The Battle of Perryville – A Lunchtime Surprise

October 8, 1862 (Wednesday)

The morning in Perryville, Kentucky was one of relative quiet. Two armies arrayed themselves mere miles from their counterparts. Only static and anticipation filled the air where may otherwise have been lead and iron. From his headquarters at Harrodsburg, ten miles northeast, Confederate General Braxton Bragg waited for the sounds of battle. As late as the previous evening, he held little faith that the Union Army of the Ohio, under Don Carlos Buell, would attack his Left Wing at Perryville. The silence hung ominous as he wondered whether his orders to attack at dawn were ever received by his wing commander Leonidas Polk.

A peaceful Perryville morning.

But Polk had indeed received them. A council of war was called, and the commanders discussed how the Union infantry seemed to be centering on Perryville. Though Bragg could not hear it from so far away, light skirmishing had erupted south and west of town. The Confederate commanders elected not to attack, but to wait and see how the Federals developed. The Rebel force was but 16,000-strong. They did not know it, but the Federals before them numbered close to 60,000.

Polk vaguely informed Bragg of the situation, but sought no reinforcements. He reiterated that they would defeat the enemy and then join the Right Wing under Kirby Smith near Versailles, another twenty miles beyond Harrodsburg. Bragg and Smith both believed that the main Federal body was heading toward Versailles. Polk simply didn’t know where it was. In truth, the main body was about to fall upon Perryville.

At least, that was the plan. Don Carlos Buell wanted his three Federal corps to attack, probably from right to left, around 7am. For whatever reason, the orders didn’t reach two of his corps commanders until 3am. In the dark, there was much confusion and traffic in reaching their proper positions. His First Corps, under Alexander McCook, finally showed up around 10:30. All the while, he had feared an attack would be made against his unsupported Third Corps, commanded by Charles Gilbert. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief when McCook, though late, arrived just in time.

The problem was that he had heard nothing from Thomas Crittenden, commanding the Second Corps or George Thomas, his (Buell’s) second in command. Until he heard from them, he refused to advance. Word had come in that only the Left Wing of the Rebel army was holding Perryville, that Kirby Smith was to the north. Still, Buell decided to wait it out.

When word came from Thomas, it was only to tell Buell that he couldn’t report in person. A regiment of Confederate cavalry had started skirmishing and that needed his attention. Thomas was clearly blowing off Buell – some petty retaliation for a small rebuke from the day before. Around that same time, Buell learned that Crittenden’s Corps was mostly up. But still he waited.

During all this waiting, General McCook rode to Buell’s headquarters, leaving his Corps in the less-than-adequate hands of Lovell Rousseau, who immediately advanced the entire Corps 800 yards closer to enemy lines. He had apparently seen a column of dust and, hoping to take nearby Doctor’s Creek so his men could fill their canteens, he ordered an advance. Soon, artillery was booming away.

When McCook returned, he found his artillery firing wildly at Confederates he could not see, and ordered them to stop. With that, he had time to look over the new line. He liked it and threw out skirmishers and began to realign his divisions. As he did, the Rebels attacked.

Something had clicked in Braxton Bragg’s head. Maybe it was the pregnant silence from Perryville. Something should have happened by now. He had plans to join Kirby Smith at Versailles, but instead made haste for Polk’s command. When he arrived, he saw for himself how poorly the Confederate line was laid. A simple move by the Federals around their right flank would cut Polk off from Smith, splitting Bragg’s army in two. Bragg immediately ordered the leftmost division, under Benjamin Cheatham, to move to the rightmost position, protecting the flank.

The attack came more by chance than by anything else. When Cheatham’s men arrived, they tossed back McCook’s Federal skirmishers near Doctor’s Creek. They ran so well, Bragg decided to push it.

Around this time, Don Carlos Buell and Charles Gilbert, away from his Corps, were lunching together. The booms of artillery prompted Buell to send a note to Philip Sheridan, commanding the Corps while Gilbert was away, to “stop that useless waste of powder.” They continued their meal uninterrupted.

When Cheatham’s Rebels hit the Federals, Bragg ordered William Hardee’s division, the next in line, to add to the confusion. They came from the woods lining the creek, across the valley, yelling with fury and firing as they moved. The attack swirled around the Federal artillery, which emptied round after round of canister into the butternut forms. For an hour, this melee continued, until the guns withdrew, leaving the infantry to handle things themselves. McCook threw in his last reserves, but it was too late.

By this time, Hardee’s Division had joined in the Rebel attack. The Union line could not hold. With their comrades in retreat on their left, the Federals in the center gave way. As Gilbert, their commanding general, still away, there was nobody to lead. Sheridan was in command, but the other division commanders never came to his aid. When Gilbert learned about the attack, he downplayed and dismissed it. General Crittenden, on the Union left, heard the noise and inquired from Gilbert what it was all about. Gilbert replied that “his children were all quiet and by sunset he would have them all in bed, nicely tucked in, as we used to do at Corinth.”

But his children were anything but quiet. They were dying or running for their lives. It wasn’t until 4pm, three hours after the attack, that Buell realized he was commanding a battle. He sent word to his right, ordering the sulking General Thomas to attack.

Dusk was fast approaching. The Federal line on the left had reformed about a mile behind its original position. They put up a fine resistance, but it was all too late. They were disorganized and whipped. Two of their Generals had been killed and many officers wounded.

The message Buell sent to Thomas on his right did not arrive until 6:30. Night had fallen and Thomas wasn’t sure if Buell wanted a night attack or one for the next morning. Despite the confusion, there was some attempt made on the Confederate left, but it too failed, being unsupported.

That night at dinner, Philip Sheridan and Charles Gilbert, finally convinced that his men were not at all quiet, did their best to convince Buell that a fairly major battle had just happened. Rousseau arrived later, preaching the same gospel. Finally, by the time Thomas rolled in, around 10:30pm, Buell saw the light and was converted, but blamed McCook for the whole thing.

McCook, convinced that he would be attacked the next dawn, begged Buell for more men. Buell refused, believing that no attack would come. In this, he was right. Before the dawn, the Confederate columns began their march to Harrodsburg, where Bragg hoped to finally link up with Kirby Smith.

Both sides sustained heavy losses. Buell’s command lost 845 killed, 2,851 wounded, with 515 captured or missing. It was nearly a quarter of those engaged. Bragg lost 510 killed, 2,635 wounded, and 251 missing, or about twenty percent of his entire force.1

  1. Sources: The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; All for the Regiment by Gerald Prokopowicz; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney; Banners to the Breeze by Earl J. Hess; Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. []
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The Battle of Perryville – A Lunchtime Surprise by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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