Writing in the 1880s, when Americans of all stripes busily commemorated the Civil War, veterans of Perryville decried the lack of attention paid to the battle. “Fourteen hours of fire and smoke, with lead and iron hail,” wrote Captain Marshall Thayer of Michigan’s Second Cavalry, “’deserves more than a contemptuous notice.’” 1 Thayer’s concern about historical memory echoed a strange silence on the day of the battle. A rare atmospheric phenomenon called an acoustic shadow hovered over the main battleground for much of October 8, leaving the Federal commander, Major General Don Carlos Buell, ignorant of the titanic struggle going on only miles from his headquarters. Buell heard no musket fire at all and what little cannon fire reached his tent suggested a minor duel. Irritated, Buell demanded that whoever was responsible “stop that firing” and then sat down to an early dinner. 2 Buell planned to engage the enemy on October 9, but Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had attacked instead, and the half of Buell’s army that was engaged barely hung on through a day most veterans would describe as their worst in the war.
What Buell missed hearing was a long and violent effort by Bragg’s Army of Mississippi to eliminate the main Union presence in Kentucky. The fighting, according to all concerned, rivaled the worst of the war’s most notoriously bloody battles. Sam Watkins, the famous Confederate memoirist described the gritty tenacity of the fighting:
We were soon in a hand-to-hand fight—every man for himself—using the buts of our guns and bayonets. One side would waver and fall back a few yards, and would rally, when the other side would fall back . . . and yet the battle raged. Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. 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. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire, which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons. 3As Thayer urged, the battle needed to be remembered for more than just its brutality. The central Kentucky bluegrass town of Perryville, about fifty miles southeast of Louisville, was an unlikely spot for a major engagement, but it proved a key moment in the Civil War. In mid-1862, Bragg, along with Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, mounted a offensive through Tennessee and into Kentucky (paralleling Robert E. Lee’s offensive into Maryland at the same time). The high point came on October 4, when Bragg prematurely inaugurated a Confederate governor for Kentucky, a divided state but one with a strong majority of Unionists. Only hours after installing a governor, Bragg abandoned Frankfort, the state capital. Although Bragg’s attack at Perryville nearly destroyed the Buell’s army, his own confidence was shaken and his army seriously weakened by the effort. After the battle, Bragg retreated further, moving all the way back into Tennessee and abandoning Kentucky to the Union. This proved the essential feature of the campaign. As Abraham Lincoln had already noted, “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Thanks to the tenacity of Buell’s soldiers and a disorganized, poorly led Confederate western command, Union-held Kentucky stayed in the game.
1 Marshall Thayer, quoted in Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), xiv.
2 Noe, Perryville, 215.
3 Sam Watkins, “The Battle of Perryville,” in The Civil War: The Second Year of the War Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2012), 596.
(Cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)
Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War