The 33rd Mississippi Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Peachtree Creek
Compiled by Fred T. Kimbrell, Jr.
In July 1864, a grizzled Union commander, no longer called "Cump" Sherman as he was when relieved of his command in disgrace in 1861, stood with his troops outside Atlanta, Georgia planning to attack and capture the city. The circle around the city had grown ever tighter with the defensive delaying tactics of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. Disgusted with Johnston's failures in the face of Sherman's advances, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate high command had chosen the young Kentuckian John Bell Hood to defend the city. Hood had an uncomplicated aggressive temperament and "when they gave him Joe Johnston's army he assumed that he was expected to go out and fight." And he did: in less than forty-eight hours after taking command he "hurled two-thirds of his army at the right of [General George] Pap Thomas's fifty thousand spread-out Federals, who were anchoring Sherman's right flank north of Atlanta, down by Peachtree Creek." Hood was "determined to strike the enemy while attempting to cross this stream." He envisioned an attack en echelon, in which the units on the right flank would first engage the enemy, followed in succession by each unit from right to left. The attack was planned for July 20 and he reported that "unless circumstances now not seen should prevent, Generals Hardee and Stewart have been ordered to attack the enemy at 1 p.m. to-day." But the timing did not work and "something went wrong." Although there are numerous official documents which outline the events from the perspective of each side, the basic facts were reported by Private Mathew A. Dunn of Company C, 33rd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, in a letter to his wife shortly after the battle:
" Our division met with a Serious misfortune on the 20th of July - we charged the Yankees and our Brigade being on the extreme right of the Division we were badly cut to pieces by a Brigade on our right not coming up to Support our flank - over half of our Regt that was engaged was killed and wounded. Our Co. was not into it as we were on other duty. Our Reg. Suffered worse than any other, being on the flank and was exposed to an enfilading fire. We lost our Col. He charged waving his Sword until he fell. Capt. Jackson commanded during the balance of the engagement. Our colorbearer was killed. Others attempted to get the colors and were wounded. So we lost our colors. The 22nd Reg. had three color bearers Shot down, one was Claudy Davis, he was waving the colors when he fell. Amite County will never raise a more gallant Son than he was. 7 men were killed and wounded Saving their flag. It was a very bloody affair. Peter was Shot through the knee joint in the fight with Tad. But I never saw him. I am afraid it will cause him to lose his leg also. I have not heard where they were sent. Jimmy came out all right."
The "division" recorded by Pvt. Dunn was Maj. Gen. William W. Loring's Division, consisting of the brigades of Brig. Gens. Winfield S. Featherston and Thomas Scott. Loring's other unit, Brig. Gen. John Adam's Mississippi Brigade, was on picket duty at the time and arrived after the battle was over. The division was organized in the Confederate Order of Battle as follows:
Maj. Gen. William W. Loring
FEATHERSTON'S MISSISSIPPI BRIGADE
Brig. Gen. Winfield S. Featherston
3rd MS Col. Thomas A. Mellon
22nd MS Maj. Martin A. Oatis
31st MS Col. Marcus D. L. Stephens [Absent sick and not at Peachtree Creek],
Lt. Col. J. W. Drane
33rd MS Col. Jabez L. Drake
40th MS Lt. Col. George P. Wallace
1st MS Sharpshooters Maj. James M. Stigler
Brig. Gen. Thomas M. Scott
27th AL Col. James Jackson
35th AL Col. Samuel S. Ives
49th AL Lt. Col. John D. Weeden
55th AL Col. John Snodgrass
57th AL Col. Charles J. L. Cunningham
12th LA Col. Noel L. Nelson
ADAM'S MISSISSIPPI BRIGADE
Brig.-Gen. John Adams
6th MS Col. Robert Lowery
14th MS Lt. Col. Washington L. Doss
15th MS Col. Michael Farrell
20th MS Col. William N. Brown
23rd MS Col. Joseph M. Wells
43rd MS Col. Richard Harrison
Pvt. Dunn's positioning of the 33rd Mississippi accurately pinpoints its position given in official reports and explains why the unit was so badly mauled. The after action report explained the deployment of his brigade: Featherston's Brigade was to the left of one of the brigades in Cheatham's Division, part of Hardee's Corps, that had gradually moved further to the right, allowing a gap to develop in the line of attack. This gap had widened as Featherston veered to the left as he "was directed" by General Hood. The account of the 33rd Mississippi was reported by Capt. Moses Jackson after the battle:
