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Chapter 13:

  • Battle of Perryville
  • -- delay in the attack -- Bragg Hastens there -- status as he found it -- topography of the Surrounding country -- Arrangement of line of battle -- relative position of opposing forces -- Confederates attack and surprise McCook's corps -- Cheatham's assault on right -- McCook driven back with heavy loss -- severe engagement on center and left -- Confederate victory but virtual defeat -- General Buell Unaware of the battle until in progress two hours -- Bragg Falls back to Harrodsburg -- army concentrated but Fails to attack -- beginning of retreat from Kentucky -- Bryantsville -- General Humphrey Marshall

For reasons unnecessary to consider here, but which caused a long and embittered controversy, the attack was not made as expected, and General Bragg, hearing no cannon, went himself to Perryville, where he arrived about 10 o'clock, finding General Polk in line of battle with General Hardee's corps on the right of Perryville, left resting near the academy, and General Cheatham on the left of the town; Chaplin's fork of Salt river which runs through the village from the south, being substantially the line. There had been some skirmishing on the right but no engagement, as it was Buell's policy not to give battle until concentrated.

General Bragg assumed command, and after a brief reconnoissance rearranged the line by transferring General Cheatham's division to the extreme right, and advancing Hardee's corps to the west side of Chaplin's fork. About two and a half miles north of Perryville, Doctor's creek, a small stream from the southwest, [141] empties into Chaplin's fork, and near this junction was Cheatham's right. Upon his right was Wharton's cavalry, while Wheeler's cavalry covered the left wing of the army. In the meantime General McCook, who did not march from Mackville until 5 a. m., had arrived with Rousseau's and Jackson's divisions and made his dispositions as directed, on the west side of Doctor's creek, but with no expectation of an engagement.

Bragg's order of battle was that Cheatham should advance by brigades in echelon across the creek and moving under cover of a wood and natural swells, attack the enemy upon his left flank. General Polk was charged with this movement, which as soon as fairly under way was to be followed by General Hardee with an advance of his line, to take advantage of the confusion which it was supposed General Polk's unexpected attack would cause. Before Cheatham's preparations were completed the enemy opened a very lively cannonade in his direction, but with little effect, owing to the favorable topography of the ground, affording immunity from the fire.

It had been expected that the movement would begin at one o'clock, but it was not until 2 o'clock when General Cheatham's division, moving as on dress parade, moved forward. Sweeping around to the right by somewhat of an oblique movement it dashed across the creek, and it was not long before the roar of musketry told that the work was begun and progressing. Soon the music was taken up by General Hardee's command; the air was filled with the sound of battle, and shot and shell were screaming and exploding all along the line. The west bank of Chaplin's fork is a high bluff, with cedars, and commanded a perfect view of the battlefield. The ground rising by a gentle ascent and consisting of cultivated farms with little timber, a panorama was presented such as is rarely witnessed except on canvas Cheatham's movement, supplemented by a charge of Wharton's cavalry, had proved a perfect success, taking the [142] enemy by surprise, capturing one or more batteries and doubling up his line in confusion.

In the first onset, Gen. J. S. Jackson, a Kentuckian commanding a division; General Terrill, a cousin of Gen. J. E. B. Stuart; and Col. George Webster, commanding brigades, were killed. General Jackson fell among the guns of a battery which he was apparently directing to check the onslaught. It, however, proved irresistible, and the Federal left was forced back a full mile, with the loss of 400 prisoners, including the staff officers and General McCook's servants, carriage and baggage. By this move our alignment was somewhat broken, there being quite an interval between Cheatham's left and the right of Buckner's division. But advantage was not taken of it, as the contest upon the left and center was severe enough to engage the full attention of the enemy. It was a square stand up, handto-hand fight. The batteries and lines of both sides could be seen distinctly except when occasionally obscured by the dense smoke which alternately hung over the scene or was blown off by the western breeze.

The point of most stubborn resistance was in the center, where Rousseau's division was assailed by Buckner's division. There was here a large barn which afforded a vantage ground to the enemy. In the midst of the fiercest contest it was fired by a Confederate shell and soon the flames shot high into the air. The effect seemed favorable for dislodging the opposing force, and a charge with a shout carried the Confederate line several hundred yards farther. In this severe struggle the loss on both sides was heavy, but particularly so on that of the Federal in the Fifteenth Kentucky regiment, Col. Curran Pope being wounded, and Lieut.-Col. Geo. P. Jouett and Maj. W. P. Campbell, killed. The enemy had, pending third engagement in the center, reformed in a strong position in Cheatham's front, and the battle raged along the whole line, which it not continuous, faced in the same [143] direction. But when the center gave way, the whole line recoiled and the Confederates held the entire battlefield.

