Hooker's Finest Hour: With the 20th Corps at Peach Tree Creek

     “The great struggle for Atlanta has now fairly begun and its first sanguinary scenes have already transpired,” wrote Captain Alfred E. Lee of the 82nd Ohio the day after the Battle of Peachtree Creek. “On yesterday occurred the most bloody and obstinate battle which this army has yet fought during the campaign. Almost the entire Army of the Cumberland was engaged, but perhaps on no portion of the line was the battle so fierce and so hot as along that part occupied by General Hooker’s Corps.”

The three divisions of the 20th Army Corps under General Joseph Hooker had moved into line on the left of the 14th Army Corps south of Peachtree Creek and expected to be among the first Federal troops to march into Atlanta. As the men rested atop a ridge, Captain Lee, as assistant adjutant general on the staff of Colonel James S. Robinson in John Geary’s Second Division, had a front row seat to how the generals reacted once it became clear that a fight was imminent.

“There was comparatively little firing in front and so far as human sagacity could determine everything seemed to be going on well. Thomas’ usually serious countenance wore the light of a smile and Hooker’s fine features indicated nothing within to vex their wonted imperturbability. Williams chatted and laughed with as much unconcern as if the cares of war were not worth minding, while Geary, so ordinarily restless and active, seemed for once to have but little to disturb him. But this was not to last. Early in the afternoon the enemy began to grow restive suddenly and about 2 p.m. a heavy discharge of musketry was heard on the left of Williams. In a moment more of the storm began to burst along Williams’ front and everyone sprang instinctively to his feet,” Lee commented.

Captain Lee’s account of Peachtree Creek was originally published in the August 12, 1864, edition of the Delaware Gazette as part 10 of his Notes in Dixie series.

The fighting conducted by Joseph Hooker's 20th Army Corps at Peachtree Creek ranks amongst its best of the war, and it was this engagement that finally convinced General Sherman that the 20th Corps could "toe the mark" just as well as any other troops in his army. Hooker was widely beloved by the men of his corps and his departure from the army mere days after Peachtree Creek was looked upon as a particularly sad event. "Whether the course he pursued was or was not justifiable, the officers and the men of the 20th Corps cannot but sincerely regret the contingency that has deprived them of their beloved and gallant commander," Captain Lee noted. "In their memory and affections, the name of General Hooker occupies an exalted place and can never perish. Always present with his men in the thickest of the fight, sharing their toils and exposures, and exhibiting the most sublime contempt for danger, he was their beau ideal of courage, gallantry, soldierly grace, and bearing." 

 

Four and a quarter miles north of Atlanta, Georgia

July 21, 1864

          The great struggle for Atlanta has now fairly begun and its first sanguinary scenes have already transpired; on yesterday occurred the most bloody and obstinate battle which this army has yet fought during the campaign. Almost the entire Army of the Cumberland was engaged, but perhaps on no portion of the line was the battle so fierce and so hot as along that part occupied by General Hooker’s Corps.

Captain Alfred E. Lee
A.A.A.G., Third Brigade
Second Division, 20th A.C. 

          Early on the morning of the 20th, Hooker’s three divisions crossed Peachtree Creek and took their respective positions on the chain of hills extending along the south bank. The enemy was discovered in strong force in front but it was determined to press him vigorously in order to create a diversion in favor of McPherson who had reached the Georgia Railroad, destroyed the track, and was now advancing upon Atlanta from the direction of Stone Mountain. Nothing being thought of but an advance against the enemy the usual precautions against attack were thought unnecessary. The troops were allowed the rest quietly in the shade after building temporary rail barricades and were not troubled with constructing heavy lines of breastworks which almost invariably cover the line of battle. Williams’ Division held the right of the line, Geary’s the center, and Ward’s the left. Between Geary and Williams lay a deep, woody hollow which occasioned a vacancy in the line and was covered only by the pickets.

          Thus, matters continued until noon. There was comparatively little firing in front and so far as human sagacity could determine everything seemed to be going on well. Thomas’ usually serious countenance wore the light of a smile and Hooker’s fine features indicated nothing within to vex their wonted imperturbability. Williams chatted and laughed with as much unconcern as if the cares of war were not worth minding, while Geary, so ordinarily restless and active, seemed for once to have but little to disturb him. But this was not to last.

