickamauga. It was but little after 2 p.m. when the fight opened, and it raged with unabated fury until dark. Seven times did the enemy charge our division and each time they were repulsed with great slaughter. That afternoon there were killed, wounded, and captured by our division more Rebels that we had effective men. In front of Hooker, it was an open field fight, neither side having any protection except what was afforded by the natural conformation of the ground.

The Union loss on the 20th was 1,733 killed, wounded, and missing. It is a difficult matter to find out what the loss of the enemy was, but it far exceeds ours. In front of Hooker there were put out of the fight 6,000 of the enemy. We buried 563 of the enemy ourselves, and the Rebels were permitted to bury 250 additional themselves. I do not think that the Rebel loss can fall far short of 10,000 in killed, wounded, and missing. We captured 300 prisoners. So, you see Mr. Editor that we are having lively times down in this section, and that the “Iron Game” is going steadily on and will soon come to a close by the playing-out of the rebellion. We are having very fine weather though I would enjoy it more if it was not quite so warm. Our troops are in fine spirits.

Source:

Letter from J., 73rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Daily Pantagraph (Illinois), August 6, 1864, pg. 1

Letter from Surgeon Jesse W. Brock, 66th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Urbana Citizen & Gazette (Ohio), August 25, 1864, pg. 3


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