Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review of Hess - "THE BATTLE OF PEACH TREE CREEK: Hood's First Effort to Save Atlanta"

[The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Effort to Save Atlanta by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Hardcover, 20 maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography index. Pages main/total:259/344. ISBN:978-1-4696-3419-7. $37.50]

The 1864 Atlanta Campaign literature's change in status from one of profound scholarly neglect to dramatic expansion is one of the more remarkable recent developments in Civil War military historiography. For a long time, the best account of the July 20, 1864 Battle of Peach Tree Creek was contained in the relevant section(s) of Albert Castel's first-class Atlanta Campaign study Decision in the West (1992). This changed only recently with the publication of a pair of very useful studies from Robert Jenkins. Appearing in reverse chronological order, his To the Gates of Atlanta: From Kennesaw Mountain to Peach Tree Creek, 1-19 July 1864 (2015) detailed the Union crossing of the Chattahoochee River and the sweeping blue advance south and east toward Atlanta, while the first major clash before Atlanta itself received full treatment for the first time with 2014's The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864*.

Now we have a new examination of the topic in Earl Hess's The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Effort to Save Atlanta. While obviously sharing much common ground with Jenkins in terms of content along with some similar interpretations, Hess's book offers major improvements in organization, presentation, and analysis.

As was the case with Jenkins's two volumes, events preceding the Peach Tree Creek battle receive proper attention in Hess's study. The Union crossing of the Chattahoochee during the second week of July and the advance from the bridgeheads to Peach Tree Creek between July 17 and July 19 were major events in the campaign (if nothing else, they led to the removal of Confederate Army of Tennessee commander Joseph E. Johnston and the appointment of John Bell Hood to the top post), and these moments are meticulously described in The Battle of Peach Tree Creek. The federal movements were fairly cautious all-around but were well managed, and the narrative demonstrates Sherman's skillful use of the road network north of Peach Tree Creek. During this time, the federal commander ably moved his army group forward in stages, seizing key intersections in orderly fashion and leaving few openings for Confederate ripostes. For the opposing side, the book's coverage of the actions and reactions of the Confederate cavalry screen is light by comparison (see notes below).

It would be difficult to argue that the battle was managed particularly well by either side. Though touchy, rank-conscious Joseph Hooker performed well during the campaign as a whole in his uncomfortable subordinate role (and many historians praise his conduct as a corps commander in 1864), he was oddly lethargic at Peach Tree Creek when alacrity was needed. Not his usual bold self, Hooker only lazily advanced across the creek and failed to seek out and connect with both flanks in a timely manner, leaving his own command and others more vulnerable to attack than they should have been on the afternoon of July 20.

Much has been made of the wide gap that existed between Thomas and the rest of the army group to the east and how exploiting it could have inflicted serious damage to Sherman's command. Hess joins those that have chastised the Confederate high command for making no attempt to explore the vulnerabilities of the gap, criticizing in particular General Cheatham's failure to at least advance a line of skirmishers into the void. The problem with this view is that the gap itself was crisscrossed by streams—Clear Creek on the west, Peach Tree Creek to the north, and South Fork of Peach Three Creek to the east—with the terrain in between thickly wooded and covered in underbrush. Any force sent there would have had great difficulty in maintaining order and alignment, and the experience of Bate's division on the 20th seems to argue against the idea of launching any kind of lightning stroke through that sector. While duly noting the lost opportunities at Peach Tree Creek, Hess does favorably acknowledge the alternative Confederate strategy of holding the Peach Tree Creek line with a smaller force and launching the balance of the Army of Tennessee against the Army of the Ohio and the open flank of the Army of the Tennessee (the move that Sherman expected).

Hood's order to shift the army to the right before initiating the advance has been criticized for badly throwing off the Peach Tree Creek timetable and making things much more difficult for the attackers, but Hess notes, as others have before him, that the Union forces were already in position by the originally planned start time (1 p.m.) and the Union dispositions weren't much different by the time the attack was launched between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.. It would have been better to attack even earlier during the crossing itself, but that was never part of the plan.

Hess is critical of Hood's en echelon attack plan, citing how it gave the Union defenders the opportunity to deal with each enemy division in turn. However, echelon assaults were also designed to aid in the coordination of attacks conducted over battlegrounds with poor lateral visibility/communications (like at Peach Creek Creek) and, when well managed, they also had the ability to suck in enemy reserves so that each successive attack had an improved chance of success. Given this, one might argue that the echelon attack at Peach Tree Creek might have unfolded better left to right rather than right to left, leaving Hardee's battering ram as the final decisive blow rather than the first punch. It might also have been the better way to achieve the goal of dislodging and pushing the Union defenders into the tangled confluence of the Chattahoochee-Peach Tree Creek triangle, where the Cumberland army might theoretically have been crushed. Either way, Hess's confident assertion that a timed general attack would have resulted in a better coordinated battle (the Civil War record on those isn't exactly sterling, either) is not entirely convincing. Robert Jenkins's more powerful criticism of the echelon attack centers around its execution. The confusion engendered by the more extreme than planned pre-battle shift to the right, which opened gaps in the line which were unfilled by skirmishers and exacerbated by terrain obstacles, meant that all the attacking divisions landed on unscouted territory and newly separated neighboring units lacked the flank connections necessary to know when to step off their attacks.

