The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood’s First Sortie, 20 July 1864
By Robert D. Jenkins Sr., Mercer University Press 2014, $35 Robert Jenkins Sr. has provided the historical community with its first book-length, in-depth treatment of the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, traditionally understood as the opening of the series of battles for the city of Atlanta itself and the debut of newly appointed Confederate commanding General John Bell Hood. There are a number of remarkable things about Jenkins’ book, and some elements that will certainly fuel debate and perhaps spur the kind of research in which the sometimes-neglected Western Theater campaigns have long been in need.
A remarkable aspect of Jenkins’ book is the dizzying level of detail to which the narration zooms down: details of countless individual units, episodes on the battlefield, types of wounds, and the individual fates of hundreds of individuals. Very seldom will one encounter a major battle in written history where more detail is given about individual participants. This may be a distraction to some readers, who seeking a meta-narrative will instead find themselves reading through several hundred pages of detailed, company-level, individual battle accounts. Some redundancy is inevitable. But it must also be pointed out that the amount of research necessary to produce such detail is prodigious, and perhaps seldom paralleled in a treatment of a single battle. Along with that amount of research comes a degree of authority to comment on the significance of the battle.
This level of detail and the attendant work does come at a cost, however. Although this book is a groundbreaking study of the battle and long overdue, it does in the end lack depth of analysis and leaves unanswered the major questions that came out of the battle: Why did Confederate Gen. William Hardee fail to follow through? Why did Hood not exercise more effective command of subordinates on the battlefield? Why did he not adopt more of his own design for the battle rather than slavishly follow the outline for the campaign established by his predecessor, General Joseph E. Johnston? Jenkins, of course, has his interpretations of these questions, but the lack of a driving meta-narrative waters them down to an extent, and leaves the impression that the author could have said much more.
Historiographically, Jenkins draws heavily at times from the Official Records, which in many recent books on the war seems to have been “mined” so often as to be passé. In this case, fortunately, the effort is more salient because of general neglect and underreporting on this specific battle; Jenkins also made a notable effort to bring in other diverse source material, including many primary accounts in archives, and even some that are now web-accessible.
Overall, this text is a very important contribution to the scholarship of the campaign in the West, even with its limitations. One cannot read the text without appreciating the sheer level of work and research that had to go into it. With the physical remains of the battlefield lost to subdivisions, this book and the follow-up research is critical to understanding the campaign.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.