Generals Agreed: Perryville Among Civil War's Bloodiest Battles

By Dr. Harry R. Kettig - 1917
The Kentucky Motorist Magazine

The history of Perryville is penned in the crimson ink of war. The scenes of its making are still intact, and but for the ordinary tilling of the soil, the battlefields of this crudical struggle in Kentucky's Civil War history are undisturbed.

It is possible in a single day to motor from Louisville to this historic spot over roads that are fairly vibrating with the grim romance of war, and through sections that have no parallel for traditions of the past. Whether you leave Louisville on the more frequented Bardstown Road, now distinguished by the name of Jackson Highway, or whether you leave the city over the Taylorsville Pike, going through Bloomfield to Springfield and then to Perryville, you are traveling over roads that were traveled by the Blue Army of the North. Over them rolled Federal cannons and the hosts under General Buell, all bent on a single purpose; the expulsion of the Confederates from Kentucky.

Louisville had been the concentrating point of the Union forces. It was expected that General Bragg would attempt to take the city, later to cross the Ohio River into Indiana. This was in the early fall of 1862 and was the beginning of the last campaign that could be undertaken before winter set in.

Hasty preparations were made in Louisville to withstand the siege. Many citizens moved with their families into the cities across the river. A line of forts were erected around the town and these were connected with a system of embattlements or trenches. These trenches showed no favoritism as to the course they took; one section crossing a portion of Cave Hill Cemetery. This work was done mostly by local citizens, who had been pressed into government service and were known as "Home Guards."

The greater portion of the Army that had assembled were very raw recruits, but the attempt was made to hurriedly whip them into shape. The now famous Union leader, Gen. Phillip Sheridan, was detailed to this work. He was wearing the shoulder straps of a colonel at the time.
Just at the height of these preparations, the news came that the garrison at Munfordville had surrendered to CSA Gen. Braxton Bragg. This was but 76 miles away, and it was thought sure that the Confederates would come up the old Louisville and Nashville Turnpike. If such would have been the case, the battle that was later fought at Perryville would have been fought at Louisville. However, Bragg changed the course of his army to the east, going to Bardstown, and the Union Army left Louisville to attempt to cut him off.

All of the roads to the east were used in the march of the Federal forces. The account given by Captain John Speed of the Army of the Cumberland is very interesting at this point. In it we find, "The order of march out of Louisville was directly against Bragg, who was then in Bardstown. Gilbert's Corps started its march on the Newburg Road, and Crittenden's Corps marched on the Bardstown Turnpike.

"The wagon trains of both these corps were rolled, two and three abreast, over the wide Bardstown Turnpike; so, too, with the artillery. The Newburg Road extended only 10 or 12 miles out of Louisville as a separate road. From there on to Bardstown, Gilbert got along as best he could over fields and country roads, Crittenden keeping the Bardstown Road.

"Two divisions under Jackson and Rousseau, of McCook's Corps, moved out on the Taylorsville Turnpike. Sill's Division, of McCook's Corps, moved out on the Shelbyville or Lexington Turnpike to confront and fight Kirby Smith, if that should be necessary. It seems the Union generals believed that Bragg and Smith would join forces either at Harrodsburg or Perryville, and the disposition of Buell and his march was directed to meet Bragg at either point.

"There was a great drought in the country. Grass was dried, and the roads were inconceivably dusty. Water was scarce, and it was almost impossible to supply it to the men and animals. Wells and springs were so low that no adequate water could be gotten from them. Larger streams, of course, could be relied upon, as their deeper holes were supplied, but the shoals were perfectly dry.

"Gilbert and Crittenden could get no full supply of water until they reached Floyd's Fork or Salt River, 15 miles out of Louisville. McCook could get none until he reached the same stream higher up at the same distance. The same was true of Sill, he reaching the same stream still higher up and at the same distance.

"On the approach of Buell's army, Bragg left Bardstown on his retreat and moved toward Springfield, 18 miles distant. He was promptly followed, Crittenden moving out of Lebanon on the right, and from there taking the Danville Pike. Gilbert took the Bardstown and Springfield Pike, and McCook, with his two divisions, went through Taylorsville, Bloomfield, Willisburg, and Mackville; all tending toward Perryville."

At this point, the Confederate leader, General Bragg, saw that he was bound to check Buell's advance. Kirby Smith had not yet joined him. McCook's Corps was approaching Harrodsburg more nearly than either of the other commands and was projected beyond the others to a slight extent. This was General Bragg's great opportunity, one that he lost no time in taking advantage of. McCook's Corps was in marching formation when attacked, and while in this position, could not at once respond to the attack.

In a way, the attack itself came in the nature of a surprise, coming about two o'clock in the afternoon. All of McCook's men formed into a line under heavy fire, and it was in the forming of this line that Bragg caused his greatest destruction. Gilbert's divisions were only partially engaged, and Crittenden's forces were left out of the fight altogether.

The losses on the Federal side were more than 3,600. The battle was particularly severe to generals and field officers with Jackson and Terrill being killed. Others were wounded. The 15th Kentucky lost all of its field officers.

Bragg's losses were somewhat less, being a few more than 3,000 for the three divisions engaged. All told, there were 25,000 Federal soldiers in the immediate vicinity of the battle and 16,000 Confederates, all more or less engaged.

The battle itself is distinctive in being among the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, also the most stubbornly contested. Both sides agree to this, as will be seen from the reports of the battle, as issued by both generals.

General Buell said, "This battle will stand conspicuous for its severity in the history of the Rebellion." General Bragg said, "For the time engaged, this battle was the severest and most desperately contested within my knowledge."

The scenes of this titanic struggle are today intact. The battlefield itself seems the same as it was a little more than a half century ago. There is but one change that can be noted: an addition of marble and stone, a shaft that marks the burial place of many unidentified Southern dead.

The monument is easily reached from Perryville, over roads that carried the hosts of the Blue and the Gray. Off the main road, the motorist ascends a fairly-steep grade, which runs between a row of dense spruce pine. If you are fortunate, you will be there, as I was, on a day that was very similar to the one on which the battle was fought. Everything was so dry and parched that the green from the spruce pine was a distinct contrast to the landscape.

Ascend the long hill and alight from your car. Before you, from the heights, stretches the battlefield of Perryville. If you have a good imagination, you might see the columns sway before the withering fire. You might also see hundreds of McCook's brave men falling, while the men under Bragg are waiting to follow home with the advantage.

Go down on the battlefield itself. Perhaps it will just be twilight, the time soon after which the battle ceased. It was then that the Confederates buried their dead and withdrew.

Go over to the monument and read the inscription:

"No braver bled for brighter land
Or brighter land had cause so grand."

The spirit here incorporated is symbolistic of the Southland, ever faithful to the cause and to their sunny homes.