Confederate Fortunes Decline in 1862
By the middle of 1862, Confederate fortunes were declining in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Union forces controlled western Tennessee and the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, and the southern port city of New Orleans. Federal forces had driven the Confederate Army of the Mississippi from the important railroad hub at Corinth, Mississippi to Tupelo, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant was making plans to capture the fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.
Bragg Replaces Beauregard
On June 27, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved General P. G. T. Beauregard of command of the Army of the Mississippi and replaced him with General Braxton Bragg. Hoping to end the string of Federal successes in the west, Bragg devised a plan to shift the focus of the war in the Western Theater by invading Kentucky. Bragg believed that most residents in that border state supported the Confederacy and that many of them would join the Southern Army if given the opportunity.
Bragg Invades Kentucky
Leaving 32,000 soldiers in Mississippi to deal with Grant, Bragg moved his remaining 34,000 men to Chattanooga, Tennessee to launch his invasion of Kentucky. Once in Kentucky, Bragg planned to combine forces with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s 18,000 soldiers, stationed near Knoxville, Tennessee, and move against the Union Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell.
Initially, events went well for the Confederates. Smith left Knoxville on August 14, 1862, and defeated a Union garrison at Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30. Bragg’s army left Chattanooga in late August and on September 17, they captured an important rail station at Munfordville, Kentucky, along with 4,000 Union soldiers, at the Battle of Munfordville (September 14-17, 1862). On October 4, events were so promising that Bragg took part in the inauguration of Richard Hawes as the provisional Confederate governor of Kentucky.
Buell Becomes the Pursuer
Throughout September, the two-headed Confederate onslaught forced Buell back toward Louisville, Kentucky. There, soldiers from across the Ohio River, in Indiana, reinforced the Army of the Ohio. In early October, with up to 60,000 men under his command, Buell left Louisville and became the pursuer. Buell’s advance surprised the unprepared Confederates. Smith and Bragg had yet to combine their forces, and Bragg’s army was spread between Bardstown and Frankfort. Buell sent a small force toward Frankfort to convince Bragg that the focus of his counterattack was the Kentucky capital. Meanwhile, the bulk of Buell’s army departed southeast from Louisville in three columns in search of Bragg’s army.
Clash at Perryville
October 7, 1862 – Fighting for Water
Buell’s soldiers suffered during the march from Louisville as Kentucky experienced a brutal drought. The unusually high autumn temperatures took a toll as drinking water became scarce. On October 7, 1862, Buell’s three columns approached the small crossroads town of Perryville, Kentucky. Advance scouts reported that some shallow pools of water remained in the bed of Doctor’s Creek near the town. As the first of Buell’s men began to arrive during the evening, they skirmished with Confederate cavalry guarding the water. Before darkness fell, fighting intensified when Confederate infantry, commanded by Major General Leonidas Polk, reinforced the cavalry.
October 8, 1862 – Reinforcements Arrive
During the night, more soldiers from each side arrived in the area, and their commanders began establishing battle lines. Buell intended to launch a major assault against the Confederates the next day, but the late arrival of his men forced him to postpone the attack until October 9. On the Confederate side, Bragg remained convinced that the bulk of Buell’s army was targeting Frankfort. Believing that Polk’s army outnumbered the Yankees near Perryville, Bragg ordered Polk to attack the next day.
October 9, 1862 – Fighting for Water
The battle began around 2:00 a.m. on October 9, when Union soldiers, commanded by Brigadier General Philip Sheridan, advanced to take possession of some pools of water in Doctor’s Creek near Peters Hill. Meeting little resistance, Sheridan’s men captured Peter’s Hill and drove the Confederate defenders beyond the creek. Buell ordered Sheridan to hold the hill, and little else happened the rest of the morning.
Bragg Assumes Battlefield Command and Orders an Attack
Bragg arrived at Perryville about 10:00 a.m. and was angered to find that Polk had established defensive positions, rather than follow his order to attack. Polk had good reason not to comply; he was sure that he was facing more than a diversionary force. Still clinging to his belief about the size of the enemy force that Polk was facing, Bragg took control, redeployed the soldiers, and ordered an attack, which began with a bombardment at 12:30 p.m.
Federals Halt the ConfederateAdvance
The first infantry push came from the Confederate right. The Confederates met stiff resistance but drove the Federals back. Buell failed to send reserves to repulse the attack because he was away from the action recuperating from falling from his horse the day before. At 2:45 p.m., the Rebel center advanced but made little headway. The final Confederate assault came from two brigades against Major General Alexander McCook’s center. Buell quickly reinforced McCook’s troops, who turned back the Confederates.
By dark, the rest of Buell’s army arrived at Perryville and threatened the Confederate left flank. Overnight, Bragg realized that he faced nearly all of Buell’s army. Outnumbered nearly three-to-one, and running low on ammunition and supplies, Bragg retreated.
The Battle of Perryville was the largest Civil War engagement fought in Kentucky. Although the Union suffered more casualties (4,211 – killed, wounded, and missing/captured) than the Confederacy (3,196 – killed, wounded, and missing/captured) and gave up ground, the engagement was a strategic victory for the Federals because they drove the Confederates out of Kentucky.