The Kentucky Campaign--The Battle of Perryville


Minie Balls--not named for their size or shape but for the Frenchman who invented them. Soldiers often spoke of the sound they made as they passed by in battle.


In the summer of 1862 Confederate generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky. Bragg had been appointed by Jefferson Davis to replace P. G. T. Beauregard to command the Confederate Army of the Mississippi. Smith and a small force of less than 10,000 men were camped near Knoxville, TN and kept watch over the strategic Cumberland Gap in the Cumberland Mountains which was held by Union troops under the command of Morgan. Bragg moved 35, 000 infantrymen by train and steamship 800 miles to Chattanooga, TN. The two Confederate generals agreed to a two pronged approach to invade Kentucky. Smith took troops north, crossing the Cumberland Mountains and flanking Morgan. Morgan withdrew to southern Kentucky and eventually moved north to cross the Ohio River on August 24. On August 18 Smith and 6,000 men reached Barboursville, KY and rested for a week.

Union commanders were upset that Kentucky and other states along the Ohio were threatened. General Don Carlos Buell was ordered to drive the Confederate troops out of Kentucky. His orders had previously been to capture Chattanooga but this was delayed as removing the Confederate presence in Kentucky became more pressing. Smith continued north and encountered resistance first at Big Hill, KY on August 24. On August 29 eight Union regiments of raw recruits engaged Smith at Richmond, KY, 20 miles southeast of Lexington to try to stop the Confederate invasion. A union assault was pushed back and one union flank was overtaken. The frightened Union troops retreated quickly, bringing fear to three additional regiments who had just moved to the front. General William Nelson arrived from Lexington to take command but Confederate troops moved over the position he has established in a cemetery. The Union soldiers attempted to retreat toward Lexington but were surrounded when Confederate troops captured a road to their rear. Over half of the Union troops surrendered. 4,000 were captured. Smith entered Lexington triumphantly and set up headquarters there. The next day he occupied Frankfort, the Kentucky state capital and the state government fled to Louisville. Smith was joined by additional troops from near Cumberland Gap and some of his men pushed to within a few miles of the Ohio River. His troops scattered to forage for supplies and try to enlist recruits who might have been Confederate sympathizers.

Bragg’s troops were still in Chattanooga. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wanted Bragg to defeat Buell and get all Union troops out of middle Tennessee and Tennessee Governor Isham Harris wanted Nashville to be liberated from Union occupation. After he moved into Kentucky, Bragg would have the options of attacking Buell, capturing Louisville or capturing Cincinnati with the help of Smith’s troops. On August 28 Bragg left Chattanooga with Leonidas Polk commanding the right wing and William Hardee commanding the left wing which was shielded from Union forces on the west by cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Union General Buell had kept his troops on the west side of the Tennessee River. When Bragg moved his troops north the Union supply lines were threatened. Some Union generals urged Buell to attack as the Confederates marched north but Buell believed that he was outnumbered and withdrew.

The two Confederate wings met at Tompkinsville, KY. Bragg’s troops entered Glasgow, KY on September 14 and were met by cheering crowds. They had moved 150 miles north in 17 days and paused to forage for food. There was an extreme drought in Kentucky. There was very little the troops could find to eat. Bragg hoped to join forces with Smith and had proposed to Smith that they capture Louisville, the Union supply center for operations in Kentucky and Tennessee. While waiting for an answer Bragg sent General James R. Chalmers to destroy the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at Cave City, Kentucky, ten miles north of Glasgow. Chalmers continued on to Munfordville, without orders, where the railroad crossed the Green River. Chalmers troops were met there by a 4,000 man Union garrison with ten pieces of artillery which repulsed the attack resulting in 300 casualties. Bragg sent Hardee to join Chalmers and Polk’s troops cut off the Union from escaping. The Union troops, commanded by Col. John T. Wilder surrendered on September 17. Buell started for Louisville that same day.

Buell had moved to attack the Confederates at Glasgow and Munfordville but deferred and moved north to Louisville, arriving on September 25. Louisville was defended only by green recruits. Bragg was running low on supplies and declined to attack the Union army when he had a chance. He now ordered Smith to bring his army and supplies to Bardstown. Bragg marched northeast to Bardstown and then learned that Smith had defied his order. Bragg had hoped to recruit Kentucky men to his side but since the state was occupied by Union troops, very few men were willing to join the Confederate army. A provisional Confederate government had been set up in Kentucky but its provisional governor had been killed in battle at Shiloh. Bragg felt more men would enlist if a Confederate governor was sworn in. On October 4, as the provisional lieutenant governor was about to be inaugurated in Frankfort, the ceremonies were interrupted by cannon fire. General Bragg believed that Union troops under Buell were advancing on the city. Bragg abandoned the city of Frankfort.

