The Battle of Perryville is one of blunders and mistakes. The Battle of Perryville saw Union troops under Don Carlos Buell facing off against Confederate troops under Braxton Bragg in the Chaplin Hills just west of Perryville, KY. On October 8, 1862, the fighting did not result in any clear winner. As a result of the Battle of Perryville, Buell would be removed from command and replaced by William S. Rosecrans. This would also end the Confederate invasion of Kentucky.
In February of 1862, Confederate forces withdrew from Columbus, Mississippi. The force left behind 7,000 soldiers and 52 guns at Island No. 10.
General Henry Halleck had Andrew Foote attack the island while John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi approached the fort by land in response to this. On April 7, 1862, the fort surrendered. This resulted in 7,000 Confederate prisoners and the capture of 52 guns.
While the fort at Island No. 10 was surrendering, massive fighting broke out at Shiloh, TN. Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant engaged with Confederate forces under Albert Sydney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard. The Confederates gained the upper hand on April 6 but lost the advantage when Johnston was shot and killed. Beauregard decided to halt the attack for the day and renew it the following day, on the 7th. However, at this point, reinforcements under Don Carlos Buell arrived and reinforced the Federals. The Union soldiers were able to push the Confederates back, and they retreated to Corinth, Mississippi.
Don Carlos Buell
After capturing Island No. 10, Halleck sent Pope and his force to unite with Grant and Buell. These armies combined to form a new army of over 100,000 men. Halleck, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Buell, Pope, George Thomas, James McPherson, and William S. Rosecrans were in this army. This was likely the greatest team of military talent ever assembled during the war.
Halleck took this star-studded lineup and began moving at a McClellan-Esque pace. Halleck inched this combined force forward and would have his soldiers entrench every time they ran into rebel troops. “Old Brains” (Henry Halleck) tried his best to outmaneuver P.G.T. Beauregard and the Confederate force.
The city of Corinth was crucial to both the North and South. General Beauregard wrote, “If defeated here, we lose the whole Mississippi Valley and probably our cause.”
To attempt to save Corinth, the Confederacy sent troops in from eastern Tennessee and the South Atlantic coast. 15,000 Confederate troops arrived under Van Dorn. This upped the number of soldiers under Beauregard to 70,000 by May. While this seems like a large number on paper, the quality of the soldiers was poor. Many of the soldiers were wounded or sick. The rebel force was also undersupplied.
In the face of the massive Union force and the chance of being sieged, Beauregard decided to leave the city and relinquish control to the Union forces on May 25.
However, this success for the Union at Corinth would be the last.
Halleck’s Next Move
Once Corinth fell to the Union in May, Halleck had to decide his next move. He had four tasks in mind. The first was to go south and attempt to capture the city of Vicksburg from behind. The second was to send a force to Chattanooga to free east Tennessee from the rebel forces there. The third task was to fix and protect the railroads that fed Union soldiers in the west. His fourth and final task was to organize the forces occupying western towns, administer camps with freed African-Americans, protect military governor Andrew Johnson and his government in Nashville, and begin trade with the North.
These tasks had to be completed one at a time due to the lack of supplies for Federal soldiers in the west. Halleck decided to put the task of capturing Vicksburg on the back burner. He decided to order 40,000 men under Buell in the Army of the Ohio to move toward Chattanooga, TN. Buell’s movement was the major western movement of 1862 as Lincoln desperately wanted to restore east Tennessee.
Buell was conservative and used limited warfare in his campaign. This belief made Buell’s move slow as he moved from Corinth to Alabama. While making this slow, McClellan-like drive, Buell and the Army of Ohio were plagued by guerillas who constantly cut the supply lines.
Due to this methodical drive, Halleck contacted Buell on July 8 with a message and stated, “The President telegraphs that your progress is not satisfactory and that you should move more rapidly.”
When this message arrived, the Army of Ohio was near Stevenson, AL. When trainloads of supplies from Nashville arrived on July 13, Nathan Bedford Forrest began to attack the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro. With Forrest nagging Buell and his force, the Army of the Ohio began to cross the Tennessee River, just twenty miles from Chattanooga, TN. Again, Buell was attacked by rebel raiders.
Confederate soldiers under John Hunt Morgan cut off Buell from his supply base in Louisville. At this point, Confederate General Braxton Bragg saw a weakness and decided to strike against Buell. In the middle of August, Morgan blocked a railroad to the north of the city of Nashville. They did so by burning boxcars and sending them into a tunnel 800-feet in length.
