The Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862, may be the war’s most overlooked engagement.
Several weeks after Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle raged at Perryville, a riverside village of 300 inhabitants, a correspondent from Indiana’s New Albany Daily Ledger expressed indignation about civilians visiting the battlefield. These visitors—many of them residents of neighboring states—were digging up corpses to reclaim the remains of their loved ones who had died in the fight. The writer shuddered that “much and just complaint” was made against these civilians, for if they exhumed the wrong body, “in nearly every instance where the scantily covered graves are opened by these citizens, they are only partially filled up again.” This, the scribe lamented, kept the field in a perpetual state of horror. “From this cause the remains of the dead are left exposed,” he wrote; “here an arm, there a leg, and again a head with its ghastly face, from which the rotten flesh is dropping, and upon all which the hogs feed at will. The thought of such things is of itself horrible; its realization terrible in the extreme. No more civilians should be allowed to open graves upon the battle-field…such scenes of desecration upon its sacred soil are outrages which should never be tolerated.”
Perryville residents—and citizens of other nearby communities—contended with these horrific conditions for months after the battle. Wounded and sick soldiers filled churches and homes, confiscated livestock, consumed winter stores, burned fences and damaged schools, residences and houses of worship. When it rained, the limbs of deceased soldiers popped up from shallow graves. Many residents never recovered—economically or psychologically—from the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville. The local economy stagnated, schools closed, civilians succumbed to disease and Kentucky—relatively unscathed in the war’s earliest months—experienced the severity of the conflict firsthand.
In the summer of 1862, the Union Army of the Ohio, commanded by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, hoped to capture Chattanooga, Tenn. Chattanooga was an important railroad junction and supply depot, and Southern commanders in east Tennessee needed a way to halt the Union advance. Although Rebel officers first considered fighting Buell in middle Tennessee, they soon shifted their plans. To protect Chattanooga and to recruit Kentuckians to the Southern cause, Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky.
Kirby Smith’s army began the Bluegrass State invasion. Entering the commonwealth near Cumberland Gap, Smith’s command rapidly marched northward, where they overwhelmed a Union force at Richmond. Continuing their advance, these Confederates captured Lexington and Frankfort. A Confederate Kentucky loomed on the horizon.
Encouraged by Smith’s success, Bragg moved his Army of the Mississippi into Kentucky near Glasgow. After besting a Union garrison at Munfordville, Bragg’s brigades marched northward, pressing toward Louisville. Although the Confederates initially hoped to capture Louisville, Buell rushed his troops to that city and saved it for the Union. With Louisville out of his grasp, Bragg halted his command at Bardstown.
In Louisville, Buell devised plans to push the Confederates from the commonwealth. First, he reinforced his army with tens of thousands of recruits from Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. To contend with Smith’s army near Frankfort, Buell sent nearly 20,000 troops to the capital as a diversion. The Union commander then deployed the majority of his command, numbering 58,000 men, toward Bardstown. These troops were to seek and destroy Bragg’s army, which had withdrawn eastward from Bardstown to Perryville.
There were several reasons why the Confederates halted at this riverside hamlet of 300 inhabitants. First, a horrible drought plagued Kentucky, and most streams and creeks were completely dry. One soldier in the 94th Ohio Infantry commented, “The season was very dry and but little water could be obtained. The suffering in consequence of this may be inferred from the fact that the Ohio soldiers gave five dollars for a canteen full of muddy water, a dollar a drink, and many drank from standing pools [of] water that the horses refused to drink.” Another Federal recalled drinking “from a pond where men and mules drank fifteen feet apart. Across the pond soldiers washed their socks and feet. And at an end of the pond floated a dead mule.” The fetid water led to cases of dysentery and typhoid fever, and several men died from sunstroke during the march. Since Perryville’s springs and the town’s Chaplin River held some water, the Confederates stopped so their thirsty troops could fill their canteens. Furthermore, an extensive road network ran through the town and provided the Rebels with an easy escape if they needed to continue their eastward withdrawal. Finally, the Southerners wanted to stay between the Union army and a supply depot that they had established at Camp Dick Robinson in Bryantsville, 30 miles to the east. In case they needed to retreat to Tennessee, Confederate commanders knew that they would have to protect these supplies.
