Columns of Confederate infantry, artillery and cavalry darkened Kentucky’s roads in the late summer of 1862. While these troops marched northward. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia entered Maryland. The presence of thousands of Rebels in the two border states inspired hopes of the possibility, if not the reality, of independence for Kentucky and Maryland. Confederate nationalism appeared to be in the ascendancy.
The advance into the Bluegrass State was intended to garner supplies, enlist recruits and halt a Union movement toward Chattanooga, Tenn. The Confederates marched along a broad front. One wing, 21,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, came from East Tennessee, while farther west General Braxton Bragg led 30,000 officers and men from Chattanooga. The campaign’s goal, Bragg told his army, was to restore “freedom [to] our brothers and sisters of Tennessee and Kentucky.”
By mid-September, the two Southern forces had occupied a wide swath of central Kentucky. Smith had routed an enemy division of untested recruits at Richmond, and Bragg had captured a 4,000-man garrison at Munfordville. They held a symbolic inauguration of a Confederate governor for the commonwealth in Frankfort. Despite that ceremony, few Kentuckians took up arms for the South. With the two wings separated by 100 miles, Bragg asked Smith to combine their forces at Bardstown, roughly 35 miles south of Louisville.
Before Bragg and Smith could unite, Union forces advanced against the Rebels. Major General Don Carlos Buell had been slow to react to the Confederate invasion into Kentucky. Prodded by the administration in Washington, Buell finally acted, moving his army from Tennessee to Louisville. With a command of 60,000 troops, Buell dispatched one wing of about 20,000 men toward Smith at Frankfort and led three columns toward Bragg at Bardstown.
In turn, Bragg misread the Federal movement, concluding that the main thrust was against Smith. He shifted units from his army toward Frankfort, leaving Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk with only 16,000 men at Bardstown. On October 7, Polk moved his command into a defensive position near Doctor’s Creek, west of Perryville. Advance elements of Buell’s forces closed on Polk’s lines that night. A severe drought had plagued the region for months. A Union reconnaissance found a source of water, as well as enemy soldiers. Buell ordered an assault to secure the stream and the heights beyond.
Before dawn on October 8, Brig. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s division stepped out, driving back some Confederate defenders and manning the high ground. Buell ordered forward the rest of his command, which began filing into line on both of Sheridan’s flanks. A lull in the action lengthened into the afternoon.
Bragg, meanwhile, had rejoined Polk. When the commanding general learned during the previous night that enemy units had arrived at Perryville, he instructed Polk to undertake the offensive the next morning. Bragg remained convinced that Buell’s main force confronted Smith at Frankfort. Polk, however, hesitated to advance against the Federals. An angry Bragg reordered the assault.
Fortune initially favored the outnumbered Southerners. The brigades of Maj. Gens. Benjamin Cheatham and Simon Buckner struck the enemy’s left flank, hitting Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s partially deployed corps. The Rebels overran a battery, routed the blue-coated infantry, including a division of new volunteers, and surged ahead nearly a mile. Union reserves and McCook’s re-formed ranks met the oncoming Confederates.
The combat became fearful. At points along the line opponents struggled almost hand to hand. “Such obstinate fighting I have never seen before or since,” recalled one Southerner. “The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces.”
The 22nd Indiana lost nearly 70 percent of its members. But the Union ranks held, and when Polk’s 3rd Division attacked the Union center, the Southerners suffered a bloody repulse.
The topography of the ground and wind conditions created an “acoustic shadow,” preventing Buell on his army’s right flank from comprehending the magnitude of the nearby action. When he finally learned the battle’s extent, it was too late for him to exploit his numerical superiority.
Darkness ended the bloody savagery. Buell’s casualties amounted to 4,200; Bragg’s, 3,400. For the numbers engaged, the losses had been relatively high. Convinced at last that he faced a powerful foe, Bragg withdrew his troops during the night, marching them toward a juncture with Kirby Smith.
The Confederates abandoned their campaign into Kentucky, returning to Tennessee. The Battle of Perryville had secured Union control of the vital border state. Never again would a large force of gray-coated soldiers cross into the Bluegrass State.
Perryville and Lee’s strategic defeat at Antietam dimmed Southern hopes for independence. The end of the fighting was still years away, down other bloody roads, but the pace quickened after the summer of 1862.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.