The Battle of Perryville

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

PerryvilleBy Jonathan Swegles, Bangor Middle School, Bangor, Michigan

The Battle of Perryville, fought on October 8, 1862, was the most intense battle fought on Kentucky’s border state soil during the Civil War. This conflict killed or wounded 7,500 soldiers, some taken by the consequences of battle, but most by sickness and disease acquired days, weeks, and months after shots were fired. While the effects were devastating on the soldiers wearing both blue and gray, one can argue that effects on the civilians and the physical surroundings were just as devastating. After the able bodied soldiers moved on to fight another day, the dead, sick, and dying were left to the towns people of Perryville. Weeks after the fighting, the sick and wounded needed to be tended to and the scores of dead needed to be accounted for. This was to be done by the innocent bystanders to war, regardless of their political allegiances. 

When General Buell’s Army of the Ohio met General Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi on the rolling hills of Perryville, the conflict would last five hours, short in terms of Civil War battles, but a major blow to the regiments on both sides. General Bragg, fighting with a force of 16,000 men, lost 532 soldiers (3%) and had another 2,641 (16.5%). Bragg’s army did not fare much better losing 894 (5%) and having another 2,911 wounded (16%).[1]Due to the terrain of undulating hills, soldiers were fighting in close proximity and the results were brutal. In one mysterious example, four Confederate soldiers looked as if they met the same fate from the same cannon ball by the peculiar way they had fallen on the battlefield. A reporter for the Louisville Journal took note saying: 

I saw this morning four dead rebels who had been killed by a single shot. The top of the head of the first was taken off, the entire head of the second was gone, the breast of the third was torn open, and the ball passed through the abdomen of the [fourth]. All had fallen in a heap, killed instantly.[2]

It was this scene, and others like it that led Captain Robert Taylor of the 32nd Kentucky Infantry to say “we started upon put mournful mission” of removing injured soldiers from the battlefield shortly after the fighting ceased. [3] While some soldiers had met their final resting place, others lay in unthinkable agony “shot in all conceivable ways and places…a sickening sight to see.”[4]

Being removed from the battlefield was not a guarantee of survival as proper care, surgeons, and supplies were limited. A soldier in the 38th Indiana infantry was “shot thought the right shoulder, the ball passing through the lower edge of the shoulder blade. It was seven days before his bloody clothes were removed and proper surgical attention given him.”[5] One thing that was not limited, however, was the large number of diseases and bacteria passing through the wounded soldiers. Typhoid fever, pneumonia, diarrhea, and dysentery affected many of the soldiers left behind at the makeshift hospitals. Measles was also very prevalent, even killing two brothers, Privates Marion and Phillip Clemens of Kentucky’s 15th Infantry fighting for the Union two months after they were both wounded in battle.[6] Andrew Phillips, the father of George Phillips, a sick soldier from the Battle of Perryville wrote in a letter home that Andrew “had become so reduced by diarhoe etc that he had to be brought in & was not able to get up alone.”[7]

While hundreds lay dead on the battlefield and thousands more suffered in homes, barns, and churches that were made into hospitals, both armies moved on leaving the people of Perryville with arduous task of caring for the wounded, burying the dead, in addition to recovering from the material losses brought on war. One such person, arguably affected the most by the events at Perryville, was Henry P. Bottom. 

Henry P. Bottom was a resident of Perryville whose home, land, and surrounding buildings were affected by the action. Due to extensive damages and confiscation of property he filed a claim to the federal government for damages in the amount of $4,800, over $108,000 in today’s dollars. He was compensated $1,715 in 1914.[8] Not only was Bottom hurt financially, but he incurred psychological damages as well, and understandably so.  Atop a hill in the Perryville battle site, Bottom, a Union supporter, buried “several hundred Confederates in two large pits” [9] and did so very meticulously and methodically. Bottom took to noting how many corpses, the location of their burial, and personal belongings to help with identification. Bottom was not alone in his efforts. The United States Sanitary Commission was not pleased with the Confederate soldiers who had yet to be buried, citizens of Perryville, many of whom were Southern sympathizers were forced to bury them.[10]

The Battle of Perryville was quick, swift, and shockingly deadly. The combatants of both sides were killed, wounded, and maimed in large numbers in a short amount of time. When they did not die a quick death on the battlefield chances are they died a slow agonizing death due to disease rather than their wounds. As much as the soldiers of war suffered the consequences of war, so too, did the civilians that were involuntary brought into it. Lost property, destruction of homes, and the psychological damaged suffered took a toll on everyday citizens equal to that of a battle tested soldier. General Sherman, speaking at a Michigan Military Academy graduation 17 years after the Battle of Perryville summed it up when he stated, “war is hell.”[11]



[1] Kenneth Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (University Press of Kentucky) Appendix

[2] Louisville Journal, October 14, 1862

[3] Robert Taylor, Diary of Captain Robert Taylor, in addition to his writings Capt. Taylor has interesting renderings of battles, rank insignia, and the size of his rationed cracker.

[4] Stuart W. Sanders, Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle (Charleston, 2012) p. 42

[5] Kurt Holman, ed., Perryville Casualty Computer Database File, Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site, Perryville, KY.

[6] Sanders, pp. 110-111

[7] Andrew Phillips, Letter by Andrew Phillips from Hospital 10, Louisville, Kentucky, October 19, 1862. 

[8] Sanders, pp. 71-72

[9] Ibid, p. 36

[10] Ibid, p. 80

[1] Source: http://www.gwbhs.org/documents/2012/11/general-william-tecumseh-sherman-at-orchard-lake.pdf

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