The regiment formed in front of the works in line of battle about 3 p.m. preparatory to advancing upon the enemy. The regiment moved forward to an old field about 300 yards, halted, and moved by the left about 100 yards across a ravine, where the line was rectified. The command then moved forward, crossing the ravine again, which ran in front of the regiment, in full view of the enemy through an open field of about 600 yards. The evening was very sultry. The charge was made immediately. The regiment moved through the open field under a galling fire from the enemy's works in front, with a heavy enfilading fire from the enemy's batteries on the left with shell, grape, and canister. The enemy's works were temporarily constructed of rails situated on an old road, which was soon carried. The command halted a short time, firing upon the enemy. The men were so completely exhausted and overcome with heat it was difficult for them to load and fire their pieces. The command soon moved forward beyond the enemy's works about 100 yards in a ravine, where a halt was again made and fighting very stubborn. They seemed to be massed in our front, as they could be seen just over the turn of the hill. Our regiment was at this time on the extreme right of the brigade. The battalion [First Mississippi Sharpshooter Battalion] had been thrown forward as skirmishers. Not being supported on the right, which rested on the edge of the woods, seeing heavy column in front of us, and hearing commands given by the enemy to flank us on the right, they advanced, their left swinging around us, with a charge and a heavy cross-fire. Seeing our perilous condition, I being on the right at my post, I immediately ordered a retreat. About this time the whole command was in full retreat. After retreating about a quarter of a mile we saw Wright's brigade in a line of battle in the woods at a halt, which should have engaged the enemy on our right. The failure in this caused our defeat. The men were rallied opposite this point and formed a line, and held it until they were withdrawn after 9 p.m., placing out pickets, which were withdrawn after 11 p.m. After night-fall every means were used in getting off the field the dead and wounded. All were taken except those too near the enemy's line.
The "galling fire" that decimated the 33rd came from the Union Third Brigade of Col. James Wood, Jr. consisting of the 26th Wisconsin Infantry Volunteer Regiment and the 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, with the 136th New York Infantry Regiment in reserve. The commanding officer of the 26th Wisconsin, Lieut.-Col. Frederick C. Winkler, wrote an official account of the battle, noting that...
For a time the conflict was desperate. I took every man who could be spared on the right to reinforce the left. At last the enemy broke and fled. We pursued him on his very heels to the top of the hill, captured the regimental flag of the Thirty-third Mississippi, and leaving Colonel Drake, of that regiment, and 34 others dead, and at least double that number severely wounded, behind us, and cutting off the retreat of forty others, who surrendered afterward to the second line.
Unofficial accounts of the battle, however, provide a much more vivid and personal picture of events. Col. Winkler's letter (#176) to his wife describes the gratification and pride that he felt for his command:
July 21st, 1864. At last I have some good news. We fought the hardest battle and won the greatest victory yesterday of all the campaign, and my regiment covered itself with glory. We were attacked by superior numbers, the forces on our left failed us; we were outflanked, but we whipped the enemy, turned, and pursued him to the position we coveted, got it and held it. We fought the 33rd Mississippi, and virtually annihilated it; we killed the Colonel and thirty-four men, whom we have picked up inside the point we pursued them to, End beyond that our fire must have done them severe damage. The ground was covered with wounded; I had no time to count them, but had three stretchers working all night, carrying them to the rear. We took its flags and six officers' swords. Every body is speaking the praise of the 26th today. We had a very critical position and everything depended upon holding it; officers and men did bravely. The regiment we fought had nearly four hundred men; I only two hundred and sixty. I lost severely, two captains killed, one wounded, a lieutenant wounded, seven men killed and thirty-four wounded. Upon the whole, our loss is comparatively light; most of the wounds are light, and our success was great. We took a number of prisoners. I am well and unhurt.
Lieut.-Col. Winkler may have overestimated the numbers of the Confederate troops, since the entire brigade went into action with only 1230 men, each regiment consisting of about 250 men, but he was right about winning the field. A closer account of the desperate fighting was provided by Pvt. Frederic Charles Buerstatte in his diary:
20th July - Today we are engaged in a terrible battle with the Rebs at Peach Tree Creek. At 2:00 o'clock PM. our brigade which was at the left Rank of the corps, joined the 4th Corps in battle line. The enemy attacked at which time we advanced. Our regiment was as always in the forward battle line. We advanced over a small hill and into a valley in which a small creek flowed. Then the Rebs came toward us down the hill in front of us. Now the firing really began. The gunfire exceeded anything I had ever heard before. We loaded and fired as fast as possible. The Rebs came to within 10 paces of us, at which time our musket balls became too thick for them. They turned to the right and retreated up the hill with us behind them. This was a sight which I had never seen before and hope never to see again. The entire field was scattered with dead, wounded and dying. The wounded moaned so much that I could hardly watch. However, we had no time and had to advance up the hill. There stood a fence behind which we petitioned ourselves. The Rebs tried to advance again but did not succeed, because a battery was placed on the hill behind us which greeted the enemy terribly with cannonballs. After 4 hours of firing, we were finally relieved and went to the second battle line. The firing lasted into the night. At night I helped carry more wounded from the field. We also captured a flag from the 33rd Mississippi Regiment.
