Future President Benjamin Harrison’s Report on His Brigade at the Battle of Peachtree Creek
On July 17th, 1864, Lieutenant General John Bell Hood replaced General Joseph E. Johnston as commanding officer of the Confederate Army of Tennessee after the latter failed to stop Union
forces under Major General William T. Sherman from closing in on Atlanta. The government in Richmond wanted more aggressive tactics against the Federals, and Hood had a reputation for being an aggressive fighter. Hood decided to go on the offensive, and planned an attack against the Union 4th and 20th Corps, part of Major General George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland after the two corps crossed Peachtree Creek, an east west running waterway north of Atlanta that emptied into the Chattahoochee River. Hood’s goal was to trap this portion of Sherman’s army between the two rivers, cutting it off and compelling the two corps to surrender or be destroyed before they could be reinforced.
On July 20th, the 4th and 20th Corps had crossed Peachtree Creek but had not yet fortified their positions when Hood attacked with two corps under Generals Alexander Stewart and William J. Hardee. There were attacks and counterattacks by the two sides, and while the Union line bent in a few places, the Federals successfully repelled the Confederate attacks and held.
Colonel Benjamin Harrison of the 70th Indiana Infantry commanded the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division of Major General Joseph Hooker’s 20th Corps. Harrison had been a lawyer and politician in Indiana who had helped organize theregiment and enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant; however, Indiana governor Oliver Morton had elevated Harrison to colonel of the regiment, an assignment Harrison, who had no military background, reluctantly accepted. Under Harrison’s command, the regiment had fought well at the Battle of Resaca earlier in the Atlanta Campaign. Harrison now found himself in command of a brigade consisting of the 102nd, 105th, and 129th Illinois Infantry regiments, plus the 79th Ohio Infantry and his own 70th Indiana.
The brigade was deployed roughly in the center of the Union line and was heavily engaged with Major General William W. Loring’s division of Mississippi and Alabama troops of Stewart’s Corps. Harrison filed this report on the action of his brigade in the Battle of Peachtree Creek:
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., THIRD DIV., TWENTIETH CORPS,
Before Atlanta, Ga., August 12, 1864.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by my brigade in the battle of the 20th of July (Peach Tree Creek):
After crossing Peach Tree Creek, on the morning of the 20th, the division was massed in a corn-field in the rear of Newton’s division, of the Fourth Army Corps, and while in this position skirmishers were pushed down the creek to connect with those of the Second Division of our corps, and then advanced to a point near the crest of a high hill in an open field which intervened between the right of General Newton’s division and the left of General Geary’s. I was then ordered to move my brigade down the valley of the creek and to form in line at the foot of the hill referred to, connecting my left with the Second Brigade of this division (Colonel Coburn’s) and my right with the left of General Geary’s division. On arriving at the point indicated, I found that General Geary had already occupied the crest of the hill to which I have before referred and that his left was resting in the edge of the timber bordering on a corn-field, where he had some artillery in position. At this point the whole field, which afterward became the battle-ground, could be overlooked, though the crest just here was not so far advanced as that portion of the ridge afterward occupied by this division. The view of the ground thus obtained enabled me to direct the movements of my brigade in the action which followed with much greater certainty and success than I could otherwise have done. When Colonel Co-burn’s brigade was formed and his right established I found that I could only have room enough for one regiment in the interval between his right and General Geary’s left, and reported this fact to the division commander, when each of the other brigade commanders were ordered to throw one regiment on a second line and to close to the left so as to enable me to bring into the first line two more regiments. This change was at once executed, and my brigade was then formed in the following order, viz: In the first line, on the right, the One hundred and second Illinois Volunteer Infantry:, Captain Wilson commanding; in the center, the Seventy-ninth Ohio, Lieutenant-Colonel Doan commanding, and on the left the One hundred and twenty-ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Colonel Case commanding. In the second line, on the right, the One hundred and fifth Illinois, Major Dutton commanding, and on the left, the Seventieth Indiana Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Merrill commanding. After these dispositions had been made the troops were permitted to rest until the residue of the line should be in readiness for the attack which it was intended to make upon the enemy’s lines. In front of my two regiments of the front line on the right there was quite a steep bluff, after rising which there was a level field cultivated in corn some 400 yards across, and beyond which the ground again sloped down toward the bed of a small creek. Between these two regiments and the left regiment of the front line a small stream ran from the southwest, upon which, about 300 yards from where we