Story and photos 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
Oct. 16, 2012
In August, 1862, Confederate strategic designs called for simultaneous advances of all major armies. While Gen. Robert E. Lee would move north into Maryland, Confederate forces in the west would strike for Corinth, Miss. Meanwhile, Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army (soon to be called the Army of Tennessee) would occupy Kentucky, strike at the Army of the Ohio, and attempt to win Kentucky for the Confederacy. With three separate armies advancing simultaneously the late summer of 1862 would mark the largest Southern offensive of the war.
Kentucky’s strategic location, rivers, and divided sympathies made it a coveted objective. The Confederate Flag bore a star for Kentucky in hopes that she would join the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln meanwhile remarked, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly to lose the whole game.”
Bragg moved 30,000 infantry by rail from Mississippi to Chattanooga, Tenn. where he met with Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith, commander of the Military Department of East Tennessee. Together, the men devised a delicate plan. Smith would march for Cumberland Gap with 21,000 men to brush aside Union forces there. Bragg meanwhile would march with 16,000 men, unite with Smith in Kentucky, and attempt to bring the Union Army of the Ohio to battle.
As John Pope was attacking Jackson at Second Manassas, Bragg’s men crossed into Kentucky. With Smith moving on a parallel course to the East, Bragg occupied Lexington and Frankfort.
The nearest Union force, The Army of the Ohio, commanded by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, was at that time marching for Chattanooga. Having learned the disposition of Bragg’s forces and determined their objective to be Louisville, Buell reversed course and dispatched Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill to distract Kriby Smith and prevent him from uniting with Bragg’s army.
Buell won the race to Louisville, consolidated and resupplied. As September gave way to October, Buell’s army, now 60,000 men, marched for Bragg, then located at Bardstown, approximately 45 miles southeast.
Bragg’s invasion had been launched with the assumption that thousands of Kentuckians would flock to join the Confederate cause. The General had ordered 20,000 muskets be brought to equip the anticipated horde of volunteers. The want of enthusiastic volunteers and dearth of supplies had slowed Braggs march and ceded Louisville to Buell. Now Bragg faced the prospect of thousands of Union Soldiers uniting to protect Cincinnati and converge on his forces.
On October 7, Buell’s lead elements converged on the crossroads town of Perryville, Kentucky, in three columns. Elements of both armies, scouring the countryside for water, blundered into each other and exchanged fire on the outskirts of Perryville. The next day, fighting commenced at dawn near Peters Hill - key terrain that overlooked the water sources. The fighting came to a halt mid morning and resumed after noon when Bragg launched an echelon attack on the Union left flank. Although initially driven back, the Union lines regrouped and attempted a counterattack before falling back with some elements in full rout.
Before the Confederates could fully realize and capitalize on the breakthrough the Union reestablished their lines and held against further attacks. The day’s action ended with skirmishing in the streets of Perryville as a Union Division pursued a retreating Confederate brigade through the town.
The battle of Perryville is a study in the role of terrain and intelligence. Neither commander had a precise knowledge of the disposition of the other army due to the rolling terrain. An undulating series of ridges and valleys allowed units to maneuver unseen and seemingly “pop up out of the ground” to fire from close range. One Confederate Brigade was sent forward to seize a Union artillery battery only to come face to face with an entire Union Corps and take artillery fire from four directions.
Buell meanwhile was unaware that an engagement was taking place due to a phenomenon called acoustic shadowing which prevented him from hearing the sound of battle erupting not three miles from his headquarters. As such he dismissed his subordinate’s frenzied requests for reinforcements. Nevertheless, as the Confederate attack progressed en echelon from the North, Union troops stabilized their lines and after some initial success, the Confederate attack faltered.
Bragg on the other hand was unaware that he was facing Buell’s entire army. Until the battle had concluded on the evening of October 8, Bragg was convinced that he faced only two divisions and that Buell’s main body was miles away to the North. Buell actually had 30,000 men in reserve that, if committed, might have destroyed Bragg’s Army in detail. Upon learning of the forces arrayed against him Bragg ceded the ground and despite his tactical victory, slipped away to preserve his army. His invasion blunted, Bragg returned to Tennessee and handed the Union a major strategic victory.
Nearly twenty percent of those engaged at Perryville would become casualties making Perryville one of the bloodiest battles per-capita of the Civil War. It was the largest battle fought in Kentucky and its outcome represented the high tide in the west. While Bragg’s invasion plan failed, his attempt did draw Union forces out of North Alabama and Mississippi. This gain was balanced by the loss of Kentucky for the war.
Buell’s victory would be short lived. Criticized for failing to pursue the departing Confederates, Buell’s military command was restructured and Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans was placed in command of what would become the Army of the Cumberland. Buell ultimately resigned from the Army in 1864. Rosecrans would contend with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in December 1862 on the banks of Stones River in Murfreesboro. That battle is the subject of the December Civil War review.