By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
The Battle of Perryville was the largest battle fought in the Kentucky campaign, which was the primary Confederate counteroffensive in the Western Theater. There were about 4,200 Union casualties and about 3,400 Confederate casualties. Let’s take a look at the climactic battle and find out how it played out on the ground.
Federal and Confederate Armies Clash at Doctor’s Creek
Don Carlos Buell’s troops marched in four columns as they went eastward. They were spread out because it had been an extremely dry season in Kentucky that year and they were looking for water. They needed water. Armies, animals, and men needed water. They were hoping to find water as they moved eastward.
Braxton Bragg was reported to be about 30 to 40 miles southeast of Louisville. His troops were also thirsty. They were also suffering from a lack of water. Some of them were sort of feeling their way westward at the same time that Buell was coming toward them from Louisville.
On October 7, one of the columns—one of the Federal columns—found water and also found Confederates at a place called Doctor’s Creek, which was a tributary of the Salt River near Perryville.
The two pieces of these armies simply bumbled into one another there, and they fought for possession of the pools of water in that creek on October 7, the fighting continuing well past dark. The soldiers fought under moonlight on the night of October 7 around those pools of water.
Parts of the armies had thus made contact. It wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t orchestrated by Buell or by Bragg; it just happened. Neither Bragg nor Buell knew exactly what was going on.
Learn more about the war in the west, winter 1862-63.
The Battle of Perryville Was a Strange Fight
The Battle of Perryville would take place the next day on October 8, 1862. It was the largest contest that the state of Kentucky would see. It was a strange fight. Neither commander really knew what was going on at Perryville. Buell thought that he faced all of Bragg’s and Kirby Smith’s forces, while Bragg thought he was up against just a fragment of Buell’s army.
Actually, more nearly the reverse was true. There were about 16,000 Confederates who would become engaged at Perryville; more than twice that many Federals would get into the battle.
A strange feature of the topography at Perryville made it difficult to hear battle noises behind the lines. This is clear from testimony on both sides. Units that were really quite close to one another could hear almost nothing of what was going on, and officers of some units were entirely unaware that a battle was going on at all.
Among those who were unaware that a battle was going on was Don Carlos Buell. He didn’t really know what was happening with his army. He didn’t know the general engagement was taking place until quite late in the afternoon.
The fight seesawed back and forth. A series of disjointed Federal attacks failed early on, and then a general Confederate attack that was launched about mid-afternoon began to gain ground, driving the Union slowly backward.
Braxton Bragg Retreats from the Battlefield
Nightfall came without a really decisive result on the battlefield, but many of the Confederate soldiers who had finished the day with momentum on their side believed that not only had they had the better of the fighting on October 8, but they really believed that they would be launching further assaults on the ninth and that they would perhaps win a more decisive victory when the next day’s fighting began. They didn’t reckon with Braxton Bragg’s attitude about what had gone on.
Bragg decided that the day had not gone well for his soldiers and began to worry about his exposed position deep in Kentucky. He began to worry about how many Federals might be nearby, and he worried as well about his supply lines. He didn’t think that they were safe.
He was ruminating these things on the night of the eighth, and he decided to retreat from the battlefield, to withdraw and reunite with Kirby Smith, which he did. Shortly thereafter, the Confederates withdrew from Kentucky.
This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Braxton Bragg Cost Confederates the Battle of Perryville
In a strictly tactical sense, it would have to be called a stalemate. Neither army drove the other from the field. They pretty much fought each other to a standstill on October 8, but because Bragg abandoned the field and began his retreat first to rejoin Kirby Smith and then from Kentucky, I think that it has to be reckoned a Union victory.
This is typical of a pattern in Braxton Bragg’s generalship. He’d actually had the better of the fighting on October 8, but he let whatever advantage he had won that day slip away from him. We’ll see this happen again and again.
He’s a general who can show an aggressive spirit, who will try to take the battle to his opponent, and who, in some cases, even wins quite striking tactical success, but then he never seems to know quite what to do with it.
Perryville is a preview of what would happen with Braxton Bragg later. We’ll see it again in the Battle of Murfreesboro when he retreats from a battlefield that by any measure would have to be called a draw. We’ll see it again at Chickamauga when his troops win a striking tactical success during the fighting at that battle and then Bragg seems to be frozen in indecision following the battle.
Learn more about the Kentucky campaign of 1862.
Bragg Failed to Accomplish Any of His Big Kentucky Plans
Well, he does make a decision here. His decision is to leave Kentucky, and so the Confederates withdraw. Along with them go those wagons still filled with the muskets that they had hoped to put in the hands of Kentuckians. Bragg had not accomplished any of his long-range goals that he had set for himself in Kentucky.
First is the matter of the guns in the wagons. The Kentuckians had not flocked to the Confederate’s colors. This came as a surprise to many in the South. Many in the South now couldn’t look at Kentucky as a captive state anymore. They’d had their chance. Confederate armies had been there, Confederates willing to fight for the Kentuckians. The Kentuckians had not seemed willing to fight for themselves.
Bragg also was not able to remain north long enough to influence the Northern elections as he had hoped to do. He’d operated into about the middle part of October, but he was in retreat long before voters would go to the polls in the North in the November elections.
He also didn’t cause a reorientation of the strategic situation in Tennessee, really. He retreated into Tennessee. He didn’t retreat all the way back down into Mississippi, but he hadn’t seen the recapture of Nashville by the Confederates. It remained in Union hands, and more Federals troops would move back to Nashville very shortly. So Tennessee had not been liberated either.
Moreover, to many Confederates, Bragg seemed to have relinquished the offensive too quickly after Perryville, and then abandoned the Bluegrass state too precipitately. Overall, the operation did absolutely nothing to enhance Braxton Bragg’s reputation. It’s his first real field command, and he didn’t do that well.
Bragg and Kirby Smith’s retreat from Kentucky ended the western dimension of this great Confederate counteroffensive in the late summer and fall of 1862.
Learn more about the American civil war.
Common Questions about the Battle of Perryville
The Battle of Perryville was the largest contest that the state of Kentucky would see during the Confederate campaign in the state. The battle started almost by chance and the Union forces ended with the upper hand, even though the Confederate forces under the command of Braxton Bragg held the advantage on the battlefield.
In a strictly tactical sense, the Battle of Perryville would have to be called a stalemate. Neither the Union army nor the Confederate army drove the other from the field. They pretty much fought each other to a standstill on October 8, but because Braxton Bragg abandoned the field and began his retreat first to rejoin Kirby Smith and then from Kentucky, it has to be reckoned a Union victory.
The Battle of Perryville was the largest battle fought in the Kentucky campaign, which was the primary Confederate counteroffensive in the Western Theater. There were about 4,200 Union casualties and about 3,400 Confederate casualties.
The Confederate forces were commanded by Braxton Bragg, and the Union forces were commanded by Don Carlos Buell.