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Perryville, the Civil War’s Most Obscure Major Battle_1

On October 8, 1862, a hot and exceedingly dry day, Union and Confederate forces classed in the Chaplin Hills just west of Perryville, Kentucky, a small market town located southwest of Lexington in the commonwealth’s central bluegrass.

Perryville-This Grand Havoc of Battle by Kenneth W. Noe, pg xiii

So begins Noe’s exhaustive work on the Civil War’s most obscure major battle.

Part of the reason for the obscurity is the location of the battle. The battlefield is not near any major interstate or large city. The largest city is near-by Danville, KY with a population of just over 16,000 as of 2010.

Another reason for the relative obscurity is simply because other battlefields such as Shiloh, Vicksburg, Stones River and Chickmauga in the west and Gettysburg in the east have been written about exhaustively. Those battles have been thought of being of greater importance than a battle fought in the middle of nowhere Kentucky.

Yet, the Battle of Perryville can be and should probably be thought of as the Confederate high tide in the Western Theater of Operations.

The Confederates under Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith invaded the border State of Kentucky (a slave state) in order to encourage secession in the hopes of recruiting thousands of Kentuckians to the cause.

Secession leaning Kentucky politicians and Rebel Kentucky generals already in the Confederate camp were adamant in assuring Bragg and Smith that should they invade and that many southern leaning Kentuckians would flock to the colors and “fight for Kentucky’s independence” from the Union.

No such thing happened. Most Kentuckians were against secession despite the fact Kentucky was a slave state. Recruits to the cause were few. Most that did enlist preferred service in the cavalry rather than the less glamorous infantry where they were needed the most.

Nevertheless, Bragg and Smith did invade and for a time the invasion did provide a panic for the Union. A major Confederate success in Kentucky would have meant Louisville falling to the Confederates and probably would have pulled Kentucky out of the Union. Bragg was so optimistic that he thought he could cross the Ohio River and take Cincinnati.

Although obscure, The Battle of Perryville was not a small affair especially for the soldiers on both sides who had to fight it. Sam Watkins, the author of the well known memoir, Company H served in the 1st Tennessee (CSA) in nearly every battle and skirmish in the Western Theater of the War.

Here is Noe’s quote on Watkin’s experience at Perryville:

The ubiquitous Confederate infantryman Sam Watkins remembered Perryville, where he fought hand-to-hand for control of a federal battery, as “this grand havoc of a battle” and swore that he had never experienced anything else like it. “I was in every battle, skirmish and march that was made by the First Tennessee regiment during the war,: he recorded in his memoir, “and I do not remember a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that of Perryville…Both sides claimed victory—both whipped….Such obstinate fighting I never seen before or since.

(Perryville-This Grand Havoc of Battle by Kenneth W. Noe, pg xiv

In late September, 2019 my wife and I traveled to South Carolina to visit her sister and her husband. It was an opportunity for me to scratch my life long interests in the American Civil War.

On the way home which took us through Tennessee and Kentucky we decided to visit the Perryville Battlefield for a day. My wife is very gracious in indulging my hobbies and over the years she too has developed an interest in American History.

We visited the battlefield many years before-before the birth of out son; almost as newly weds back in the late 1970’s. Back then, it was an impulsive stop and it occurred simply because we were close enough to it after we had visited Shiloh, Chickamauga, Fort Donelson and other better known battlefields.

I remember driving for miles and miles on a single lane highway in mid-summer wondering if we would ever get there. When we arrived I was disappointed. The battlefield was small and the visitor center was nothing to brag about. I knew little about the battle and that contributed to the overall impression that is was a long ride for nothing.

Over the years in furthering my study of the Civil War I thought the battlefield would be worth a second look. My expectations were not as high as they were previously and I researched the site (what did we do before the INET!) prior to our trip.

Since the 1970’s the size of the battlefield has grown considerably through the efforts of the State of Kentucky and Battlefield Trust. Land has been purchased and new visitor center built that features a small bookstore as well as a battlefield museum which given it’s size is quite impressive.

The Visitor Center at Perryville. It’s not huge but it is very good and the staff is excellent. As I understand it there are plans to continue to expand the battlefield as money allows. Check out Battlefield Trust if you want to help.
Three flags over the battlefield at Perryville. The one in the middle is the Kentucky State Flag. Kentucky, like other border states had soldiers on both sides of the conflict but most Kentuckians fought for the Union.

The staff member (who could not show us around that day) spent a lot of time explaining the battle and guiding us in how to use the map. We spent the better part of the day hiking around the battlefield in the sequence the staff member suggested. Perryville Battlefield, Kentucky State Park

This gave me an excellent understanding of the battle in how it started, how it progressed and how it finally ended.

