- 07 Oct 2020 14:57
October 8, Wednesday
As morning approaches, General Polk begins to realize that he has facing far more Federals at Perryville, Kentucky, than had been previously thought, and he quails at the idea of launching an attack. During a predawn meeting of Polk and his commanders to discuss what they should do, they learn that Sheridan is driving Liddlell’s regiments from Doctor’s Creek. Now thoroughly alarmed, Polk decides to go on the defensive. Meanwhile, General Bragg has become impatient about the situation at Perryville and decides to take personal command there. He wants to disperse what he judges to be a small Federal force as rapidly as possible and get his army concentrated farther north. Arriving on the field about 10 am, he is distress to find Polk on the defensive and immediately begins shifting troops into assault positions. Bragg decides to focus his attack against the Federal left. On his right, north of the Mackville Pike, he deploys Cheatham’s division plus three brigades from other divisions. On the right, Cheatham’s line extends along Chaplin River, north of its confluence with Doctor’s Creek. The right wing, with Polk in command, is ordered to attack first, at 1 pm. The Confederate center is to move out immediately after Polk’s troops attack. There has been no activity on the left and Bragg, unaware of the approach of Crittenden’s corps, sends only Wheeler’s cavalry scouting along the Lebanon Pike.
While Bragg shifts his forces, his opposite number on the Federal side has to cope with frustration. Yesterday evening, Buell ordered McCook and Crittenden to leave their bivouacs promptly at 3 am so as to be in line with Gilbert and ready to attack at 10 am. But the message didn’t reach the generals in time, and they are late getting under way. When midmorning passes with no sound of a general engagement reaching Buell’s headquarters, he assumes that he will have to wait until tomorrow to attack.
At noon, Cheatham’s artillery begins to bombard the Federal batteries as a preliminary to the Confederate attack. But the cannonade goes on and on, for an hour and a half, with no attack forthcoming. Bragg rides up to Polk and demands to know why Cheatham’s troops have not moved forward on schedule. Polk explains that a Federal column is approaching from the northeast along the Mackville Pike. If he commits his infantry to a frontal assault while the approaching enemy column is still unengaged and able to maneuver, the oncoming Federals might fall on Cheatham’s right flank. Therefore, Polk has decided to wait until the column moves into the Federal line. Bragg agrees to the delay, orders Cheatham’s line extended farther to the right, and rides back to the rear to wait. By now the Confederate guns have ceased firing, and the entire field is silent.
The approaching Federals belong to McCook’s corps, and with their arrival nearly the entire Army of the Ohio is present on the field—Crittenden has been quietly taking his place on the Federal right during the late morning. But Bragg remains unaware of the odds facing him. As soon as McCook’s newcomers begin to file into place along the ridge on the north side of the Mackville Pike, before they can settle into place and become familiar with their ground, the Confederates attack. The Tennessee brigade leading the Confederate attack charges across the Chaplin River. As the men charge uphill toward the enemy lines, they are caught in a murderous artillery crossfire. An advanced Federal battery blazes away from the ridge, while the 19th Indiana Light Artillery fires from a hill farther to the rear. The shells tear great gaps in the Confederate line, and the onslaught slows; soon the exhausted survivors seek shelter in a small wood and wait for help to arrive. Meanwhile, Cheatham’s other brigades are advancing. Seeing the Tennesseeans’ plight, Cheatham orders Brigadier General Earl Maney’s Tennessee brigade to go to their support. Maney’s brigade makes it as far as the woods, but there it, too, is halted by the artillery fire. Maney moves among the trees, rallying his men as Federal shells send branches crashing down and lethal splinters flying. He somehow manages to mount another charge; his men roar out of the woods, overrun the battery, and continue up the slope. They reach the top and catch the Federals off balance—fresh troops have just arrived, and there is confusion as they take their places in the line. Cheatham’s Confederates deal the poorly deployed Federals a smashing blow. The Federal division commander goes down, mortally wounded. A green Federal brigade struggles to hold the line, but the men are driven back in savage hand-to-hand fighting. The Confederates are soon supported by cannon that have been laboriously moved over the steep bluffs of the Chaplin River. At length, the decimated Federals break and rush toward the rear. They try to make a stand about a mile to the west, but their ranks are broken again by two onrushing brigades and their commanding general is struck down, mortally wounded.
