The Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, October 8, 1862

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James N.

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Part I - Preparations for Battle
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The battle fought at Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8, 1862 was the culmination of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky and another of those unplanned and unwanted conflicts common during the war. It was fought over the rolling hills like those above in the central part of the state and occurred during a severe drought that parched the land leaving wells, streams, and even rivers dry or at best a series of brackish ponds full of slime. The battle here began as a contest over one such water source, Doctor's Creek tributary of the nearby Chaplin River. As seen below, it now looks inviting, but was another of those near-dry creek beds at the time. According to Union Capt. Robert Taylor,

"Today we passed two men lying on the roadside having died from sunstroke - the whole army suffered today severely for want of water. I sent my servant Harrison out with my canteen and told him not to return without water. He came in about 2 o'clock without any; our Division was in the rear, and all the pools of water had already been drunk up."

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Taylor was part of the large but unwieldy Army of the Ohio commanded by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, which was then pushing east from Louisville seeking the much smaller twin Confederate armies of Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith which had entered the state causing panic as far as Ohio, Indiana, and southern Illinois back at the end of August. Fortunately for the Federals, after smashing and routing a Federal force at Richmond on Aug. 30, Kirby Smith halted at Lexington and waited for Bragg to catch up.

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Above from left to right, an 1861 card portrait of Braxton Bragg based on a prewar image; Don C. Buell photographed the same year as a staff officer under his friend and patron, George B. McClellan; and Edmund Kirby Smith, photographed after his severe wounding at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run). Bragg and Smith were at nearby Frankfort, the State Capital, attending the inauguration of a Confederate governor for the newly-"liberated" state when they heard cannonading to the west, indicating that Buell was on his way.

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Bragg had a very poor idea of the whereabouts and strength of his opponent, mistakenly thinking the move towards Frankfort was Buell's main effort, so instructed the commander of his own forces near Bardstown to attack what he thought was a small Union flanking force. When he finally arrived at his headquarters here on the road between Perryville and Harrodsburg on the evening of October 7, he was angry his instructions for the attack had yet to be carried out. The building seen here still stands, but has been much-modified in the years since.

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Bragg's Army of Tennessee suffered from an awkward command structure which was to affect the conduct of the coming battle. His three principal subordinates pictured above are, center, Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk who commanded the army in Bragg's absence, and the commanders of his Left Wing, Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee at left; and Right Wing, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham, right. (The system of Army Corps had yet to be adopted.) Even though he had returned and resumed command over his army, Bragg as was his usual custom left Polk in charge of the tactical arrangements for the coming battle. The approaching Union Army of the Ohio suffered from an even greater deficiency of command and at least a third of its soldiery were brand- new volunteers raised by the terrified states at the prospect of Southern invasion. Unfortunately, that condition even applied to the officers, extending all the way to Buell's principal subordinates leading his three Army Corps.

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Above, from left to right, Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden, commanding the Second Corps; Maj. Gen. Charles C. Gilbert, commanding the Third Corps; and Maj. Gen. Alexander McD. McCook, leading the First Corps. Both Crittenden and McCook had led divisions under Buell as far back as Shiloh in April, but Gilbert was truly an odd duck in the group: When invasion seemed imminent, this mere captain in the Regular United States Army was seized and thrust into the rank of Major General of Volunteers, which thereby entitled him to command of an Army Corps! His relatively poor performance here caused Congress to deny confirmation of his promotion, so nothing further was heard from him for the remainder of the war.

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As can be seen from the map below, Buell's large army of some 55,000 men was approaching the town of Perryville on a broad front several miles wide. The evening of Oct. 6 a fight occurred over possession of the pools of water in Doctor's Creek between elements of Gilbert's corps and Confederate pickets; the following morning, a sudden rush by the division of a brand-new Brigadier General Phillip H. Sheridan took firm control of the creek and its surrounding hills. Gilbert, ordered not to bring on a general engagement, halted his some 20,000 men in place for most of the battle. That afternoon, McCook's First Corps filed in to the left of Gilbert, taking position near Wilson's Creek and the Open Knob, as Crittenden's Second Corps approached from the southwest on the Lebanon Pike.

