Placing Perryville

On September 17, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia fought Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The subsequent Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) is still the bloodiest day in American military history. The outcome of the battle ended Lee’s first invasion of the north.

Harper’s Weekly depiction of the Battle of Perryville.

That autumn of 1862 though saw another invasion into the Border States of the United States. Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith launched a two-prong invasion into Kentucky. Often overlooked, the pivotal engagement at Perryville, Kentucky ended this invasion and put to rest the question of “what-if” the Confederates had been successful in their campaign into the Bluegrass State.

Unfortunately, this battle has largely been overlooked—both in the timeframe it was fought with the aftermath of Antietam and by preservation efforts. Perryville is preserved today because of a very local (can I say bluegrass?) movement where as Antietam is part of the National Park Service. Yet, Perryville coupled with Stones River approximately three months later served as crucial turning points in the western theatre and the Civil War as a whole.

So, what happened around the small hamlet of Perryville, Kentucky? Saw Watkins of Company Aytch fame, did not remember “a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that of Perryville…such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since.”Watkins belonged to Bragg’s approximately 30,000 man army who jointly invaded Kentucky with the 21,000 men of Smith’s Confederate detachment.

In separate thrusts, Bragg and Smith reach the environs of Louisville, capturing Lexington, Kentucky in the process. In a rash yet unwise political move, Bragg moves to install a Confederate governor for the state of Kentucky. The same day, October 8th, Union forces approach the crossroads of Perryville. They are commanded by General Don Carlos Buell and number around 55,000.

General Don Carlos Buell
commander of Union forces at Perryville

What happened next moves beyond the control of either army commander. Initial Confederate strategy organized by General Leonidas Polk calls for a defensive-offensive strategy. However, with Bragg’s rapid ride from Lexington to Perryville, he countermanded his subordinates strategy and orders the Confederate infantry to advance on their blue-clad counterparts. For the remainder of the day, Confederate divisions will assault the Union lines moving from the Union left (north) to the right. In most instances brigades will make singular assaults and the fighting will be hand to hand.

Bragg’s rival enemy commander, Buell, actually never reaches the field of battle. With the late arrival of two of his three corps, he cancels the attack. When reports filter back with scenes of fighting and calls for reinforcements, they are largely ignored. Fighting would last past dusk and include a fight through the streets of Perryville.
Much to the chagrin of the rank-and-file, Bragg quits the field citing a lack of supplies and manpower to continue the contest. He begins his retreat out of Kentucky and back into Eastern Tennessee. Buell does not pursue vigorously and Bragg slips away from him—costing Buell his command.

What is unique about the Battle of Perryville? First, on a basic human level, it shows the heights of endurance the rank-and-file possessed as Kentucky was in the midst of a severe drought and water was scarce. Part of the reason two of the Union corps were late arriving to the area around Perryville was because of the lack of water along the route, coupled with warmer late September early October weather, led to a very severe march. Confederate soldiers, always lacking a complete complement of supplies and materials, suffered tremendously also.

General Braxton Bragg
commander of Confederate forces at the Battle of Perryville

Secondly, the battle was largely a soldier’s fight. Both commanders were conspicuously absent from the engagement; Bragg at least set a basic strategy for battle in motion; Buell did not even make it to the scene of the fighting on October 8th. Heroic acts from privates in the ranks to brigade and division commanders are numerous. Many of these men gave the ultimate sacrifice that day.

Besides these unique characteristics, the ramifications of this engagement are numerous; and the “what-ifs” are even more. This campaign was, to be polite, not the best managed campaign from the leadership standpoint. Confederate General Smith fluctuated between wanting to stress independent command and follow the suggestions by Bragg. Yet, they still almost broke through Buell’s ranks on October 8th. With the other two corps not aligned for battle, the Confederates could have severely damaged the only sizeable Union force in Kentucky. In addition, with the draught affecting Kentucky and the recent long marches by the Northern foot soldiers, whose ranks had a large proportion of newer recruits, the result could have been catastrophic. A strike toward Louisville and the threat to Ohio would not have been realistic.

