Monday, October 8, 2012

A Long Day at Perryville

The morning of October 8, 1862 was clear and brisk, as one would expect in the hills of north-central Kentucky.  The Seventeenth Kentucky Volunteers awoke from a restful sleep at their bivouac in Springfield, where they had been detached from General Rousseau's Division of McCook's First Corps.

This was to be the morning of the largest battle fought on Kentucky soil and, true to his character, Colonel McHenry was frustrated at being sent 20 miles to the rear as guardian of the division's train.  The colonel knew that all of Buell's army was to be in position by daylight and expected to hear the sounds of cannonade echoing from the distance.  He did not know that most of Buell's commanders missed their call and many were not in place until nearly noon, almost eight hours late.  They were delayed by their last minute search for water.

The following sketch is provided for contextual purposes and contains information that may be found in Wikipedia's Battle of Perryville and my new Favorite Link, The Battle of Perryville. 

The curtain rises on Act 1 as scheduled, in the predawn hours, when the thirsty Tenth Indiana challenged the Seventh Arkansas for the small amount of water that remained in an algae-covered pool in a gulch called Doctor's Creek.  Few shots were exchanged.  Then General Phil Sheridan seized the high ground at Peters Hill, driving the Arkansas outpost back to it's main line.  This insult was insufficient to provoke Generals Polk and Hardee as they chose to remain in place, camped along the Chaplin River.

Act 2 opens at ten o'clock that same morning as  General Bragg himself enters.  Angered by the delay in action he reviews Polk's deployment and finds it lacking.  He also views McCook's Corps, which has been in line of battle for nearly ten hours with only the contents of their canteens and haversacks for nourishment. He begins to direct Polk and Hardee toward McCook which he mistakenly believes to be Buell's main body.  The act closes as the rest of Buell's army enters and takes their places.

Act 3, Scene 1 begins shortly after noon as impatience takes command.  Bragg is anxious to get the battle started and McCook is worried that his divisions are consuming the water that was meant to sustain them through the battle. In desperation, McCook advances a column toward the river.  The  fight now begins in earnest with McCook's First Corps taking the full force of the Confederate assault.  McCook sends to his right an urgent call for reinforcements from the recently arrived divisions under General Thomas.  Buell's Second-in-Command refrains from acting because he has yet to receive directions to engage the enemy, only orders to take his position. 

 Act 3, Scene 2 finds the Seventeenth Kentucky on alert at Springfield.  Hearing the distant battle now engaged,  Colonel McHenry realizes the futility of his assignment and, after some debate, orders his volunteers forward along the Springfield Road toward the sound of the distant cannon.

Act 3, Scene 3 opens on an agitated General Buell, pacing inside his headquarters.  He has decided to delay the battle until the next day, leaving his men in line another day without water.  Those who had arrived on time, like McCook, and had not detoured in search of water would just have to do without.  They could have more tomorrow, after they had taken Perryville.  Buell is angry that someone has engaged with the enemy and sends orders to the field, telling whoever that is to stop wasting powder, they must save their ammunition until tomorrow. 

In Act 3, Scene 4, the curtain again rises on the interior of Buell's headquarters, as he is receiving the message from Thomas that McCook has been severely engaged by Bragg's Army of Mississippi for more than three hours. Buell reluctantly authorizes General Thomas to move two brigades from Schoepf's Division to support McCook's right flank.  After much fretting and lamentation, fearing that his master plan has been spoiled by this imprudent engagement, Buell dictates the following communication to his Chief-of-Staff and dispatches it by courier to his Second-in-Command. He either chooses to ignore or is ignorant of the fact that much of McCook's Corps has been driven back nearly one mile from their original position.


OCTOBER 8, 1862-6.30 p.m.
General THOMAS, Second in Command:

The First Corps (McCook's), on our left, has been very heavily engaged. The left and center of this corps gained ground, but the right of it yielded a little. Press your lines forward a far as possible to-night and get into position to make a vigorous attack in the morning at daylight. If you have got your troops into a position which you deem advantageous it will not be advisable to make a change for the purpose of complying with the general's instructions for you sent by Captain Mack. It may be as well to halt the division ordered to the center and let it wait where it is for further orders. The general desires to see you in person as soon to-night as your duties will permit you to come over.

Colonel and Chief of Staff.

The Epilogue takes place back on the battlefield as the sun sets and the Seventeenth Kentucky enters, tired from their forced rapid march of twenty miles, to find what remains of General Rousseau's division.  The general is surprised to see the regiment and, assuming they had been ordered to abandon the train, sent them to reinforce their assigned brigade under General Starkweather, who had gallantly withstood the Confederate attack and in fact driven the enemy back over a small portion of the field.   General Thomas, having witnessed the bloodbath which proved to be the most devastating single-day battle in the Western Theater to that date, reads the above letter to himself as he walks past the hastily established aid station, and the curtain falls.

Editor's Note:  This Sketch was not intended to reflect lightly upon the events at Perryville on October 8, 1862.  The horrible losses suffered during this attack on the Union's left  and McCook's First Corps will forerver be known as one of the most tragic days on American soil with combined casualties and losses estimated at 8,000 men.  Being true to it's purpose, this post was concerned primarily with the actions of the Seventeenth Kentucky Infantry and the command decisions that affected them.  For a greater appreciation of the events surrounding this battle, please refer to the two links in the opening paragraph, or visit the Battlefield at Perryville and Bardstown's Civil War Museum of the Western Theater.

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