If you do not take the time to listen to the guide and then read all the plaques all you will see is rolling hills, tall grass, fences and a few cannon standing guard over ground where brave men bled and died.

The staff member, whose name I have forgotten, has our thanks for providing the framework for an immersive experience that both my wife and I enjoyed.

When we returned to the visitor center I purchased Perryville-This Grand Havoc of a Battle by Kenneth W. Noe. I’ve rarely read a more compelling and interesting account of a Civil War battle. I will probably write a review of the book as it will serve in a big source way for my planned series on the battle.

This is the Confederate Monument at Perryville. The soldier on the top stands guard over the Confederate mass grave. After the battle a man by the name of Henry (Squire) Bottom, owner of the land and southern sympathizer buried hundreds of Confederates because the Federals would not. Bottom attempted to identify the bodies but in the days before metal “dog tags” it was difficult, so most remain known only to God.
The inscription on the Confederate Monument at Perryville. At many Civil War sites efforts are being made to give more background and scope to the Civil War so that inscriptions like this one are better understood. We tend to judge events of long ago by contemporary standards and as a result remove the event from its historical context. Slavery was indeed the catalyst that ignited the Civil War but the roots go back to the founding of our nation. Most Confederate and most Union soldiers for that matter did not factor in slavery as to why they fought. In general, they fought for their states (homes) in the south and for their states in the north as part of a Union they saw as insoluble. All that to say, tearing down Confederate monuments is not a reasonable solution to anything. What is reasonable is giving context to momentous events that shaped our history and in the final result ended the horror of slavery at the cost of hundreds of thousands killed and maimed for life.
The Union Monument at Perryville. The Union monument was put up much later than the Confederate one. It does not stand over a mass grave either. After the battle Union soldiers did their best to bury their fallen comrades as soon as possible. Feral hogs and other animals feasted on the corpses until they sickened and died from consuming putrefying flesh. It was important to bury comrades quickly to prevent this. However, the burials were in haste and often shallow so as a preventative measure it didn’t help much. Months and even years after the battle the government moved the remains of the Union dead to a proper cemetery elsewhere in Kentucky. Today, only the bodies they missed remain.
This is the inscription on the Union Monument. It was an incredibly hard fought battle and both sides lost heavily. Tactically, the Union lost but it mattered little as the Confederates realizing they were out numbered withdrew during the night and next day.

On a side note, I do have a couple of personal connections to the battle, although both are indirect.

The first connection are the Wisconsin infantry regiments and artillery batteries that were present at the battle. McCook’s Corps of the Army of the Ohio fought the lion’s share of the battle and within that Corps three Wisconsin infantry regiments served. The veteran 1st and 10th Wisconsin and the brand-new 21st Wisconsin all fought with the 21st being particularly roughly handled. A blog post just on that is planned.

The 21st was recruited in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the time, Milwaukee was heavily German so many Germans served in many Union regiments recruited from the heavy German areas such as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

My own family immigrated to the US from Germany in the 1870’s so I do not have a direct link that I can establish as a Civil War ancestor. Yet, I can find our family name among the rosters of other Wisconsin regiments. It simply serves me to understand that had I been born in Milwaukee 15-18 years prior to the Civil War I probably would have been in it! Such is the providence of God that I was not.

The second connection is also indirect.

My wife’s great-grandfather immigrated from Scotland to Kentucky in 1853 at the age of eighteen. He enlisted in the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry (Union) in 1861 and served about a year according to his records. He missed Perryville.

Brigadier General William Terrill from Kentucky recruited the 3rd Kentucky when the war began. Terrill would die at the battle.

My wife’s great-grandfather, James Robertson, would re-enlist; this time in the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry. As a veteran I’m sure he was eagerly accepted and I’m sure the $300.00 bounty Wisconsin was providing certainly provided the needed incentive.

The 42nd spent it’s service time in and around Cairo, IL where a huge Union supply base was located. Compared with the horrors of Perryville and other Civil War battles grandpa had pretty nice duty.

Grandpa settled in Wisconsin after the war marrying my wife’s great-grandma, Jessie. They had 13 children together. Grandpa lived until 1913.

Perryville was worth the out of the way trip for anyone interested in the Civil War. Take your time, use the guide and seek to understand. it’s worth it.

One comment on “Perryville, the Civil War’s Most Obscure Major Battle_1

  1. I agree with you that moments in our history, whether good or bad should be preserved. I would never have known about this episode if you had not researched it and found the monuments.

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