Or he could have turned southward toward Nashville causing Ulysses S. Grant, in charge of Union operations in southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi to retreat or be caught between Confederate forces. Grant did defeat the combined assaults of Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn at the Battle of Corinth during earlier in October. Yet, a defeat of Union forces in Kentucky would have forced a withdrawal from the Mississippi River Valley to contend with the invading Confederate host.

Buell, if he would have pressed on after the retreating Confederate host, he could have had a great chance to cripple Bragg’s retreating Southerners and altered the course of the war in the western theatre. Instead, his career was ruined.

Buell would be replaced by Rosecrans, Bragg would not be replaced and these two armies would meet again before the year was out and fight another engagement at Stones River. As at Perryville, the ramifications of that engagement set the tone for Confederate fortunes in Tennessee yet still could have sent shock waves

Indeed, the options are unlimited in the “what-if” category. But, the campaign did not unfold that way and after the sever fighting that left approximately 7,600 casualties Bragg retreated. The invasion of Kentucky was over and so was the hope of the Confederates in their dual invasions in the autumn of 1862. The Confederates would never again launch a major invasion of Kentucky.

Map of Battle of Perryville
shows the many efforts and organizations that have preserved the battlefield
(courtesy of CWPT)

One of the Southerners who survived the fighting wrote down his memories of the day; “It was a sight that night as I gazed upon the upturned, ghastly faces of our dead and the cries of the wounded…was heartrending.”A Union soldier remembered walking over the battlefield as;

“The moon shone full upon the scene; it is utterly useless to describe the sight, –men and horses dead and wounded…and the moans and shrieks of the wounded. Oh, may you never see such a sight! I helped carry off one poor fellow with his mouth and lower jaw shot off—stop, stop! I can’t say no more.”

Charles P. Carr of the 121st Ohio whose regiment suffered at Perryville wrote how “the world has changed” and the hope he had prior to Perryville of returning to his family shortly had changed. The carnage and devastation of Perryville had altered his thinking. He wrote “tis hard to tell” when the war would end and families reunited.

As historian Kenneth Noe wrote in his history of the battle, Carr struggled to find a meaning to “Kentucky’s great and terrible battle. Perryville has suffered accordingly throughout the passage of time. Yet, it was one of the most pivotal battles of the western theater. Although overshadowed by Antietam and the eastern theatre, Perryville played a central part in shaping the outcome of the war in the western theatre.


Book: “Perryville, This Grand Havoc of Battle” by Kenneth W. Noe

Perryville Battlefield is preserved by Kentucky State Parks

Perryville Civil War Battlefield Website

Battle of Perryville

Civil War Preservation Trust-Perryville

1 Response to Placing Perryville

  1. Good article. I’m glad to see Perryville mentioned and I enjoyed this read.

    On the subject of the endurance the soldiers displayed, in addition to the drought, this region is very hilly. They are not mountains, but “rolling hills” and some of the Confederates on the Union left chased their opponents up and down multiple hills. Had the ground been flatter, maybe the Confederates attack succeed more quickly and perhaps more would have been done before sunset (and before Bishop Polk blundered almost into the Union lines.) Just walking over these hills today is not easy (though I’m not in great physical shape, I admit) and must have fatigued the soldiers on both sides. I can imagine the Confederates getting to the crest of one hill, having chased the Federals back, only to look across another valley to yet another ridgeline and just wondering what they had got themselves into. I have not visited lots of battlefields, but anybody who walks the Perryville field certainly should be able to understand at least some of the challenges both sides faced. I have heard others mention how “walking a field” can bring further understanding, and doing so at Perryville made me see the wisdom of that point.

    Regarding preservation efforts, the park has grown significantly in the last 20 years. I know the Civil War Trust has been heavily involved and saved 50+ acres, IIRC, within the last year. The current park is a state historic site and is very pristine. Maybe being in the National Park Service would have helped it, but I’m not sure – the state of Kentucky and allies have preserved a lot of land in the area. I know the state faces budget shortfalls right now, as does the NPS, so who knows what the future holds, but the park management deserves praise for keeping it as clean and beautiful as it is in the face of budget struggles. Hopefully more will be preserved in the future as well.

    Thanks again for making this post about such a harsh, severe fight.

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