 

Many Federal officers were delighted at Hood’s elevation to command as months of fighting the wily Joe Johnston had exhausted their patience. “The patient skill and watchful intelligence and courage with which Johnston had always confronted them with impregnable fortification had been exasperating. They had found no weak joints in the harness and no wish was so common or so often expressed that he would only try our works as we were trying his.” ~ General Jacob D. Cox

 

Early in the afternoon the enemy began to grow restive suddenly and about 2 p.m. a heavy discharge of musketry was heard on the left of Williams. In a moment more of the storm began to burst along Williams’ front and everyone sprang instinctively to his feet. The portend of the firing was unmistakable: the enemy was advancing. Whiz, whiz came the bullets directly over the ridge where the First Division lay grouped in the woods. General Williams immediately ordered his brigades into position. Robinson’s brigade started on the double quick along the crest of the ridge and had hardly formed its line of battle until the enemy in heavy masses came sweeping down upon it, having taken advantage of the hollow previously named to mask his movement. The First Brigade quickly formed on the right of Robinson’s and also became immediately engaged. The battle now raged with indescribable fury. Robinson’s men became mingled with the enemy in an almost hand to hand conflict and captured several prisoners. The Rebels seemed determined to break the line and at all hazards capture the hill. If they could accomplish this, they possess themselves of the key to the whole position and probably inflict upon us an irretrievable disaster.

Map drawn up by Hal Jespersen depicting the Confederate assault on the afternoon of July 20, 1864 from my 2018 book Alfred E. Lee's Civil War


          But in vain did the Rebel masses surge against General Williams’ lines. Though the carnage was awful and the ground became strewn with the bleeding forms of scores of brave men, yet not one inch was yielded to the enemy. Perhaps not in the annals of this war has been seen a more terribly sublime spectacle than that presented by Williams’ brave division in the height of this conflict. It is impossible to describe it. No pen, no tongue is adequate to the task. He alone who has felt the terror, the grandeur, and the awful solemnity of such an occasion can properly appreciate it.

 

“There was a ravine to the right of the 13th New York Battery on our right where the lines did not meet. Seeing this, the Rebs came pouring through the gap. But Major John A. Reynolds, our chief of artillery, detected it just in the nick of time. He sprang to the front saying ‘Men, are you going to see them take those guns?’ All who were within hearing of his voice rallied about him, charged the now confident Rebs, and drove them out of the gap. The guns were manned and double shotted with Minie balls taken from the infantry ammunition boxes that were thrown down near the guns. They were hastily broken open, and the men would tear off a leg of their drawers and others a leg of their pants and after tearing the cartridge from the ball, would fill these up with balls, load them in the guns and hurl them at the advancing foe.” ~ Private Daniel Simms, Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery

 

There is much, alas too much about it that the heart sickens to think or tell of. To see the forms and faces you love streaming with blood or staggering in the dizzy reel of death; to see the motionless limbs and glassy eyes of those whom you so lately met in lusty life; to hear the heart-rending call for help from those whom it is beyond your power to assist; to feel amid all this that the next moment you too may be alike slain or helpless. Oh, it is a terrible ordeal. The stoutest heart need not be ashamed to acknowledge this, and he who has grown so unfeeling as not to appreciate it needs to be pitied.

          The enemy was finally compelled to withdraw a short distance into the timber, which movement abated but did not end the battle. It continued to rage until the slanting beams of the setting sun shot redly through the battle smoke and finally withdrawing from a scene so dreadful, disappeared behind the western horizon. Then it ceased, for the enemy was repulsed at all points and withdrew to his entrenchments. Our troops at once threw up a short line of defensive works and then slept upon their arms. The enemy still remains in front of us in large force though he has not ventured to precipitate himself against the veterans of Pap Williams’ Division and it is not likely that he will. His loss in the attack of yesterday was very great and the woods were strewn with his dead and wounded. Polk’s and Hardee’s Corps seem to have been chiefly engaged in the attack on Hooker. There seems to be little doubt that Johnston has been relieved from the chief command and that the Rebel army is now commanded by Hood.

Source:

Letter from Captain Alfred E. Lee, Co. E, 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Delaware Gazette (Ohio), August 12, 1864, pg. 1

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