Whichever plan was best, the reality was that William J. Hardee's army corps provided the battle's initial blow. Adding to Hardee's failures during what Hess considers the general's worst battlefield moment of the war was a signal lack of artillery support during the fight, though no discussion of favorable candidates for firing platforms and fields of fire is offered in the book. The question of whether the terrain would even have allowed a few supporting batteries, let alone massed artillery, is not answered.

An unintended consequence of the echelon attack is the aid it provides to future historians writing battle studies in chronological sequence. Whereas Hardee outnumbered his foes as much as 5-to-1 yet only feebly attacked, Stewart's Corps encountered the reverse odds in some instances and pressed the attack vigorously. In the battle sector west of Hardee, it was Confederate brigades vs. Union divisions [Featherston vs. Ward, Scott vs. Geary, O'Neal vs. Williams, and Reynold vs. McCook] and the results were predictable, though Scott's Brigade nearly broke through Geary's Division. Throughout the book, Hess draws upon his earlier study of small-unit tactics in the Civil War, and this volume perhaps focuses on the deployment and battlefield ramifications of the various divisional, brigade, and regimental tactical formations more directly than any of the author's earlier battle studies.

Late in the day, two badly understrength brigades from French's Division advanced and deployed on Reynold's left but did not attack. The only artillery support the Confederates were able to deploy effectively was the battalion of Major William Preston, which did some execution. In general, the Confederates did not have the unit density left of Hardee to take advantage of the yawning gaps in Hooker's indifferently positioned corps, and the rebels were uniformly repulsed by a combination of superior numbers, oblique artillery fire from across neighboring ravines, broken terrain, and terrible heat. Given how little Hood accomplished at Peach Tree Creek, it would be difficult to speculate how much better things might have gone had certain elements (e.g. Hardee's willingness to press the attack) transpired differently.

While Hardee and Stewart fought Twentieth Corps and parts of Fourth and Fourteen Corps on July 20 at Peach Tree Creek, the armies of Schofield and McPherson to the east continued their own advance toward Atlanta. On the Union right, the divisions of Stanley and Wood eventually linked up with the Army of the Ohio, but McPherson, in typical fashion, advanced at a snail's pace while only opposed by Wheeler's Confederate cavalry. McPherson's conduct of the movement from Decatur disappointed Sherman, but it did end any chance of a resumption of the fighting at Peach Tree Creek when Patrick Cleburne's reserve division was ordered east to shore up Hood's threatened right flank.

The battle ends with much the book's narrative remaining. Hess covers the Confederate withdrawal to the inner line of fortifications surrounding Atlanta, and he also recounts at some length the methodical federal advance that finally reunited all parts of Sherman's army group and partially invested Atlanta along its north and east faces. Delving into a multitude of individual cases, the book devotes extensive coverage to the plight of the wounded. Tragically, as no major battle was expected, Union medical services were located far to the rear, hampering rapid recovery and treatment of the wounded. Abandoned by their retreating comrades, Confederate casualties fared even worse.

Hess finds little gray area among the opposing reactions to the battle. Used to victory already, Union participants were uniformly ebullient, while Confederates were correspondingly despondent. Lack of southern elan wasn't limited to Hardee's Corps, as the author notes that up to one-third of Featherston's already grossly outnumbered brigade straggled during the battle. While personal disappointment at being passed over for army command may have colored Hardee's weak performance, Hess, as others have done, also attributes Confederate failure to the morale effects of constant retreat along with shock and anger over the replacement of the popular Joe Johnston. Hess might also have considered as contributing factors the lingering emptiness of the previous year's Chickamauga "victory" and the almost inexplicable scale of the Chattanooga rout (to say nothing about their massive casualties).

Hess clearly appreciates the almost impossible situation that Hood was placed in so late in the game, but he also believes that Hood was the wrong person for the job (though other candidates are not raised).  Hood needed weeks not days to acclimate to army command, and the leadership disruption in the wake of Johnston's ouster only made an immediate offensive even more difficult to pull off.  Even so, it's hard to blame Hood personally too much for being ill-informed about the true positions of Sherman's armies or the botched shift to the right that preceded the July 20 battle. Perhaps Hess's most incisive criticism of Hood's attack plan revolves around the impossibly narrow window of opportunity that existed for hitting the Army of the Cumberland when it would be at its most vulnerable (after most of Thomas's army had crossed Peach Tree Creek but before its divisions had a chance to fortify). Hood presumed the ability to predict a precise moment of opportunity without the means of verifying it by advancing his own skirmish line (he left the front to the Union skirmishers) and was, predictably, proved wrong. It is hard not to agree with Hess that Hood's best move would have been to cancel the July 20 attack altogether and instead prepare a nasty surprise for McPherson on the right (which was what the army essentially ended up doing on July 22, but with less preparation and exhausting haste).

