July 20, 1864 – Two days after taking command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, General John Bell Hood attacked a portion of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal forces north of Atlanta.
Hood had devised a plan to prevent Sherman’s three armies from approaching the vital industrial and transportation center of Atlanta. According to Hood’s plan:
- The two corps of Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and Alexander P. Stewart would attack Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland as it crossed Peachtree Creek north of Atlanta.
- The corps of Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, along with cavalry and Georgia militia, would keep Thomas isolated by holding off Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio and Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, east of Thomas near Decatur.
Hood positioned Stewart’s corps on the left (west) and Hardee’s on the right. These two corps faced north, while Cheatham’s corps on Hardee’s right faced east to guard against Schofield and McPherson. Hood planned to drive Thomas west, away from both Atlanta and the other two armies, where he would be trapped by the Chattahoochee at his back and forced to surrender. The Confederates could then turn their full attention to Schofield and McPherson.
The attack on Thomas was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., a rather late start for a surprise attack. Hood had ordered Hardee to keep his right linked with Cheatham’s left. However, Cheatham shifted his forces eastward when he received word that Federals were advancing from that area. Hardee extended his lines to reach Cheatham’s left, which delayed the assault.
Throughout the morning of the 20th, Thomas’s Federals continued crossing Peachtree Creek and building defensive fortifications on the south bank. By the time the Confederates finally attacked at 4 p.m., nearly all of Thomas’s army was across the creek and behind defenses. But the enemy assault surprised them nonetheless as they scrambled to hold their ground.
The Confederate attacks were not properly coordinated. On the Confederate right, Hardee did not commit his entire corps; those who were deployed made little progress while sustaining heavy losses. On the Confederate left, Stewart forced several Federal units to retreat and captured a battery. However, a Federal counterattack pushed him back.
Meanwhile, McPherson’s Federals began advancing from Decatur. Cheatham held McPherson less than three miles from Atlanta, as the Federal guns began firing on both Cheatham’s men and the civilians in Atlanta behind them. Hood, who remained at his headquarters four miles behind the front, received an exaggerated report that the Federals were threatening to overrun Cheatham.
Back at Peachtree Creek, Hardee was preparing to commit Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s division against Thomas when he received orders from Hood to send Cleburne to reinforce Cheatham. Cleburne’s Confederates took positions on Bald Hill, a treeless ridge southwest of McPherson’s left flank, which consisted of Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr.’s XVII Corps.
Cleburne’s men enfiladed Blair’s left, wounding Brigadier General Walter Q. Gresham, commanding a division in Blair’s corps. McPherson directed Blair to take Bald Hill, which Blair assigned to Brigadier General Mortimer D. Leggett’s division. Since it was near nightfall when Leggett received the order, he prepared to attack the next morning.
Cleburne’s stand kept McPherson at bay, but it ended any hopes the Confederates had of breaking Thomas’s army at Peachtree Creek. Hood ordered a suspension in the fighting at 7 p.m. The Confederates fell back, and Thomas’s line held. This was the bloodiest battle of the campaign thus far. The Federals suffered 1,779 casualties out of about 20,000 effectives, while the Confederates lost about 4,796 from roughly 20,000.
The delay in attacking proved fatal, as the Federals had already mostly crossed Peachtree Creek and entrenched themselves, thereby holding off the Confederate attacks. Hood erred in continuing the assaults, despite their futility. And Hardee’s failure to commit his entire corps at once was also a contributing factor, along with the transfer of Cleburne’s crack division to Cheatham.
In failing to drive Sherman away from Atlanta, Hood blamed Hardee for the delays and for a lack of aggression. While Joseph E. Johnston had worked to preserve Confederate manpower, Hood suffered tremendous casualties that could not be replaced. Sherman’s Federals now controlled nearly half of Atlanta’s outer perimeter.
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