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Map by Hal Jesperson @civilwarmaps.com

Bragg, still laboring under the delusion that he was facing only a small part of Buell's army, ordered Polk to attack McCook's exposed and isolated corps on the northern edge of the battlefield, extending it south to the crossing of Doctor's Creek northwest of Perryville. Strangely, the most competent of Buell's subordinates, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, was sidelined during the campaign acting as Buell's second-in-command accompanying Crittenden's force where he exercised no influence over coming events, since this force of some 22,000 took no part in the battle! Therefore, the contest would devolve as a slugging match between the hapless and unlucky McCook's 13,000 and most of Bragg's 16,800 men. This disparity is indicated on the monument below, which lists the relatively few Union formations which participated here.

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Next, Part II - Cheatham attacks
 
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James N.

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Part II - Cheatham Assaults Jackson
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Map by Hal Jesperson @civilwarmaps.com

Under prodding by Bragg, Polk finally got his attack underway around 2pm in the afternoon of Oct. 8, led off by his own wing, nominally under Ben Cheatham. The attack was begun by Cheatham's Division, now under Daniel Donelson, at left below, consisting of the brigades of Donelson, then taken up by George Maney, center, while Maney's flank was guarded by cavalry led by Col. John A. Wharton, at right, followed closely by Alexander P. Stewart's brigade as shown on the map above.

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Above and below, this recent marker denotes the beginning of Donelson's Brigade attack.

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As described on the marker below, Donelson's Tennesseans quickly ran into trouble in an area soon dubbed The Valley of Death which temporarily slowed their advance, causing Cheatham to shift Maney's Brigade to Donelson's right to outflank Federals here.

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McCook's open left flank was somewhat anchored on the hill in the background known as the Open Knob which became the target for Maney's Tennesseans when they entered the fray, approaching from the right of the photo.

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The naval gun on an army-type carriage above, typical of the mixed armament common among early-war Western Confederate forces, stands on another knob from which Maney launched his attack, as described on the trail marker below.

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These photos demonstrate the problem encountered by attacking Confederates everywhere on the Perryville Battlefield - although they were able to easily overlap the lines of the Union defenders and force them from their positions, each time they topped a captured rise, yet another hill came into view with additional Union troops to dislodge - and all on an unseasonably hot and dry October day!

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Union defenders here on Parson's Ridge consisted of the division of Brig. Gen James K. Jackson, consisting of two small brigades led by Brig. Gen. William Terrill and Col. George Webster. Jackson's men at first put up a fight, but when their leader fell they lost heart and turned in retreat. The photos above and below are taken from Jackson's position looking toward Maney's onrushing Confederates and show photographs of Generals Jackson and Terrill.

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The Union division posted here suffered a catastrophe that befell no other in the entire war when the commanding officers of all three of its component elements were killed outright within a space of minutes; they are, left-to-right: division commander Brig. Gen. James S. Jackson; Brig. Gen. William R. Terrill; and Col. George Webster, each of the last commanding one of Jackson's two brigades. Terrill is best known as a Virginian fighting for the North and the object while attending West Point of an aborted assault with a bayonet by fellow cadet Phillip Sheridan; fortunately by the time of his death, Terrill and Sheridan, now both leading divisions here at Perryville, had made amends.

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This marker indicates where Jackson fell, but the opposite side describes it as being where Terrill fell; suffice it to say they both must have fallen somewhere in the small space here atop Parson's Ridge. Below, a reproduction gun marking the Union position here.

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Next, Part III - Buckner continues the attack
 
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James N.

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Part III - Starkweather Sustains the Union Left
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As noted before, each time a Federal defense was overcome, survivors merely fell back to the next hilltop or ridge line. After Jackson's division was smashed on Parson's Ridge the fight next spread to that of Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rosseau and the brigade of Col. John Starkweather. Starkweather's men fought a hard fight in a cornfield at the base of the next ridge, as seen below and depicted in the engraving above.

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While the 21st Wisconsin of Starkweather's brigade fought and bought time in the Cornfield the rest of the brigade took position on the ridge below, from which they continued to resist Cheatham's attacks.

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Above, left-to-right, then-Col. John Starkweather, seen later as Brig. Gen.; Col. William H. Lytle commanded another of the brigades of Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rosseau at right. Cincinnatian Lytle was a veteran of the Mexican War and well-known as a poet; he was later killed at Chickamauga as a brigadier commanding a division. Below, a Union gun pointed in the direction of the Confederate assault.

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Part IV - The Confederate Left Wing Enters the Fray
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Map by Hal Jesperson @civilwarmaps.com
The map shows at left Starkweather holding the Federal left while Hardee commits the division of Simon Buckner at right.