In the early morning hours of October 8, an advance unit of Arkansas soldiers fought a sharp skirmish west of town against advancing Union troops. The Confederates held a ridge overlooking Doctor’s Creek, but the Federals shoved them back and claimed the hill and the creek’s stagnant pools of water. The first shots of the Battle of Perryville had been fired.
Throughout the morning, Buell’s men formed on the hills outside of town. Nearly 20,000 Union troops deployed to the south; 20,000 took position west of town, and nearly 18,000 more formed to the north. Bragg, with approximately 16,000 troops present, had been fooled by Buell’s diversion toward Frankfort. Although the Confederate commander believed that he faced a minor enemy force at Perryville, he was significantly outnumbered. When Bragg learned about the Federal troops north of town, he decided to attack. His men marched northward and deployed for battle.
At 2 p.m. on October 8, after a short but intense artillery duel, Bragg’s Confederates, with each brigade supported by an artillery battery, advanced against Union Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s I Corps, located north of Perryville. On the Confederate right flank, Confederate Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham’s division struck the northern end of the Union line. The Federals, who had thought that the Confederates were withdrawing northeast toward Harrodsburg, were taken by surprise.
After an attack by Confederate Brig. Gen. Daniel Donelson’s brigade ground to a halt, Brig. Gen. George Maney’s Rebels struck the extreme left of the Union line. Maney moved through some woods and, while attacking raw Union troops commanded by Brig. Gen. William Terrill, his brigade became stuck behind a split-rail fence. Colonel George C. Porter of the 6th Tennessee recalled that the Confederates “had gone but a short distance when one of the most deadly and destructive fires that can possibly be imagined was poured in their whole line by the enemy.” Lieutenant William Frierson of the 27th Tennessee agreed. “During the whole time of passing through the woods the battery was playing upon us with terrible effect,” he reported, “but as soon as the fence was reached, in full view of the battery, such a storm of shell, grape, canister, and Minié balls was turned loose upon us as no troops scarcely ever before encountered. Large boughs were torn from the trees, the trees themselves shattered as if by lightning, and the ground plowed in deep furrows.” Despite the bombardment, the Southerners shoved Terrill’s brigade back, killing Union division commander Brig. Gen. James S. Jackson in the process.
After driving the 21st Wisconsin out of a cornfield, Maney’s men continued their westward attack, crossing the Benton Road and striking a narrow hill defended by Colonel John C. Starkweather and 12 artillery pieces. The attack, spearheaded by the 1st Tennessee Infantry, shoved Starkweather’s Federals back after three assaults. Evan Davis of the 21st Wisconsin recalled, “Their bullets came like hail. I often wondered how any of us escaped with our lives.” During the charge, the 9th Tennessee lost every company commander, and Lt. Col. John Patterson of the 1st Tennessee was killed when he was struck above the lips by a canister round.
Maney’s brigade reached the top of the hill, where a hand-to-hand fight erupted among the wheels of the guns. One Union artilleryman noted that the ground literally became slippery with blood. “Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since,” wrote Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee. “The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces.”
Starkweather’s men fell back to the west and took cover on another ridge, behind a stone wall. Maney’s Confederates continued to batter their line, but after several hours of fighting, exhaustion had taken its toll on the Southern troops. The 79th Pennsylvania Infantry hit Maney in the flank before the 1st Wisconsin led a counterattack that blunted Maney’s assault. The fight for the Union left ended, but not before significant casualties were incurred on both sides.