The only major element of the study that elicits significant disappointment is the cartography. The hand-drawn quality tactical maps are numerous but profoundly spartan, especially in their depiction of underlying terrain. Though a viable mental picture of the battlefield can be drawn from the excellent narrative, visual reinforcement should have been made a higher priority. The operational-scale maps are slightly better.

Adding to his two previous battle studies of similar authority and scale on Kennesaw Mountain and Ezra Church, Earl Hess has now contributed three invaluable scholarly volumes to the previously neglected but now fast-growing Atlanta Campaign bookshelf. The best overall treatment of the subject, Earl Hess's The Battle of Peach Tree Creek should be regarded as the new standard history of John Bell Hood's first battle as defender of Atlanta.

✯ ✯ ✯

* - Some brief additional notes comparing the Jenkins (2 vols) and Hess treatments of Peach Tree Creek:

Both authors cover roughly the same ground. With an entire book devoted to the period between the Chattahoochee Crossing and the Peach Tree Creek battle, Jenkins's narrative follows fully the actions of Wheeler's cavalry during this period, events largely absent from Hess's account. Jenkins also deals with the PTC crossings at greater length, especially the Moore's Mill fight between Reynold's Arkansas brigade and Jefferson Davis's Union division.

Jenkins's PTC study is more detailed on a granular level, but the manuscript is very rough and the decision to incorporate a unit history of the author's ancestor's regiment further fragments an already unpolished narrative. Hess's book is demonstrably better organized, has superior operational clarity, and its tactical details are more than sufficient. His analysis throughout is also deeper and addresses a wider range of topics.

Both authors are highly critical of Hardee, and their descriptive accounts of the attacks conducted by Hardee and Stewart (as well as the reasons behind their failure) are portrayed in a similar light.

Both books describe the ground on both sides of the Peach Creek Creek battlefield well. However, the maps in the Jenkins book are much more artfully formed and better detailed overall.


  1. Thanks for this review. Too few reviewers draw comparisons with other recent titles on the same subject, which leaves potential purchasers in a quandary. I want to know whether and why I should invest in a book which covers turf which somebody else has covered in the very recent past. Your point about the maps is well-taken. That minimalist approach seems to be the m.o. for all of his battle narratives and the only topographic features which seem to get added are entrenchments (a Hess specialty). One defect in otherwise highly worthwhile books.

    1. I'm trying to think of when he stopped using professional cartography in his books. Seems like it started with his earthworks trilogy but maybe it was before. I wouldn't be surprised if it also had something to do with presses not 'subsidizing' maps anymore. UNC used to be the gold standard, and it would sadden me to learn that they too put the entire cost of cartography onto their authors now.

    2. That seems to be the way things are going, unfortunately. It's too bad when you have a top line "bench" out there in the likes of Stanley, Skoch, and Jesperson. I agree on your point about Jenkins' maps (although I find those in the "prequel" to be better than those in the Peach Tree book). I just wish they weren't all grouped at the beginning of the books.

    3. Same here. The grouping of maps and illustrations at the front seems to be a Mercer thing. There can't be anyone that actually prefers that format.

      Even though he's no longer my favorite, I have a soft spot for Skoch. During the 90s boom in CW military history publishing, his mapmaking represented a real leap forward.

  2. Morning all,

    The margins are so thin and the headwinds strong in publishing that most presses ask the author to pay for the maps, but also (at least in the case of Savas Beatie) have quality cartographers in pocket who will work at a discounted rate to produce them. They, too, love the CW and like to contribute.

    In the early days of digital CW maps (1990s), the cost was as high as $200/map. Today it can be as low as $35-$50.00 because of supply and demand. Also, keep in mind many mapmakers have drawn and redrawn the same fields and actions so how much work is it to take something that is 90% finished and tweak to adjust to the demands of a new author? The answer is "not much."

    I know this firsthand since I used to draft maps for early SB books (see Champion Hill, for example). It was important that I know how to do everything so I know how to value it down the road.

    In my opinion, if an author is going to spend X months or years working on a book, drawing the equivalent of stick-figure maps to save a few bucks rather than paying for half-dozen is indefensible. In fact, we don't allow it at SB, and it is on our contracts. I retain the right of refusal on the quality of the maps.

    If they aren't helpful to readers, why bother?


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