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Book Review: The Battle of Peach Tree Creek

By Jack Tramell
3/17/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

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.

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