Bragg’s attack continued with Rebel brigades striking the Union line from north to south. After Cheatham’s division struck the Union left flank, two brigades in Brig. Gen. Patton Anderson’s division hit the Federal center. Colonel Thomas Marshall Jones’ brigade of Mississippi and Alabama troops crossed Doctor’s Creek and trudged westward up a high hill. Upon cresting the ridge, Jones’ men were struck by two infantry brigades and six cannons. Jones tried three times to reach the Federal position, located on an opposite hill, but his men were cut down. Jones pulled back and was replaced by Colonel John C. Brown’s brigade, but Brown’s attack was also halted by the obstinate Federal defense.
With Jones and Brown attempting to break the Union center, the division under Confederate Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner assaulted the Union right flank on a hill above the Henry P. Bottom house. A Southern brigade led by Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson crossed Bottom’s yard and attacked the 3rd Ohio, whose right flank ended at Bottom’s barn. Buckeye Colonel John Beatty noted that “the air was filled with hissing balls, shells were exploding continuously and the noise of the guns deafening.” Soon, however, an artillery shell struck the barn and ignited it. According to war correspondent Alf Burnett, “Many of [the Federal] wounded had crawled into this barn for protection, but a rebel shell exploding directly among the hay set the barn on fire, and several of our poor wounded boys perished in the flames.”
The smoke from the burning barn and the Confederate gunfire forced the 3rd Ohio back. Replacing them on top of the hill was the 15th Kentucky (U.S.) Infantry. Johnson’s men ran out of ammunition and withdrew, so Brig. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s brigade assaulted the hill. Soon Brig. Gen. Daniel W. Adams, forming on Cleburne’s left, joined the attack against the 15th Kentucky. When Adams’ command moved forward and struck the Kentuckians’ right flank, one Confederate wrote that “suddenly brass bands broke loose and filled the woods full of music.”
Under attack by both Cleburne’s and Adams’ brigades, the 15th Kentucky withdrew. As the Union right flank broke, the Union center also collapsed, and the Federals fell back to the Dixville Crossroads, the intersection of the Benton and Mackville roads. By 4 p.m., both flanks of the Union army had been shoved to the west. Although the Unionists established a temporary line at the Russell House, their corps commander’s headquarters, the Confederates pressed the attack. Cleburne’s men ran out of ammunition, and as Adams’ attack also ground to a halt, fresh Southern brigades commanded by Brig. Gens. S.A.M. Wood and St. John R. Liddell moved toward the crossroads.
As Union troops redeployed around the Dixville Crossroads, nearly 40,000 other Federals sat idle west and south of Perryville, just a few miles from the fighting. Reinforcements were not sent in until late in the afternoon because these Northerners could not hear the battle. Because of Perryville’s rolling terrain and the wind direction, a strange atmospheric phenomenon existed where the sound of battle was literally blocked from the Union commanders west of town. Due to this “acoustic shadow,” General Buell, sitting at his headquarters some three miles from the heaviest fighting, heard only scattered shots, although nearly 40,000 troops battled for supremacy of the ridges north of town. The cannon fire made windowpanes rattle 10 miles away in Danville, but many members of the two Union corps south and west of town, who were only lightly engaged that day, did not know that a major battle was taking place. Finally, at 4 p.m., one of McCook’s aides reached Buell’s headquarters and informed the stunned commander that, as Buell wrote, “to my astonishment…the left corps had actually been engaged in a severe battle for several hours.”
As McCook’s flanks collapsed, Colonel Michael Gooding’s brigade, which had spent the day west of town with Gilbert’s corps, entered the fight. Upon reaching the Dixville Crossroads, Gooding’s command fought S.A.M. Wood’s soldiers as they moved past the Russell House. William Cunningham of the 59th Illinois wrote his wife that “hundreds of balls came so close to my head & face that I could feel the wind of them….Add to the musketry the whirring of solid shot, the screaming & bursting of shell…[it was] as near pandemonium as I care to get.”
