The Battle of Perryville, Kentucky was the ‘high water mark’ of the Confederacy in the Western Theater. On 8th October 1862 Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of the Mississippi smashed into elements of Don Carlos Buell’s Union Army of the Ohio (mainly the I Corps), bringing on some of the most savage and confused fighting of the conflict. Much of this heavy combat took place in the vicinity of a house and barn on the Squire Bottom Farm to the west of Doctor’s Creek. Among the units caught up in the vortex of death were the 5th Confederate Infantry, a largely Irish formation from around Memphis, and the 10th Ohio Infantry, the majority of whom were Cincinnati Irishmen.
In late 1862 the 5th Confederate Infantry were commanded by Colonel James A. Smith, and formed part of Brigadier-General Bushrod Johnson’s brigade. They entered the fight on the left flank of the brigade line, moving to cross the almost dry bed of Doctor’s Creek and engage the Federals to the west. The advance quickly descended into confusion with units becoming separated before they had even crossed the watercourse. Indeed the first fire the 5th Confederate endured was from a Rebel battery which mistook them for Union troops. Eventually resolving this ‘friendly fire’ incident and getting back on track, the Memphis Irishmen moved across the Creek bed and up the hill on the far side towards the blue-clad lines. Sweeping towards the Squire Bottom Farm, the 5th Confederate were finally about to get the grips with the enemy- including some of their countrymen in the 10th Ohio (1)
The Union brigade that faced the Rebel Irishmen was under the command of Colonel William H. Lytle. Lytle had started the war as Colonel of the 10th Ohio, but for today the regiment was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Burke. He and his men had already been in action for some time, acting as skirmishers and also facing a Confederate threat to their left. Burke watched from high ground as the fresh Rebel attack swept over the Creek and past the Bottom House to his right. He was in a position to enfilade the enemy line, and promptly ordered his men to open fire into the advancing Rebels. Their bullets raked through the soldiers of Bushrod Johnson’s brigade, including many of their countrymen in the 5th Confederate. (2)
Captain C.W. Frazer of the 5th had more worries than just the 10th Ohio. Directly to their front he and his men were encountering the plunging fire of Union troops ensconced behind a stone wall. Frazer remembered that they advanced with ‘a stone fence on the right and a rail fence on the left…when from the stone fence, thirty steps away, a volley…fired into us without note or warning. The shock was terrific- the line swayed as one body, leaving a track of dead and wounded to mark its former position; then with a yell that burst simultaneously from officers and men, [we]charged over dead and dying, drove the enemy from the fence, and held it.’ (3)
The fight now degenerated into an exchange of volleys at close range, as the death toll rose. The killing that engulfed the stone wall and fences of the farm soon took a gruesome twist. Squire Bottom’s Barn stood on the Federal side of the front-line, and was being used by some of the Union wounded for shelter. As the attack reached its crescendo, a Confederate shell arced through the air and exploded in the barn. Filled with tinder-dry materials, the building- and those inside it- were engulfed in flame. Frazer remembered that ‘amid the clash of arms we heard the shrieks of the wounded as they burned…the fight went on.’ (4)
The high ground held by the 10th Ohio and their comrades in Lytle’s brigade began to tell, and the Confederate attack stalled. The 5th Confederate were nearing the point of collapse when they looked around and saw what appeared to be a Union line advancing on their rear. Colonel Smith turned to Frazer, saying ‘Captain, have you a white handkerchief? I am afraid we will need one.’ Frazer replied that there ‘was not one in the regiment; and you have on the only ‘biled shirt,’ the lower end of which will answer if occasion requires.’ However the men coming up behind them were not Federals, a fact soon made clear when they raised the Rebel yell. These Confederates wore blue as they were decked out in elements of Union uniforms captured earlier in the campaign at the Battle of Richmond. They signalled the arrival of yet another Irishman on the field; the advance was that of Corkman Brigadier-General Patrick Cleburne’s brigade. (5)
Although the arrival of Cleburne meant that the 5th Confederate were almost finished their days fight, the men in the 10th Ohio still had much to endure. As the Union line began to be forced back, they found themselves exposed and almost cut off, with the enemy closing in on both flanks. Charging forward to relive the pressure on their line, they suffered mounting casualties as the situation became desperate and the regiment neared collapse. Knowing that they had to retreat in an orderly fashion to avoid disastrous casualties, Lieutenant-Colonel Burke grabbed a bugle and sounded the halt himself. He formed and dressed the lines, calmly ordered skirmishers to the flanks to cover the retreat, and extracted his command. (6)
The battle would rage until darkness, with the Union I Corps eventually being pushed back more than a mile. Confederate commander Braxton Bragg had not been aware that he faced the entire Army of the Ohio at Perryville, thinking he was just engaging just a portion of his foe’s superior strength. His Federal counterpart Don Carlos Buell remained equally ignorant of events; he was unaware that a battle was even being fought, preventing the other two Union Corps from fully participating in the engagement. Nightfall brought a realisation on Bragg’s part of his precarious position, and he ordered a retreat from the field that ultimately ended in the abandonment of Kentucky by the Confederates. There were many men who would not be part of the Confederate retreat or the Federal pursuit; during the days fighting the 250 men of the 5th Confederate Infantry lost 6 killed, 34 wounded and 5 missing (18.8% of their force) while the 528 soldiers of the 10th Ohio Infantry withstood the staggering losses of 60 killed, 169 wounded and 8 missing (44.9% of their strength). (7)
The 10th Ohio would go on to become the army’s Provost Guard, a role they would perform at the Battle of Stones River. The 5th Confederate became part of Cleburne’s soon to be famous division, fighting all the way to Bentonville, North Carolina in 1865. The Civil War Trust are currently campaigning to save 141 acres of the ground at the Squire Bottom Farm in Perryville, where the lives of many men from both of these regiments were changed forever. They have reached 94% of their target and are closing in on their goal- if would like to contribute towards their efforts click here.
(1) Noe 2001: 220, Frazer 1886: 148; (2) Noe 2001: 226-7; (3) Frazer 1886: 147-8; (4) Noe 2001: 228, Frazer 1886: 148; (5) Frazer 1886: 148; (6) Reid 1868: 79; (7) Noe 2001: 372, 374;
References & Further Reading
Frazer, C.W. 1886. ‘Fifth Confederate’ in Lindsley, John Berrien (ed.) The Military Annals of Tennessee
Noe, Kenneth W. 2001. Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle
Reid, Whitelaw 1868. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Her Generals, and Soldiers, Volume II