Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It was no walk in the park for Confederates on the attack at Battle of Peachtree Creek

Tanyard Creek Park in Atlanta's Buckhead community

Yesterday morning, while on a day off from work, I decided to fill in a hefty gap in my travels to Civil War-related sites in metro Atlanta.

I drove into Buckhead, a major commercial and residential district in Atlanta, to walk a portion of the Battle of Peachtree Creek battlefield and drive through affluent neighborhoods where vicious fighting occurred on July 20, 1864.

Let me tell you: Turning into Tanyard Creek Park is not for the faint of heart. Commuters and service trucks whizzing along a curvy stretch of Collier Road don’t give you much time to slow to find or turn into the entrance.

But once there, I was rewarded with a scenic, narrow park that is popular with dog walkers, bicyclists and joggers. The creek, Tanyard Branch, runs north-south in what was the center of the Confederate assault on Union divisions waiting for them just below the east-west Peachtree Creek.

I was armed with a 1964 centennial map produced by what was then called the State Highway Department of Georgia. The map, with a legend, details the battles of Peachtree Creek, Atlanta (July 22, 1864) and Ezra Church (July 28), all doomed assaults by Gen. John Bell Hood, a fearless, young commander who observers say had been promoted beyond his abilities.

Near the parking lot and steps leading down to a trail, bronze tablets, installed by the city in 1964, give an overview of the battle and precise details of troop locations and movements. Unfortunately, like many markers and monuments of the time, there is little in the way of the humanity of the story.

You will have to drive north a couple miles to the Atlanta History Center to get that.

A wide, concrete trail part of the ambitious Atlanta BeltLine transportation and economic development project is the focal point now of Tanyard Creek Park. Opened in 2010, the trail is considered one of the most scenic in the BeltLine system. 

“The neighborhoods around Collier Hills are now linked by a continuous mile long trail. The updated trail traverses the Howard Property, ‘Cathedral Woods,’ and Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta Memorial Park, completing a gap between the existing trail in Ardmore Park and another that terminates at the intersection of Northside Drive and Woodward Way,” says the website.

My midday walk was very pleasant. I crossed a couple bridges and a playground as I gazed up at streets on either side of the tranquil park. A meadow and the grass were well-maintained.

Not that everyone was thrilled with a trail going through a battlefield. A letter writer in a local newspaper in 2007 lamented: “I thought about how beautiful this park is, and how fitting a tribute it is to the men who lost their lives in the struggle for it – and then of the reality of how a bike path running through it would ruin those two things and render it just another piece of city real estate.”

With hindsight a few years after the trail opened, I am not sure I agree with his assessment. The trail system and other parts of the Atlanta BeltLine are bringing a strong sense of community and direction to many of the city’s neighborhoods. And the park is beautiful.

The scene and grave markers after Peachtree Creek

Still, I had a hard time imagining the scene of Confederate troops under Gens. William Hardee and Alexander Stewart hurrying into battle.

Hood had taken command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee just two days earlier after President Jefferson Davis had sacked Joseph E. Johnston, who had waged a defensive strategy against William T. Sherman. That strategy had resulted in the army’s gradual retreat from North Georgia to the vital city’s defenses, and Davis was convinced Johnston might give up Atlanta itself without much of a fight.

Hood, known as a fierce fighter, modified Johnston’s plan to attack Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland near Peachtree Creek.

A marker on busy Collier Road in Buckhead.

The men in gray began the assault mid-afternoon on July 20 and things got tough quickly. The hilly terrain and ravines made communication and coordination difficult.

An About.com article provides this account: “While Major General William Bate's division on the Confederate right became lost in the Peachtree Creek bottomlands, Major General W.H.T. Walker's men assaulted Union troops led by Brigadier General John Newton. In a series of piecemeal attacks, Walker's men were repeatedly repulsed by Newton's division. On Hardee's left, Cheatham's Division, led by Brigadier General George Maney, made little headway against Newton's right. Further west, Stewart's corps slammed into Hooker's men who were caught without entrenchments and not fully deployed. Though pressing the attack, the divisions of Major Generals William Loring and Edward Walthall lacked the strength to break through XX Corps.”

Stewart continued the attacks, but Hardee canceled one by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne when Hardee decided to aid Confederate cavalry elsewhere. Hardee was later criticized for his corps’ performance.

While there were near-breakthroughs, Hood’s aggressive attack, like the clashes to come, proved disastrous for the Confederacy. The estimated 4,700 casualties at Peachtree Creek included about 2,600 for the Rebels.

After leaving the park, I drove along several streets where the fighting and troop movements occurred: Northside Drive, Howell Mill Road and Wilson Road. While there are a few monuments amid the high-end neighborhoods, it’s the geography of the place that is most telling. The hills and ravines played to the advantage of the defenders – in this case, the Federals – at Peachtree Creek.

Train trestle in Tanyard Creek Park


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  2. A resident in the area told me that the city had originally proposed to tear down a bunch of trees in the park. The citizens rose up, hired their own professional arborist, and were able to prove to the city tha many of the trees could be saved.