Wood’s brigade withdrew, and Liddell’s Confederates nearly seized the crossroads. Night was falling, and Union and Confederate lines, fighting just a few yards away from one another, intermingled. Gooding’s brigade was torn apart at the intersection, but with night falling the Confederates declined to press the attack. Therefore the Union troops maintained control of the Dixville Crossroads and spent the remainder of the evening moving their supplies and equipment toward the rest of their army. Once their lines of communication were secured, the Federals abandoned the intersection and pulled back to a new defensive position, a chain of hills 200 yards northwest of the crossroads. There would be no more fighting.
Colonel Starkweather’s stubborn defense on the Union left and the Confederates’ inability to seize the crossroads late in the day saved McCook’s corps. Had Starkweather been destroyed and the intersection left open to the Confederates, the Southerners could have slipped behind McCook’s right wing, thereby cutting off his command from the rest of Buell’s army. Had the crossroads been seized, McCook’s corps could have been annihilated. Starkweather’s stand and the Confederates’ inability to seize the intersection were two key events in the Battle of Perryville.
Although the Confederate army had won a tactical victory at Perryville (it pushed back both flanks of the Union I Corps and killed and wounded more enemy troops), the Rebels suffered a strategic defeat. The Southerners battered the Union position north of town, but nearly 40,000 Northern troops were not engaged. That night, the Confederates learned that tens of thousands of enemy troops could fight the next day. Facing these odds, Bragg withdrew 10 miles away to Harrodsburg, leaving the Confederate dead, and many wounded, on the battlefield. The Rebels, disappointed over a lack of recruits, eventually left Kentucky. The battle lasted less than five hours, and casualties were severe. Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi, fighting with approximately 16,000 troops, lost 532 killed, 2,641 wounded and 228 missing. Of the 18,000 Federals engaged, 894 were killed, 2,911 were wounded and 471 were missing. Many regiments lost more than 50 percent of their strength, with the Confederate 16th Tennessee losing nearly 60 percent and the 22nd Indiana more than 65 percent of their regiments. Perryville’s terrain, which consists of closely packed, consecutive ridges, put the troops fighting from ridge to ridge in proximity to one another, drastically increasing the number of casualties. With roughly 7,500 casualties incurred in less than five hours, at least 1,600 men were killed or wounded during each hour of fighting. Few battles matched this intensity.
The Battle of Perryville, the largest fight to occur on Kentucky soil, was a turning point in the Civil War. Never again did a Southern army attempt to hold the commonwealth for the Confederacy. With few exceptions, after 1862 the Civil War in Kentucky was limited to cavalry raids and guerrilla activity. Although President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation after Confederate General Robert E. Lee failed to hold Maryland, he might not have had the political strength necessary to issue this edict had Bragg won a decisive victory in Kentucky and advanced into Ohio or Indiana.
Since Bragg was forced to withdraw from the commonwealth, many historians, such as Edwin C. Bearss, have called Perryville “a Pyrrhic victory.” Bragg’s tactical victory there could not save his doomed campaign, and the Southern commander faced an overall strategic defeat. Perryville was, therefore, as historian Lowell Harrison wrote, the “high-water mark of the Confederacy in the West.” Never again would a Western Confederate army push so far northward, and never again would the Rebels have the chance to influence congressional elections to bring Peace Democrats to power. Had the Confederates succeeded in Kentucky and advanced into Indiana or Ohio, the course of the war would have changed. It was the greatest chance for the Rebels’ Western armies to alter the path of the conflict, yet success slipped through their fingers.
The contending forces quickly left Perryville. The Union army slowly pursued the Confederates toward Tennessee, leaving behind a small contingent to oversee the Perryville buildings coverted into hospitals and the Southern prisoners there. The burden of caring for the thousands of wounded and sick, and the horrors of burying hundreds of Rebel dead, fell on the riverside town’s 300 inhabitants.
This article is excerpted from Stuart W. Sanders’ book Perryville Under Fire, published by The History Press in 2012.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.