21st July - This morning our regiment, after a sleepless night, had to bury the dead Rebs which laid before our regiment. They were all from the 33rd Mississippi Regiment. Our regiment lost 9 dead and 36 wounded. We buried over 50 Rebs, among them Colonel Drake and most of the officers of the 33rd Miss. Regiment. Now we had to clean our guns.
As Winkler and Buerstatte reported, Col. Jabez L. Drake, commander of the 33rd Mississippi was killed in the battle. Gen. Featherston recorded that "Col. J. L. Drake, the only field officer with the Thirty-third Mississippi Regiment, a gallant and excellent officer, fell beyond the enemy's first line of works., leading his regiment in the charge and displaying the highest qualities of the true soldier." Although W. H. Conner's 1929 letter to Dr. Dunbar Rowland, Mississippi Department of Archives and History was at variance with official and contemporary accounts about the battle, his description of the heroism of Col. Drake confirms Gen. Featherston's report:
...the Colonel of the 33rd Miss was killed only a few paces in front of Co. K of the 33rd Ind. He was almost in front of his men when killed. I can see him yet as he waved his sword cheering his gallant men on the fighting.
Long after the Civil War was over, Confederate veteran W. B.
Lightfoot wrote that a "comrade in blue" at a Gettysburg reunion had shown the
"very handsome gold watch which he said was taken from the body of Colonel Drake, of
the 33d Mississippi Regiment."
In 1902, Otho Singleton Cooper, Thomas Littleberry Coopers brother, wrote a letter to the Atlanta Constitution inquiring about the body of Col. Drake. He received a reply from an Atlanta resident, a partial copy of which is owned by Othos descendant, Richard Cooper. The incomplete letter contains grammatical errors which have been corrected for clarity.
Col. Drake was buried in the center of the Federal dead, about 50 or 100 in number. There was a plain cracker box board at the head of his grave marked Col. Drake. He was buried a little to the right and rear of the old Collier homestead which is still standing. The Federal dead were exhumed and taken to Marietta. Our dead were taken up and interred in Oakland Cemetery where I suppose the remains of Col. Drake were reinterred. I shall show your inquiry to the sexton and see if his grave can be located. I visited the battlefield a few weeks after the battle and noted the destruction that had been done there. I was 15 years old at the time and have lived in this city ever since. I noticed then one grave with 55 Mississippians in it and another with 40 Alabamians besides the kindred of our men who long remembered. A year after the war the battlefield has changed but little, especially that portion where Lorings Div charged. A few months ago I visited the position of the field of your brigade with a Federal Surgeon of the 55th Ohio Regiment who was in full view when the Confederates came up and jumped an old rail fence and attacked the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Div of the 20th Army Corps where it connected with the 4th Army Corps. The old Collier Mill Road is still there. The dam of the old mill is there. If any of your command ever visits Atlanta and calls upon me, I will take pleasure in going over the battlefield with you. There is a street rail running within a 1/2 mile of the placed occupied by Lorings Div.
Col. Drake was only one of the officers and men of the 33rd killed or wounded at Peachtree Creek. The list of casualties included 3 officers, 13 enlisted men killed, 12 officers, 86 enlisted wounded, and 6 officers, 40 enlisted captured or missing, with an aggregate total of 160 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. If the regiment began the battle with about 250 men, it was truly "cut to pieces."
SourcesBruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965).
W. H. Conner to Dr. Dunbar Rowland, 20 Oct 1927, RG 9, Folder 35, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Winston Groom, Shrouds of Glory (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995).
John Bell Hood, "Report of General John B. Hood, C. S. Army, commanding Army of Tennessee, of operations July 18-September 6," 15 Feb 1865 in O.R.
A. P. Mason, "Confederate Correspondence, Orders, And Returns Relating To Operations In The Atlanta Campaign, From July 1, 1864, To September 8, 1864 #2," 19 Jul 1864 in O.R.
Larry M. Strayer and Richard A. Baumgartner, Echoes of Battle: The Atlanta Campaign (Huntington, WV: Blue Acorn Press, 1991).
Jay Wertz and Edwin C. Bearss, Smithsonian's Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997).