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The Dye House above served as the headquarters of the commander of the Confederate Second Division, Maj. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, part of the Left Wing of Maj. Gen. William Hardee. From here Buckner was ordered to attack next and around the house new Rebel units marched to enter the growing battle.

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Left-to-right: Brig. Gen. James Patton Anderson and Maj. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, both commanding divisions in Hardee's Wing; Brig Gen. Patrick Roynane Cleburne led a brigade under Buckner. Anderson's brigades filled in and continued the attack begun by Donelson.

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A minor obstacle in the path of Cleburne's brigade was Doctor's Creek, then nearly dry but an attraction nevertheless for the thirsty troops of both armies; the marker below relates how a portion of the green Union 42d Indiana regiment was surprised and captured by Cleburne's advance while filling their canteens there.

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Cleburne's attack rolled across the stream until it butted into the Union brigade of Lytle, posted on a hill overlooking the Bottom House; from here Lytle launched a spoiling attack which bought time for the retreating Federals to fall back, though in the process the popular Lytle was wounded.

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After the battle, the Bottom House below, like all the rest on the battlefield, served as a field hospital for the many wounded.

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Below, another incident of the fighting here, recorded on another of Perryville Battlefield's many informative historical markers.

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Next, Part V - The restored Union line holds firm
 
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James N.

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Part V - The Union Defense Coalesces Around the Guns
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Union Division commander Lovell Rosseau rallies his brigades in the face of continued Confederate attacks.

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Map by Hal Jesperson @civilwarmaps.com

By mid-afternoon the combined attacks of Cheatham's, Anderson's, and Buckner's Confederate divisions had driven the Federals back almost a mile from their forward positions, as seen in the map above. However, Starkweather's stand had given time for Lovell and other Union leaders to patch together a new defense line forward of the Dixville Crossroads and the Russell House. Although thus far corps commander McCook had performed competently trying to rally his shattered command, he now abandoned the field to find Buell and request reinforcements. Due to what has been described as a weather inversion creating an acoustic shadow over the battlefield, although Buell was only a couple of miles to the rear of the crossroads everyone present agreed that absolutely no sounds had been heard from the now two-hours' conflict!

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The Union center was built around several Union batteries that enjoyed a clear field of fire that allowed them to blast attacking Confederate lines as soon as they passed over the crest of an intervening ridge a quarter of a mile away, slowing and eventually halting the by-now exhausted and parched attackers.

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Union batteries positioned here included the Loomis Battery of Michigan Light Artillery which took position near the Michigan State Marker below on what became known on this part of the battlefield as Loomis' Ridge.

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Map by Hal Jesperson @civilwarmaps.com

Late in the afternoon, the Confederates mustered their strength for one last assault on the new Union line, as seen in the map above. The brigades of Brig. Gen.'s St. John R. Liddell and Sterling Alexander Martin Wood of Buckner's Division were brought forward for the effort to seize the Dixville Crossroads.

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The 80th Indiana Regiment were deployed here supporting Harris' Battery but when their brigade commander George Webster was killed nearby, they eventually lost heart in the face of renewed Confederate attacks by the fresh brigades of Buckner's last reserve led by Liddell and Wood which had thus far crossed the entire battlefield from the vicinity of the Dye House marching in the wake of the advance.

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When Liddell was in his turn stymied by the stiff resistance, Wood pushed ahead with his relatively green brigade and actually overran and captured four of Harris's cannon after the horses of their teams had been shot down. Below, a portrait of Brig. Gen. S. A. M. Wood (seated at right) and his staff. Following the Battle of Stones River, Wood's Brigade would be assigned to the division of Pat Cleburne, but after Chickamauga in Sept. 1863, Wood would for some reason resign his commission and return to civilian life.

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In the aftermath of Wood's attack the battle began to sputter out around nightfall although both armies remained in close proximity to one another. In the twilight, Confederate commander Polk rode forward to see what he could do to renew the attack when he observed what he believed to be an incident of "friendly fire." Riding up to the offending unit he ordered them to stop shooting because they were firing into their own men, but the commander of the regiment replied that he was certain they were enemy troops. Polk demanded to know what troops these were, and when he was informed they were the 22nd Indiana, Polk realized his error. When asked by the officer just who he was, Polk said angrily, "I'll show you just who I am!" and turned and rode slowly away; fortunately he was wearing a dark gray uniform that appeared blue-black in the moonlight. Upon reaching the safety of his own lines, the Bishop-General told his men who were facing them and ordered a volley that staggered the Indianans; this was about the final action of the battle in this sector.

