On the night of October 7, 1862, the eve of the Battle of Perryville, three Union officers sat around a campfire earnestly discussing the odds of being wounded in battle. Brigadier Generals James Jackson and William Terrill and Colonel George Webster decided to their satisfaction that such a likelihood was actually quite slim, given the thousands of men involved in any battle.
By the next afternoon, all three would be dead, cut down in the massive Confederate attack on the Union left flank at Perryville.
Of the three, the greatest loss–given past performance and future potential–was William Rufus Terrill, a tall, stern-faced Virginian who had brooked family pressure to remain loyal to the Union and would be killed in his very first battle as a newly promoted general.
Terrill, the son of a prominent Bath County, Va., lawyer and legislator, graduated from West Point in the class of 1853, along with such soon-to-be-famous warriors as John Bell Hood, James B. McPherson, John T. Schofield and Philip Henry Sheridan.
As a cadet sergeant, Terrill had angered Sheridan, and the two had a brutal fistfight on academy grounds.
After graduation, Terrill fought against the Seminole Indians in Florida and served on the Kansas-Missouri border just prior to the Civil War. He also saw service as a mathematics instructor at his alma mater.
The beginning of the war confronted Terrill with a moral decision–one faced by thousands of other Americans, North and South. Although born in Virginia, he had been educated at West Point and trained for a career in the U.S. Army. He could not go back on his pledge to the Union.
Terrill’s father was enraged by his decision. “I am overwhelmed by the position you have taken,” he wrote. “It is the bitterest cup that has ever been commended to my lips. You are surely demented…you will never be permitted to revisit your native state but to die.” Family bonds were further strained by the decision of Terrill’s younger brother, James, to join the Confederacy.
A few days prior to Perryville, Terrill ran into Sheridan, who thrust his hand forward in a conciliatory handshake.
Terrill’s regiment, the 123rd Illinois, was brand-new, organized only a month before, and its men were largely untrained. At about 2:30 on the afternoon of October 8, a Confederate brigade mostly of Tennesseans suddenly rose without warning and poured a devastating volley into the astonished Midwesterners.
Inexplicably, Terrill ordered the 123rd to charge. Down the hillside they raced, then just as quickly dashed back uphill, leaving behind the bodies of nearly 200 comrades. General Jackson, attempting to rally the men, was killed instantly by two bullets to the chest.
A few seconds later, Terrill was struck in the chest by a piece of shrapnel. “Major, do you think it’s fatal?” he asked a fellow officer. “My poor wife, my poor wife, ” he muttered to himself. That night he died.
Two years later, he was joined in death by his brother, James, killed at Bethesda Church, Va. A joint headstone at their family home sums up the anguish felt by many American families in that war: “God alone knows which was right.”