Book Review: Decisions at Perryville: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle

Okay, everyone–get out the sandbox and the toy soldiers! The University of Tennessee Press has added Perryville to its series “Command Decisions in America’s Civil War.” Although part of the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, series editors decided that the battle of Perryville deserved a closer look–a book of its own–in terms of its importance in the Civil War. Author Larry Peterson, president of the Rocky Mountain Civil War Round Table and acclaimed military author, has given readers just such a book.

Books in this series are laid out similarly, which is a positive thing for readers. These books are very battle-specific and often follow an engagement moment-by-moment. Command decisions are made quickly in a campaign and even more so in a battle. Many decisions seem obvious. However, critical decisions are defined as ones that shape all following events and affect the outcome of the battle or campaign. Only a few of the thousand daily decisions made by an army commander are deemed “critical.” Six types of decisions are examined:

  • strategy;
  • tactics;
  • organization;
  • operations;
  • personnel; and
  • logistics.

The chapter layout is sequential. The first chapter puts Perryville in two contexts: historical and historiographical. The Confederate high tide is the specific topic discussed within this chapter. By reading Chapter 1, readers are intellectually primed to continue. Chapter 2 covers the period September 29-October 7, 1862. Confederate General Braxton Bragg ordered General Leonidas Polk to march to Perryville to attack Union General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on the October 8 battle of Perryville in the Chaplin Hills of Kentucky. Chapter 5 analyzes the results of the battle–a Union victory–from October 8 to 24, 1862.

The formats used within Decisions at Perryville to present the critical decisions taken during the battle are identical, making it easy for readers to refer back and look ahead during the October 8 actions. Author Peterson explains:

Discussion begins with the description of a decision-maker’s situation or circumstances. The narrative then presents and examines the logical options available and identifies the critical decisions chosen. Finally, readers learn about the results of the critical decision and its impact on the rest of the battle.

Uniquely (and here is where the sandbox comes into play), alternative scenarios are occasionally posed, leading to discussions concerning changes in outcomes had different options been chosen and how these outcomes might have influenced future events.

Reference aids, including Union and Confederate orders of battle and command changes, are plentiful. In addition, illustrations show all the significant players and places, including battle views. Fourteen maps, created by cartographer Tim Kissel, begin with an overall look at the Western theater in 1862 and conclude with Bragg’s and Buell’s retreat out of Kentucky on October 9-24. Although the maps are black and white, they are easy to follow.

The book concludes with a “Driving Tour of the Critical Decisions of the Battle of Perryville,” containing ten maps and detailed tour information. The author reminds readers that these are not intended as a tour of the battlefield. Instead, they take readers to the places where Union and Confederate commanders made the critical decisions of the battle. These include officers’ reports. Some of them are edited for length, but all are officially the words of these men, including their observations of terrain and enemy.

Decisions at Perryville is not an easy armchair read. It is far too compelling for that. It is detailed and meticulous in its analyses. It is, however, a perfect book to have in multiple copies–one for each friend to use–so that the opinions and interpretations can be discussed as a group. Hopefully, someone has a “war room” and willingly provides beverages and snacks so that a weekend can be pleasantly spent enjoying Larry Peterson’s Decisions at Perryville: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle. There might be no better way to spend a snow day in the upcoming winter.

Decisions at Perryville: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle

By Larry Peterson

University of Tennessee Press, 2022, $29.95 paperback

Reviewed by Meg Groeling

4 Responses to Book Review: Decisions at Perryville: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle

  1. I am a member of the Sultana Association. We have reunions each year, as close to the anniversary of the explosion of the Sultana. Each year we hold the reunion in locations that are related to the Sultana in some way. In 2023 th reunion will be held in Lexington, Kentucky and a trip to the Perryville battlefield will be on the agenda. I live in Harrodsburg, Perryville is just short ride for me. I intend to visit it, for the first time, sometime between now and next April. Why Perryville? Because a large number of Union troops who were aboard the Sultana, fought in the Perryville battle.
    At the present time, I am doing a breakdown of the Union regiments who participated in the battle, and the soldiers who were there, and later on board the Sultana.
    J. Michael Joslin, author of the historical novel “I Fear We Shall Never See Home Again.”

  2. At Stones River Parson’s US Regular battery stood its ground, fired nearly 2,000 rounds. It was only instrumental in decimating Bragg’s attacks on the Round Forrest. At Perryville Parson had been overwhelmed, loosing all his guns. The contrast between the two engagements always puzzled me. A trip to the beautifully preserved Perryville Battlefield removed any mystery. Two minutes on the ground explained everything. It really is a battlefield that cannot be understood until you see the ground. A stay at the nearby Pleasant Hill Shaker Village is the ideal accompaniment.

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