Yet, while the enemy had retired and no longer replied with his musketry, his artillery, actively plied, indicated that he had not retreated far. On the contrary there were ominous reports of danger on the Lebanon road, and apprehensions arose of being taken in left and rear by a reinforcement from Crittenden's delayed corps, as reports of their approach came in by cavalry. Our advance having placed Perryville in our rear with comparatively no protection, the appearance of an infantry force there would have had a disastrous effect; but fortunately it did not occur. The sun went down in a cloudless sky as red in the autumnal haze and smoke of battle as the blood upon which it had looked, while almost simultaneously the full moon, its counterpart in bloody mien, rose opposite. Still the artillery on both sides kept up their fire. Upon an elevation on our left, which had been won with hard fighting, were placed two of our batteries, which sent forth continuous flames, deepening in their lurid glare as it became darker, until only the sheet of flame without the smoke could be seen, while the air was filled with bursting bombs, and the scream of the shell with lighted fuse, or its unpleasant thud as it struck near, was constantly heard. Gradually the fire slackened; the moon rose higher and lit up the ghastly faces of the dead; and by half past 8, over all was the stillness of death.

The battle was over and both armies were lying on their arms. Tactically it was a Confederate victory, strategically it was a defeat. The loss on both sides was heavy, and it proved not only the largest battle fought during the war on Kentucky soil, but one of the bloodiest of the war. Out of 15,000 of all arms, the Confederate loss was 3,396—510 killed, 2,635 wounded and 251 missing. The total Federal casualties were 4,241—845 killed, 2,851 wounded and 515 missing. General Halleck states [144] that General Buell had at Louisville 100,000 men; but the latter in his report gives his whole force which left Louisville as 58,000, including cavalry and artillery, his three corps being about equal in number, say 18,000 each. The Confederates lost no general officers, but Generals P. R. Cleburne, S. A. M. Wood and John C. Brown, commanding brigades, were wounded. One of the most remarkable features of the battle is that General Buell in his report says he did not know that a battle was being fought until 4:30 o'clock, over two hours after it began.1

About midnight the Confederate army was withdrawn quietly to Perryville, leaving a thin skirmish line which retired later. Early in the morning the trains were put in motion for Harrodsburg ,and by noon the whole force had arrived at that place. No demonstration was made by the enemy except some artillery firing at 7:30a. m., of the 9th, indicating that he was on the alert.

On the same day General Smith's force arrived in Harrodsburg and the army was for the first time concentrated. Every indication pointed to a decisive battle. It was expected that General Buell would advance to the attack, and on the 10th than eligible line of battle was formed awaiting his advance. Bragg then had of all arms an army of 40,000 men, and should have fought. At a distance of two or three miles the Federal army was also in line, to the south of Harrodsburg, both armies facing each other as if ready for the conflict; but neither advanced, a heavy rain supervening. General Buell had swung around and occupied Danville, and Bragg, fearing that he would seize upon his depot of supplies at Bryantsville, twelve or fourteen miles east of Harrodsburg, or cut off his communications with Cumberland Gap, instead of following him marched for Bryantsville on the morning of the 11th, and by the time he reached that point the enemy occupied Harrodsburg. [145]

The retreat from Kentucky had virtually begun. A council of war was held at Bryantsville. Added to his own condition as the result of Perryville, came news of the defeat of Price and Van Dorn by Rosecrans at Corinth on the 3rd, which shattered the only army in the lower South and left a victorious enemy free to move at will in any direction. In view of this situation, the council with one exception, concurred in the propriety of a retreat through Cumberland Gap while the route was open and the roads were yet good. Gen. Humphrey Marshall, who simultaneously with General Bragg's advance into Kentucky had come through Pound Gap from southwestern Virginia, with several thousand cavalry, favored crossing to the north side of the Kentucky river, sustaining the army in the Blue Grass region as long as possible and then retreating into Virginia by way of Pound Gap. General Bragg so far acceded to his proposition as to permit his return the same way.

And so it was resolved to evacuate Kentucky. Cumberland Gap had been abandoned on September 17th by Gen. Geo. W. Morgan, who had made his way through the mountains by way of Manchester, Beattyville and West Liberty to Greenup on the Ohio, where he had arrived on the 3rd of October. His progress was impeded somewhat by the cavalry of General Marshall and Col. John H. Morgan, but the nature of the country not being favorable for cavalry operations, their resistance availed but little beyond preventing his movement westward, had he so designed. On September 27th a portion of Morgan's cavalry under Col. Basil W. Duke, aiming to cross the Ohio at Augusta for a demonstration against Cincinnati, had a severe engagement in the streets of that town with the home guards, who fired from the houses, causing a loss of twenty per cent of his force, with a much heavier loss to the enemy. Among his killed were Capts. Samuel D. Morgan (a cousin of Col. John H. [146] Morgan), Allen and Kennett, and Lieuts. Greenbury Roberts, George White, Rogers, King and William Courtland Prentice, son of George D. Prentice, editor of the Louisville Journal. This was the only engagement which occurred on the Ohio during the campaign, although previously Col. R. M. Gano, of Morgan's cavalry, had captured Maysville without a fight. [147]

1 General Buell's statement in review of the evidence before the Military Commission. Rebellion Records, Vol. XVI, Part x, page 51. General McCook's testimony, Ib., page 90.

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