Battle of Perryville

Battle of Perryville
Date October 8, 1862
Location Boyle County, Kentucky
Victor Confederate tactical victory
Union strategic victory
Contenders
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Don Carlos Buell
Alexander M. McCook
Braxton Bragg
Leonidas Polk
Unit Strength
22,000 16,000
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 4,276 Total: 3,401
894 killed
2,911 wounded
471 captured/missing
532 killed
2,641 wounded
228 captured/missing
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of Perryville was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. It also had a major influence on the overall result or the war, leading to the ultimate victory of the Union North. Even though this clash is viewed as a tactical victory for the Confederate South, it ended up being a strategic victory for the North because the Battle of Perryville resulted in Union control of Kentucky.

After this bloody Kentucky clash, the Union never relinquished their command of what was a critical battleground state. The strategic advantages of controlling Kentucky cannot be overestimated in terms of the final outcome of the Civil War. In fact, many historians consider this a turning point, even though the war did not end for another three years in 1865.

Smaller but Bloodier

Despite being among the bloodiest battles of the war, the number of troops that participated in the Battle of Perryville – also known as the Battle of Champlin Hills – was small by comparison with other famous battles, such as those fought at Gettysburg and Antietam. Union forces numbered 22,000 against 16,000 Confederates at Perryville.

The Union suffered more than 4,200 casualties, while the Confederates suffered over 3,400 casualties.

Commanding Generals

The Battle of Perryville took place early on Oct. 8, 1862, in and around the Chaplin Hills near the small town of Perryville, Kentucky. Commanding the Union forces was Major General Don Carlos Buell. He led the Union Army of Ohio. His opponent was General Braxton Bragg in command of the Army of Mississippi.

Strategic Importance

It is important to remember the extremely critical location of Kentucky when considering how high the stakes were for both sides at this juncture of the war.

Kentucky is a border state between the North and the South. It separates the key states of Virginia from Tennessee (Confederate states), making it important for them to remain “divided and conquered.” Kentucky also borders the Union stronghold of Ohio, so controlling Kentucky afforded a buffer zone from the enemy South.

The state of Kentucky itself considered itself neutral. The Kentucky legislature wanted to stay out of the war, and refused to officially supply troops to either side, although many Kentuckians joined one side or the other on their own terms. However, there were enough Southern sympathizers in the state to set up their own “shadow government.” This was enough for the Confederate States of America to officially recognize Kentucky as one of its own, and added a star for Kentucky to its flag.

The Battle

The Battle of Perryville began with a series of smaller skirmishes on Oct. 7. The Union’s General Buell had been under orders to pursue the forces of General Bragg. When forces met at a series of crossroads in Perryville the battle began in earnest on Oct. 8.

Perryville at the time had a population of just 300 people, but one of the Confederate generals, William J. Hardee, liked the fact that a series of six roads splayed out from Perryville to six surrounding communities. These roads, General Hardee reasoned, would offer excellent maneuverability and mobility for his army.

Once Hardee set up his forces in Perryville, he requested reinforcements from the main Confederate force under General Bragg after a large contingent of the Union army began to close in on Perryville. Bragg agreed to join his forces with Hardee’s and so the stage was set for a major confrontation.

Shots in the Dark

Interestingly, the first shots of the central Battle of Perryville were taken in the dark of night, with shooting beginning around 1 a.m. The 10th Indiana Infantry (with the North) confronted the 7th Arkansas (of the South) – both were desperate to get at sources of brackish water in the area – water supplies were crtically low for both armies in this dry region of Kentucky. The Indiana Union forces were able to drive the Arkansas fighters back to their main line.

In the next hours until the sun came up, numerous skirmishes were fought and the major forces of both sides executed a number of maneuvers as each side endeavored to gain maximum positional advantage over the other.

The battle began in earnest sometime after Noon, when a Confederate division heavily attacked the Union army’s left flank, forcing it to retreat. More Confederate divisions soon joined the conflict. Although Union forces stood their ground for some hours, and even staged a counterattack, but they were eventually routed and forced to fall back.

Miscommunication and Low Supplies

The Union might have fared better here, but for the fact that General Buell was actually several miles behind from where the main battle was taking place under the commands of his subordinate officers. In fact, poor communication meant that Buell was unaware that the primary battle had been engaged. If General Buell would have known what was happening down in Perryville, he might have sent reinforcements to beat back, or even smash the Confederates.

As for the Confederates, they pursued their advantage, but unfortunately for them, they began to run desperately low on supplies, ammunition, and rest. They had little choice but to retreat. General Bragg moved his army back through the Cumberland Gap and all the way out into Tennessee. The result was that Union forces were able to move into Kentucky and establish a presence there, which they maintained throughout the duration of the war. This later situation is why the Battle of Perryville was a strategic victory for the North.

The Aftermath

In addition to the thousands killed on both sides, almost 3,000 were wounded for the North and 2,640 were wounded for the South. The North captured 471 and the South took 228 captive. In all, one out of every five men who fought in this desperate battle were casualties. Especially painful for General Bragg was the reality that he was forced to leave 900 of his wounded Confederate soldiers behind.

The memory of the Battle of Perryville runs deep to this day in the state of Kentucky. Some of the battlefield site is preserved as the Perryville Battlefield Historic Site, which is a 745-acre site near Perryville and in Boyle County, Kentucky. There is an interpretive museum on the site, as well as numerous markings and signs to show and tell visitors about the terrible events that happened here more than 150 years ago.

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