Lincoln ordered that Buell be replaced by General Thomas. After Lincoln learned that Buell’s troops had reached Louisville and Thomas sent word that Buell had developed a battle plan and should be allowed to carry it out, Lincoln rescinded his order to replace Buell. Buell had captured Shelbyville on October 2 and sent two divisions of troops toward Frankfort as a diversion. Bragg took the bait and ordered an attack on the Union flank. His men were separated by many miles and could not support each other. He realized too late that he had made a strategic mistake against the advice of one of his commanders. In an attempt to bring his troops together and reinforce Frankfort, which he believed was Buell’s objective, Bragg issued a series of orders which sometimes conflicted with each other and were not easy to carry out. Men in separate divisions were marching in the same direction but ten miles apart. One of these divisions found their road impossible to travel and asked to follow the other division. This slowed up both groups and allowed the Union troops to catch up with the rear division. The Union troops skirmished with them throughout the day. On the evening of October 6 the Confederate troops occupied a ridge overlooking Doctor’s Creek west of Perryville, KY.

They were preparing to finish off what they thought was a small group of Union soldiers which had been following and harassing them. They would then quickly advance to join the rest of the Confederate forces at the town of Versailles. Bragg was under the mistaken notion that a small force of Union soldiers had been harassing his men and that the main enemy force was near Frankfort, KY, 40-some miles nearly due north when in fact there were 22,000 Union soldiers there under the command of Major General Alexander McCook.

Perhaps the bitterest enemy in the battle was the drought. There was not nearly enough water available from the nearby streams for the men, the horses or for the mules pulling the artillery and wagons of supplies. Confederates were occupying an area west of Perryville between Bull Run Creek and Doctor’s Creek. A few pools of water were still standing in Doctor’s Creek and the Union commander ordered that the area with water be secured and the surrounding high ground be held. At 3:00 a.m. Union forces attacked. By 11:00 a.m. the precious water was secured. On the following day Braxton Bragg ordered his Confederate troops to attack, still not knowing that his troops were badly outnumbered. Fighting went on for two days in very confusing conditions. The topography of the land and the atmospheric conditions at the time resulted in commanders from both sides not knowing that the fighting was so intense, not being able to hear the fire of artillery or even of muskets at times. Orders were issued but not followed, or followed incorrectly. Reinforcements came too late in some areas of fighting or never came at all. Commanders were under mistaken assumptions or had very incomplete facts. Bragg finally was able to get all his forces to converge on Perryville and formed a long battle line on October 10 but he was hesitant to attack. Union forces under Buell waited also for a signal to attack. Bragg finally pulled back and sent his troops across Cumberland Gap to Knoxville, TN. Buell’s Union forces followed at a distance as far as London, KY and then returned to Nashville, TN. The Confederates had rounded up needed food supplies while in Kentucky, driving cattle, hogs and sheep with them back across the mountains.

When Braxton Bragg refused to attack the Union forces near Perryville he gave up his chance to win Kentucky and perhaps even to control Ohio River traffic and to go on into Ohio. Cincinnati citizens had taken precautions against possible invasion, rounding up volunteers to fight, digging entrenchments and bringing in so many volunteers with their squirrel guns that they caused problems in the city and were eventually sent home when no attack came. General Lew Wallace, from Crawfordsville, IN was in command of the city. He would later go on to write the very popular book “Ben Hur” after the war.

The battle of Perryville was a turning point in the civil war. If Bragg has succeeded in his plan the course of the war would have been much different.

The Wabash County Museum has several artifacts of the battle of Perryville which were brought back from a GAR soldiers’ reunion at Perryville by Johnson White. Information about Mr. White is still sketchy but it is believed he was part of Union Kentucky Volunteers. Items he collected included minie balls, musket balls, pieces of a cannonball and a musket ball lodged in a tree which he carved into a memento of the battle with a flag and an eagle. These treasures were kept in a small red painted box for many years before their donation to the museum. Thank you to Max Gard for the donation.

Recent Posts

See All