lay, was a grist-mill. Upon the left of this creek immediately in front of our lines was a low ridge covered with small pines, and still beyond this and a ravine which intervened was a high cleared ridge, which was the line finally occupied by our troops. This ridge was the key point to the whole position. If held by the enemy we should have been forced to retire beyond Peach Tree Creek. At this time I received orders to relieve the One hundred and thirty-sixth New York Volunteer Infantry, then covering my front as skirmishers, by a detail from my brigade when the advance should commence. One hundred men, chiefly Spencer riflemen, from the Seventy-ninth Ohio and One hundred and second Illinois Volunteers, under the command of Captain Williamson, Seventy-ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, were detailed for this duty and held in readiness to advance when orders should be received. While thus formed and waiting I met Colonel Coburn, commanding Second Brigade, who informed me that his skirmishers reported the enemy advancing to attack us and suggested that our line ought to be advanced to the crest of the small ridge which extended itself in front of his line and a portion of the left of my brigade. I concurred in this suggestion and Colonel C[oburn] immediately went to submit the matter to the brigadier-general commanding the division, and very soon afterward I received an order in case the enemy advanced to move forward to the crest of the ridge mentioned. Very soon afterward I saw from the high ground where the left of the Second Division rested the enemy’s advance push out of the woods and press rapidly toward us. I at once ordered my brigade to advance to the crest of the small ridge in our front and there to halt, which was speedily accomplished. Returning to my post of observation, I watched the enemy’s advance over the crest of the higher ridge in our front and down its slope toward us until their lines were scarcely separated by a distance of 100 yards from ours. During this advance the artillery on the left of the Second Division had been pouring into the enemy quite a destructive fire of case-shot and shell, and the skirmishers on my front, re-enforced by the detail of 100 Spencer rifles, which I ordered forward at the beginning of the attack, were punishing the enemy severely. This, together with the long distance the enemy had charged over on the double-quick, had broken his front line to some extent and I could observe many of his men lying down and a few even turning back, while the officers, with drawn swords, were trying to steady their lines and push them forward. Believing it to be of vital importance to strike a counter-blow before the rear lines of the enemy came up, and while his advance was in disorder, and to secure the high ridge in our front, I sent Captain Dunlevy, acting assistant adjutant-general, to order my three regiments on the left of the small creek which intersected my line to advance and attack the enemy vigorously, while at the same time I brought forward the two right regiments to the farther slope of the hill, which at this point had not been passed by the enemy, in order to cover the left of General Geary’s line and to connect with my left when it should push the enemy back over the crest. The order borne by Captain Dunlevy was promptly and vigorously executed by the regiments on the left. Our advance, though desperately resisted by the enemy, was steady and unfaltering; the fighting was hand to hand, and step by step; the enemy was pushed back over the crest in our front and the key-point of the battle-field won. When this advance was ordered, the two regiments in my second line, the Seventieth Indiana and One hundred and fifth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, were obliqued to the left, in order to extend my line and cover that flank, and came up into the first line. My line, though thus extended, was still uncovered on the left, and the enemy for a time were on my flank and rear. Captain Dunlevy reported to me that my left regiment, the Seventieth Indiana, would certainly be cut off if its left was not refused. He said he had suggested this to Capt. H. M. Endsley, commanding the left wing of the regiment, but that grizzly old veteran had only stopped to say, “I can’t see it,” and pushed on for the enemy in his front. This danger was soon removed, as I was sure it would be, by the splendid advance of Colonel Coburn’s brigade, which, after fighting its way desperately to the top of the hill, connected with me on the left. After reaching the crest the line was halted, as a farther advance would have exposed both flanks, but the battle was continued for above two hours, with the enemy on the farther slope, who was endeavoring to reform for another attack. The destructive fire we continued to pour into him finally compelled him to retire, broken and thoroughly whipped, to his rifle-pits, which were observable from this point in the woods beyond. The two regiments on my right, though not engaged at such close quarters as those on the left of the creek, owing to the fact that the marshy bed of the creek, which turned to the west along their front, prevented the enemy from pushing up to close quarters, did quite as good service and suffered rather more severely than those on the left. Their fire, which was chiefly oblique, was delivered with coolness and was very destructive. The One hundred and second Illinois, on the right, poured its fire by a right oblique into the columns of the enemy who were pressing General Geary’s front, and aided very essentially in supporting General Geary’s battery, which was at one time