This showed that, while railroads were fantastic for quickly transporting large amounts of men and supplies, they were also vulnerable to attack by rebel cavalry.
Seizing on this opportunity created by Forrest and Morgan, Confederate General Braxton Bragg left 32,000 men in Mississippi under the command of Van Dorn and Price. Bragg took the remaining 34,000 Confederate soldiers to Chatannogga. Bragg would also receive support from Forrest, Morgan, Edmund Kirby Smith, and his army of 18,000 Confederates.
Bragg decided to move his force by rail, which became the largest railroad movement for the Confederates during the war.
Kirby Smith moved first with 21,000 soldiers. He departed from the city of Knoxville on August 14. He began his movement toward the Cumberland Gap and got to Richmond, KY. At Richmond, Smith defeated 6,500 Yankees. They then captured Lexington, KY, and tried to establish a Confederate government there.
At the same time, Bragg’s force of 30,000 moved to Chattanooga. This movement was really just a raid and not a full occupation. In response, Buell moved his force back to Louisville. This left Buell’s flank open to attack by Bragg.
Buell’s inactivity frustrated Washington, and they showed the slow-moving general their frustration. In response, Buell organized his soldiers into a force of 60,000 in October. Bragg’s force of 40,000 was spread thin. Buell sent a feint to Frankfort while simultaneously sending three columns to Bardstown.
The feint tricked Bragg just as Buell had hoped. This kept around half of the Confederate forces occupied at Frankfort while the remainder of the three columns of Federal soldiers headed towards Bishop Leonidas Polk and his Confederate force.
On October 7, Polk, in command of 16,000 men, set up defenses to the west of Chaplin River, located at Perryville. Both armies were thirsty and low on water, so the river was a necessary asset. That night, Federals attacked the Confederate troops to take control of a few water sources but could not do so.
The next morning, troops under Phillip Sheridan attacked the Confederate forces again. They were this time successful in taking control of the creek, a vital move for the thirsty soldiers under his command. The entirety of Buell’s army then filled in around Sheridan and his division. However, events for the Union would only get worse after this.
Bragg Makes a Mistake
Believing that the main Union force was at Frankfort, Bragg decided to have Leonidas Polk’s men attack the Union troops at the town of Perryville. This would result in the Battle of Perryville. So, on October 8, in the afternoon, Polk ordered two divisions to attack the equal number of Union divisions on the Federal’s left. These two Union divisions were composed of green (or fresh, new soldiers) who were anxious about the fighting.
When the rebels attacked the Union troops, they broke ranks, resulting in a route. As these green troops ran, they took another Union division with them. These troops ended up retreating a mile or so before being stopped.
While this route took place, Federal troops under Sheridan attacked the other Confederate divisions that had not attacked the Union left in the center. The Confederate division could not withstand Sheridan’s attack and was pushed back through the town of Perryville.
This was when an incredible phenomenon occurred. Due to the wind and the region’s topography, Buell and his forces on the Union right could not hear the battle and thus did not know it was happening. A messenger had to go to Buell’s headquarters and let the general know what was happening. This prevented the remainder of the Union forces from attacking until dawn on the 9th. However, the rebel troops had already retreated. At this point, Bragg had realized the attack at Frankfort was a feint and not a full-fledged attack. He decided to unite the entire Confederate force and met up with Kirby Smith and his men.
The casualties for this battle on October 8 were high compared to the number of soldiers who fought in the battle. There were 4,200 casualties for the Union and 3,400 for the Confederates. However, there was no clear winner. Buell failed to take out a third of the Confederate force, which he had the opportunity to do. Bragg and his force failed to crush the Union force. They could have won Confederate support in a crucial border state if they did so. Bragg gave up his efforts and ended this campaign. Bragg returned his men to Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Buell made a half-hearted effort to chase the retreating rebel force. He failed to do what Washington and Lincoln wanted and did not drive the secesh force out of east Tennessee. They expressed displeasure when Halleck sent Buell a message and stated, “Neither the government nor the country can endure these repeated delays.” Buell’s defense was that he could not pursue the rebel for fear that he would outmarch his supplies. Washington wanted Buell to live off the land of the countryside. However, he would not do so.
At this point, Lincoln decided to remove Buell from command and replace him with William S. Rosecrans renaming this force the Army of the Cumberland.
Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site
We highly recommend checking out the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site in Kentucky if you have the chance.