When the Tennesseeans have cut their way almost completely through McCook’s corps, they run into a fresh veteran brigade. Grimly, the Federal veterans breast the onslaught and after desperate fighting, they stop the onrushing Tennesseans and begin to drive the brigade back. McCook asks Sheridan to send help, but Sheridan is under attack by two other Confederate brigades. And to the north of Sheridan’s position, between the Springfield and Mackville Pikes, other Confederate troops have found a gap between Gilbert’s left and McCook’s right, and they are plunging into the opening. General Gilbert orders his batteries to fire obliquely at the advancing Confederates and sends two of his brigades to block the assault. The Federals are steadily driven back, but finally the advance is slowed in the face of the fierce opposition; then, in the growing darkness, it stops.
Remarkably, General Buell doesn’t know until 4 pm that his army is engaged in a furious battle. Atmospheric conditions are such that the roar of the guns cannot be heard at Buell’s headquarters only a few miles from the front. Consequently, Buell arrives too late to do anything but oversee General Gilbert’s deployments and send one brigade from Gilbert to assist McCook. Crittenden’s entire corps, meanwhile, remains stationary a few miles down the Lebanon Pike. This corps could have turned the Confederate left and changed the course of the battle, but Crittenden is thoroughly intimidated by Wheeler’s small cavalry force; Crittenden lacks both initiative and orders, and his corps sits out the battle. By contrast, the aggressive Sheridan manages late in the afternoon to go on the offensive despite heavy casualties. He drives several Confederate brigades back toward Perryville, and a brigade moving up in support of Sheridan’s men actually charges into the streets of the town. But once again Sheridan is getting too far out in front; McCook’s broken and disorganized corps has been pounded back more than a mile. Fearing a counterattack, Sheridan halts and consolidates his position just west of the town.
As night falls the Confederates hold advanced positions, but their lines are so irregular that units on both sides become confused in the gathering darkness. General Polk runs afoul of the confusion. In the twilight he sees what he thinks is a body of Confederates firing, apparently by mistake, on a regiment of comrades. Riding up to the colonel commanding the offending unit, Polk orders him to cease firing on friendly soldiers. The colonel replies that he is sure that his troops are firing on the enemy and identifies his unit as an Indiana regiment. Stunned by the realization that he has ridden into the middle of a Federal regiment, Polk manages to use bluster and the concealing darkness to cover a hasty retreat back unscathed to Confederate lines.
Skirmishing continues after dark, but the battle is over. The cost of Perryville or Chaplin Hills: Federals, 845 killed, 2,851 wounded, 515 missing for a total of 4,211 out of 37,000 estimated effectives, although many of those did not see active fighting; Confederates, 519 killed, 2,635 wounded, and 251 missing for a total of 3,405, nearly a fourth of the possibly 16,000 effectives. Clearly, Bragg is the victor of this day’s action. The moon is bright and almost full this night, and many of the Federal officers who meet at Buell’s headquarters after the battle urge another attack in the moonlight. But Buell, convinced that he faces Bragg’s entire army, decides to wait until morning. By then it will be too late, because General Bragg finally understands that he has been fighting the whole Army of the Ohio. And it dawns on him in the midst of victory that although his Confederate troops have fought gallantly and well, they have survived only because of Federal blunders. After consulting with Hardee and Polk, Bragg orders an immediate and hasty retreat to Harrodsburg, where he can yet again concentrate his forces and counter any move by Buell to cut the Confederate line of retreat to Tennessee. In the end, no one gains at the Battle of Perryville. Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee will put a proper epitaph on the sorry struggle: “If it had been two men wrestling it could have been called a ‘dog fall.’ Both sides claiming the victory—both whipped.”
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President Lincoln congratulates Grant on the recent victories in Mississippi.
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