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The John C. Russell House above was located on a rise just a little behind and west of the last Union line and scene of Polk's misadventure; like all battlefield structures it served afterwards as a field hospital and witnessed much suffering of the many wounded.

Next, Part VI - Bragg reterats
 
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James N.

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Part VI - The Battle Ends With a Confederate Retreat
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Perryville suffered by comparison with its much more famous contemporary battle at Antietam (Sharpsburg) Maryland in coverage by the media of the day. Generic battle scenes like that above depicting the final Union line were the best that were provided in the wake of what had been a very important campaign and battle, overshadowed as it was by events occurring in the East.

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As seen in the map above, around 4 in the afternoon, neophyte corps commander Charles Gilbert finally got his troops underway and resumed the advance of Sheridan's division which had started the fray the evening before. His movements completely overawed Col. Samuel W. Powel's small brigade of Patton Anderson's division, outnumbered as it was ten-to-one, some 2,000 facing 20,000. Although Gilbert's move was to prove to be a case of too little, too late, it was nevertheless better than the performance of Buell's second-in-command George H. Thomas and Thomas L. Crittenden's Second Corps which sat out the entire battle, likely due to Crittenden's failure to act without receiving orders from Buell to advance!

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Sheridan's belated attack brought him to the hills overlooking the town of Perryville which was shelled by Union artillery terrifying the inhabitants that haden't already fled. More would be heard from equally new division commander Sheridan, whose lackluster performance here had far more to do with the tight rein with which he had been held back, only able to deploy his artillery in support of McCook's hard-pressed corps.

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By 1862, Perryville was already an old town, with settlement dating back to Frontier days of the 1770's contemporary with Daniel Boone and James Harrod who established nearby Harrodsburg. The town had been built largely around this large spring which also provided a place of refuge in time of Indian troubles.

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The town today retains much of its wartime character with many surviving buildings from the battle like those on its single street below, most of which became improvised hospitals. The fighting here, although minor in scope, served to alert Bragg and his subordinates that their position had become extremely tenuous and retreat from the closing jaws of the Federal advance imperative.

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Above, right-to-left: Then-Col. Joseph "Little Joe" Wheeler, whose cavalry "amused" Thomas and Crittenden and later covered the Confederate retreat along with Cleburne's infantry brigade; Brig. Gen. Sterling Alexander Martin Wood, whose brigade made the final concerted Confederate effort of the day; and the familiar and seemingly ubiquitous Private Sam Watkins of Co. H of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, who later wrote of the battle,

"Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. 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... Our men were dead and dying right in the very midst of this grand havoc of battle."

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Bragg finally realized the true situation of peril in which his army was placed, and on the night of Oct. 8-9 he began his retreat eastward to Harrodsburg and eventually from the state of Kentucky. All public buildings in the vicinity of the battle or the retreat were pressed into duty as hospitals, like Harrodsburg's Female Academy above. Bragg has been roundly condemned for the retreat, but all knowledgeable persons agreed that he was unable to maintain his position in the face of overwhelming Union numbers, even had he united his army with that of Kirby Smith's. His ability to supply his army in unfamiliar and often indifferent or even hostile territory at the end of a long and tenuous supply line made retreat mandatory.

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Both armies had suffered severely at Perryville, though only a portion of the Union force had been engaged. According to information from the current State Park, "1,431 soldiers were killed (890 Union; 532 Confederate), 5,618 were wounded (2,966 Union; 2,652 Confederate), and 669 were missing or captured (433 Union; 236 Confederate). These figures represent 7,718 total casualties (4,298 Union; 3,420 Confederate.)" Fatalities from both armies had been buried on the field, but Union dead were soon removed for burial in a new National Cemetery at Camp Nelson. The monument above is dedicated to the Union troops that fought here. The Confederate dead were reburied by local Confederate sympathizers in a burial mound on the battlefield, now topped by the handsome monument below. For additional photos, please see: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-states-of-america-cemeteries.99188/page-10#post-1548696

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TerryB

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Do you know any good sources for the cavalry actions? Wheeler wrote a letter regarding an ancestor of mine, then Lt. Marcellus Pointer. It was to MP's father, stating that he distinguished himself in the cavalry charges. MP was put out of action by a rifle ball to the leg during a rearguard action on Oct 19.
 

