General Braxton Bragg had part of his divided Confederate Army of Mississippi on the ridge of Chaplin Hills, east of Doctor’s Creek and north-northwest of the small crossroads town of Perryville, Kentucky. This part was commanded by Major General William J. Hardee, who requested reinforcements to drive off what he thought were enemy skirmishers. Neither he nor Bragg knew that 55,000 Federals from Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio were closing in on him.
Major General Leonidas Polk arrived with reinforcements on the night of October 7 that took positions to Hardee’s right (north). But the Confederates still had just 16,000 men. The rest of Bragg’s army was waiting for a Federal attack near Frankfort that would never come. Polk took command from Hardee and held a council of war with his top officers before dawn on the 8th. They realized that they faced a much larger Federal force than initially believed, so they agreed to stay on the defensive and let the Federals make the first move.
As the Federals advanced that morning, a lead brigade under Brigadier General Philip Sheridan clashed with Confederates guarding Doctor’s Creek. Sheridan had hoped to get water for his thirsty men during the unseasonably hot autumn drought. Buell issued orders for the Federals to attack at 10 a.m., but messengers experienced delays in delivering the orders to the commanders in the field.
On the Confederate side, Bragg arrived on the field at 10 a.m. and ordered an attack on the Federal left, despite being outnumbered. Around that time, Federal Brigadier General Charles Gilbert’s Third Corps moved up to support Sheridan in the center of the Federal line. An hour later, Major General Thomas C. Crittenden’s Second Corps arrived on Gilbert’s right (south), and then Major General Alexander McCook’s First Corps deployed to Gilbert’s left (north) around noon. Fighting began soon after.
After an artillery duel, Confederates led by Major Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Simon B. Buckner crossed the shallow Chaplin River north of Perryville and attacked the Federal left under McCook around 2 p.m. The Confederates expected to strike the enemy’s open flank, but by this time the Federals had extended their line so that the Confederates were actually assaulting the enemy center.
Ferocious combat ensued as the momentum shifted back and forth. The Federals’ top artillerist, Brigadier General William R. Terrill, was mortally wounded by a Confederate shell that exploded overhead. Many of the inexperienced Federal troops in this sector fled from their attackers, with some running over a mile. The Federals finally established strong positions atop a ridge and behind a stone wall, where they repelled three desperate Confederate charges.
Hardee then directed an attack on the Federal center, led by Brigadier General James P. Anderson’s division. The assault stalled in the face of heavy Federal infantry and artillery fire, and the Confederates sustained heavy casualties. Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee later recalled, “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 very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire, which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons.”
An atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented Buell from hearing the battle, so he remained at his headquarters several miles in the Federal rear. When messengers finally brought him news of the fight, he rode to the front around 4 p.m. Buell committed less than 30,000 men to the battle, thereby negating the Confederates’ numerical disadvantage.
Sheridan’s men under Gilbert helped stabilize the Federal center and drive the Confederates into Perryville. But Federal reinforcements did not arrive to help McCook until late in the day. Fighting ended around nightfall. Some of Buell’s subordinates urged a nighttime counterattack under the bright moonlight, but Buell decided to wait and renew the fight in the morning.
The Federals sustained 4,211 casualties (845 killed, 2,851 wounded, and 515 missing) out of about 27,000 combatants. The Confederates lost 3,405 (519 killed, 2,635 wounded, and 251 missing) from roughly 16,000. The Federals suffered more casualties, including two brigadier generals killed, but the Confederates suffered greater in proportion to the size of their force. Nearly 20 percent of those engaged became a casualty in this, the bloodiest battle of the war in Kentucky.
Bragg had won a tactical victory, mainly because Buell did not use his full strength. But the Confederates, who faced a growing supply shortage, now had the burden of tending to thousands of wounded comrades. Bragg consulted with Polk and Hardee and, realizing he faced superior numbers, decided to withdraw.
Before dawn on the 9th, Bragg issued orders to fall back to Harrodsburg, with Colonel Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry protecting the retreat. Moving to Harrodsburg would prevent Buell from trapping the Confederates in Kentucky. The Federals advanced to renew the fight that morning but soon discovered that the Confederates were gone.
Perryville featured missed opportunities on both sides. Buell missed a key opportunity to destroy Bragg’s smaller army, and Bragg missed a chance to win a decisive victory in Kentucky that could have attracted more recruits to the Confederate cause.
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