very near falling into the hands of the enemy. The Seventy-ninth Ohio, next to this regiment on the left, delivered a left oblique fire, which very essentially aided the line on the left of the creek near the mill, at which point the enemy was pressing in heavy force. While the battle was at its height I observed some of the artillery of General Geary’s division on my immediate right retiring toward Peach Tree Creek, in the rear of our division, and, inquiring of the officer in charge, was told that the right of the Second Division had been broken, and that he was trying to retire his battery a section at a time. While I was conversing with him the situation was made more apparent to me by a heavy fire of musketry being poured into the field where we stood from the rear. A moment’s reflection satisfied me that whatever other portions of the line might do, we must hold our line and fight where we were. The creek (Peach Tree) in our rear at this place, ten feet deep, with very miry banks and bed, had not been bridged, and to attempt to retire across it would have been utter destruction. Concealing the situation (which was rendered more critical by a temporary giving way of Newton’s division on our left)from my officers and men we continued the fight, trusting to the brave troops on our right to recover their ground. While this danger was most apparent a staff officer, who is still unknown, but supposed to be from some command on our right, came to Captain Wilson, commanding One hundred and second Illinois, and told him if he did not retire his regiment it would certainly be cut off. The captain very coolly replied that his regiment had been placed there by me and should stay there until I ordered it away. As the fire slackened rails were gathered and a temporary breast-work thrown up, which, after night, was strengthened and made secure. At one time during the fight our ammunition began to get low and considerable uneasiness was felt lest it might be exhausted. I at once dispatched Lieutenant Mitchell, aide-de-camp, to have a supply brought up, while Captain Scott, acting assistant inspector-general, and others busied themselves in cutting the cartridge-boxes from the rebel dead within our lines and distributing them to the men. The enemy in my front greatly outnumbered me, three distinct lines of battle being discernible as he advanced, while my brigade from the first fought in a single line. The enemy’s dead to the number of 150 were left within our lines and buried by us, while several hundred others were seen upon the open field between the lines, but could not be reached for burial. Among the dead buried were 1 lieutenant-colonel, 2 majors, 2 captains, and 3 lieutenants. We took 155 prisoners, as near as the number can be arrived at, of whom 10 were commissioned officers; 2 stand of colors and 200 stand of small-arms were also captured. The loss sustained by my brigade was very slight compared with that of the enemy, owing to the fact, as I believe, that the enemy, having the higher ground, fired too high. The following is a brief summary of my loss: Killed–1 commissioned officer (Lieutenant Lowes, Seventieth Indiana), 31 enlisted men. Wounded–5 commissioned officers, 144 enlisted men. Total, 181.
I desire before closing this report to speak of the bravery and soldierly conduct displayed by the officers and men of my command. The advance was so fierce, steady, and well sustained that nothing could withstand it, and was only equaled by the firmness with which, having gained the ridge, they held it against all the attempts of the enemy to repossess it. Captain Wilson, commanding the One hundred and second Illinois Volunteer Infantry, though unused to regimental command, managed the regiment with marked skill, and deserves special mention. Lieutenant-Colonel Doan, commanding Seventy-ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, though quite ill, led his regiment into action, and, with the assistance of Capt. Sam. West, a young officer of great merit, handled it with great effectiveness. Of Colonel Case, Major Dutton, and Lieutenant-Colonel Merrill, and the other field officers of their respective regiments, I need only say that they bore themselves as they have ever done during the campaign, with conspicuous courage. To the officers of my staff–Capt. H. M. Scott, acting assistant inspector-general; Captain Dunlevy, acting assistant adjutant-general; Lieutenants McKnight and Mitchell, aides-de-camp, and Lieutenant Merritt, provost-marshal–I must express my thanks for the courage with which they bore my orders on the field amid a storm of shot, and the active intelligence with which they assisted in their execution. The reports of my regimental commanders are sent herewith.
I am, captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Colonel, Commanding First Brigade.
Capt. JOHN SPEED,
The Battle of Peachtree Creek resulted in about 1700 total casualties for the Union side, and about 4800 for the Confederates. Unfazed, Hood went on the offensive again two days later in the Battle of Atlanta.
Benjamin Harrison continued to serve in the army until the end of the war. He was elected the 23rd President of the United States in 1888, and served one term.
Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 by Albert Castel
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXVIII, Part 2
The Seventieth Indiana Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion by Samuel Merrill
Sherman’s Battle For Atlanta by Jacob D. Cox
The Struggle for Atlanta by Oliver O. Howard. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume 4, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.