James N.

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Do you know any good sources for the cavalry actions? Wheeler wrote a letter regarding an ancestor of mine, then Lt. Marcellus Pointer. It was to MP's father, stating that he distinguished himself in the cavalry charges. MP was put out of action by a rifle ball to the leg during a rearguard action on Oct 19.
Unfortunately, I don't. I've found this battle to be particularly difficult to make sense of in many of its details and respects.
 

James N.

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Member @gunny has a thread titled "Understanding Perryville " which is a very in depth study of the battle with a lot of first hand reports.it is a detailed thread with about 180 posts.it is very much worth the time to read this thread.
Yes, and because it is so detailed I decided to open this new thread for my overview or synopsis of this confused and confusing battle.
 

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Part VII - Perryville Battlefield State Historic Park
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Thanks to several recent acquisitions of land in the past couple of decades by the Civil War Trust, the original Perryville Battlefield has more than doubled in size, making it a rewarding and almost pristine battlefield to visit. The photos in the above posts show only a portion of the many informative historical signs and markers that have been placed here. It seems the park was originally created to preserve and protect the Confederate mass grave which unfortunately had been placed by local farmer Henry F. Broom on land belonging to him where there had been little fighting during Cheatham's opening assault. There is a challenge for the hard-core Civil War buff here, however, because there is no overall auto tour of the park; the driving loop circles the fringe of the battlefield - a good thing from a preservation standpoint, but one making necessary a lot of walking on the many shorter loop trails where the markers are located and putting the action out-of-sequence.

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The well-organized museum and visitor center above is located across from the Confederate Monument and contains many interesting artifacts and informational displays and exhibits.

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Naturally, there's a good display pertaining to the Kentucky Cavaliers typified by John Hunt Morgan, though he wasn't present at the battle. Below, in another case is a good example of a Confederate soldier's shell jacket that was worn by a member of the 5th Kentucky Infantry.

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The Union is also well-represented; one of my favorite artifacts was the frock coat of Maj. Gen. Alexander McD. McCook, whose First Corps bore the brunt of battle here at Perryville. Below, a closer look at it.

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One of the more peculiar displays was this full-size mannequin of diminutive Ohio Brig. Gen. William H. Lytle who was seriously wounded during the fight with the brigade of Pat Cleburne on the Union right.

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The cannon are both veterans of the fighting here, the one lying on the floor a rare Confederate manufacture.
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DrDarby08

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My 3 or 4 visits to the Perryville battlefield have all been as a reenactor, with the earliest being around 1991 (my only battle as a Confederate) and more recently for the 150th and 155th annual reenactments. It is a beautiful and wonderfully preserved battlefield and far to large for the several thousand troops to do justice to, but it is always an honor to fight on sacred ground. Thanks for this excellent account of the battle and landscape.
 

unionblue

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One of my most favorite reenactments took place at Perryville with the Army of the Ohio and the 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

On the first day, I was one of the Union infantry sent out to fill canteens for my regiment and was attacked by Rebel forces by surprise. I did the only manly, brave thing to do, I ran like a scalded dog!

One of my favorite memories of this reenactment was a little skit me and my good friend (Rest in Peace) Ron Goodwin and I acted out. We were playing a game of chuck-o-luck, in which he won my Union army greatcoat. Ron expressed great glee in leaving me without protection from the elements and took my greatcoat to his 'dog' tent.

We were then informed an inspection was going to be conducted by the Brigade Commander and we were all ordered to lay out our equipment and stand to attention by our tents. When Ron had his back turned I snuck up to the rear of his tent and re=stole my greatcoat back and ran down the line of company tents to my own where I gleefully laid out my greatcoat, now ready for inspection. Trouble was, when I stood up with a smile on my face, I reared up right into Ron's angry face. Then our 'fight' started, with blows and harsh language, just as the Brigade, Regimental, and Company Commanders showed up to inspect our camp.

Ron and I, poor privates that we were, were immediately arrested, placed under guard, and given company punishment by the both of us being forced to walk a post with heavy logs on our shoulders. The Company Commander came by later and released us back to duty saying he was so glad someone had finally done something different to spice up the in-camp reenactment!

It was a great time and doing it on the actual battlefield was a real rush.

Thanks for stirring these fond memories, James N.

Sincerely,
Unionblue
 
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