After a series of disasters in the first half of 1862, the Confederacy launched a series of counterattacks (American Civil War). Amongst them was an invasion of eastern Kentucky, commanded by General Braxton Bragg, assisted by a second force under Edmund Kirby Smith. It was hoped that this attack would encourage Kentucky to join the Confederacy. Early progress was good, and by the start of October Bragg and Smith had reached the state capitol at Frankfort, where they prepared to inaugurate a Confederate governor of the state.
However, behind the veneer of success, Bragg was worried. Kentucky had provided many kind words, but not the vast number of recruits he had hoped for. A large Union army under Carlos Buell had slipped past him to their base at Louisville on the northern border of the state, where it was reinforced up to 60,000 strong (with nearly as many not far behind). Bragg’s combined forces would number around 40,000. However, his forces were not combined. Kirby Smith’s men had approached Frankfort from the south east, Bragg’s from the south west, and they were still quite spread out between Frankfort and Bardstown to the south, with some of Kirby Smith’s men east towards Lexington. Buell at Louisville was well placed to the west of the Confederates, able to strike wherever he chose.
Buell had shown an unusual level of urgency since Bragg had launched his invasion. He had raced north, reaching Louisville by 25 September. One week later, he was ready to move (although he had received some severe prodding from Washington). His plan was simple. A small part of his army would head for Frankfort, and attempt to convince Bragg that this was the target for the main army. Meanwhile, the bulk of the army would head further south, towards Bardstown.
The plan worked. On 4 October the inauguration ceremony at Frankfort was interrupted by Union guns. Bragg prepared to meet what he believed to be the main Union army. Meanwhile, that army approached Bardstown. There, General Polk commanded half of Bragg’s force, giving him about 15,000 men. Buell was approaching with 54,000 men. So far, all was going to plan.
The two sides came into contact on 7 October. Polk had been ordered to move towards Frankfort, but the advancing Union forces prevented that, and he withdrew slowly south. However, Bragg still did not believe that Polk was facing the main union army, and on 7 October Polk was ordered to form up three divisions and his cavalry at Perryville, and resist the Union advance. Polk took up a position just to the west of Perryville, defending the line of the Chaplin River.
Kentucky was suffering a severe drought, and possession of fresh water was becoming very important. When Buell’s men discovered that there was still some water in Doctor’s Creek, an attack was planned for the morning of 8 October. This initial attack was successful, forcing the Confederates back towards Perryville, where they formed a new line.
From this point on events largely left the control of both Bragg and Buell. Bragg was still convinced that the force facing Polk was at most the extreme right wing of the Federal army. Accordingly, he gave Polk orders to launch an attack on what he though was an exposed flank, but was actually the centre of the Union line. For his part, Buell spent the rest of the day unaware that a battle was even happening! Due to a phenomenon known as ‘acoustic shadow’, the sound of that afternoon’s battle never reached Buell. It was only went a courier finally found him, late in the day, that he realised what was happening, and by then it was too late.
Polk launched his attack early in the afternoon. It hit the Union centre and left at about 2 p.m. It had most luck on the left, where McCook’s corps was forced back for nearly a mile. Luckily for Buell, next in line was Philip Sheridan’s division, which held its ground. It took two hours for Buell to discover what was happening. He had heard no sound of musket fire, only a brief artillery duel! Once he was aware of the battle, he acted to reinforce McCook, and attempted to order his unengaged right wing to attack, but by the time the orders could be communicated, it was nearly six, and getting dark. Darkness ended the fighting, with the Confederates able to claim that they had had the better of the days fighting, but without having really achieved anything.
Overnight Bragg realised the truth of the situation at Perryville, and when Buell’s men woke the next day they found the Confederate lines deserted. Whatever his flaws, Bragg was not willing to risk a battle against overwhelming odds, even if that meant abandoning his entire invasion.
Both sides suffered heavy losses. Union losses were 845 dead, 2851 wounded and 515 missing (total of 4,211) out of perhaps 22,000 men engaged in the fighting. Confederate losses were lower – 510 dead, 2635 wounded and 251 missing (total of 3,396) out of a total of 16,000 men.
Bragg could not afford such losses. Reinforcements were not on their way, while the Union armies opposing him were getting bigger all the time. After a week or so of careful manoeuvring, Bragg decided to withdraw back into East Tennessee. Although he could claim to have won the battle, Perryville ended Bragg’s hopes of success in Kentucky.