A battle starting over water sounds about as fantastical as one starting over shoes (the latter assertion that the Battle of Gettysburg began over footwear has been disproven many times). But it is not a stretch to say–far from it, actually–that the Battle of Perryville began because of water.
Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio left Louisville, Kentucky on October 1, 1862, to defeat Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi and drive it from Kentucky soil. Buell had plenty to worry about when he departed Louisville. His force consisted of “raw troops” that “were as yet undisciplined, unprovided with suitable artillery, and in every way unfit for active operations against a disciplined foe.” As the two contending armies marched, the severe drought that plagued the Bluegrass State that summer made its presence felt.
Samuel Compton, a veteran of the 12th Ohio Infantry, wrote in his autobiography, “No one can imagine the torment of going through a days battle without water.” (Compton was not present at the Battle of Perryville but this sentiment was no doubt true among Civil War soldiers.) Buell’s and Bragg’s men experienced a lack of water during the campaign. Buell himself wrote about the time prior to the October 8th battle, “the whole army had for three days or more suffered from a scarcity of water. The last day particularly the troops and animals suffered exceedingly for the want of it and from hot weather and dusty roads.”
By October 7, both dehydrated armies were near the town of Perryville. Doctor’s Creek meandered through the landscape one and one-half miles west of town. The creek was more a series of shallow pools “where one, with a spoon, could dip water enough into a canteen to keep down thirst yet possessing sand and mud enough to pave the throats of those who drank,” recalled one Federal. Nonetheless, it was water and Buell ordered division commander Philip Sheridan to secure it for the Army of the Ohio.
Sheridan dispatched Col. Daniel McCook’s brigade to seize the precious commodity. At 3:30 a.m. on October 8, McCook’s men crossed Doctor’s Creek and started up the slope of Peters Hill, which stood above the creek’s eastern bank. Colonel D. A. Gillespie’s 7th Arkansas occupied the hill. McCook’s brigade startled the Arkansans and drove them east to nearby Bottom Hill. Sheridan ordered the rest of his division forward to ensure Doctor’s Creek remained in Federal hands. Confederate brigade commander Brig. Gen. St. John Liddell attempted a counterattack but it was driven back in vain. The morning fight lasted until 10 a.m. before Liddell received orders to pull his Arkansas brigade back into Perryville. Sheridan had secured the heights and water west of town.
The early morning fight for the water of Doctor’s Creek produced approximately 400 casualties, about three-quarters of them from the Army of the Ohio. When Bragg learned of the presence of United States forces near Perryville, he ordered an attack. The Confederate assault did not begin until 2 p.m. but the fight for water precipitated Kentucky’s bloodiest engagement of the Civil War, which ended the Confederacy’s northernmost advance in the Western Theater. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Cowen of the 52nd Ohio made sure to note in his account of the morning action that “the honor of opening the great and decisive battle of Perryville” belonged to his regiment, McCook’s brigade, and, though he did not say it, Doctor’s Creek, and water.