Street Fighting at Perryville: The Forgotten Part of the Battle

Updated: Oct 23

Street fighting during the Civil War was rare, but intense when it happened. To understand how such a rare occurrence came to be, we must look at the events around Perryville’s street fight.


Map is dated form Oct. 9th 1862 and was drawn by Capt. Nathaniel Michler/ Maj. J.E. Weyss - from the Library of Congress

On the morning of October 8, 1862, Federal infantry from General Phil Sheridan's division of the 3rd Corps attacked St. John Liddell's Arkansas brigade along the Springfield pike atop Peters Hill. In the battle, Sheridan's men pushed the outnumbered Confederates off the hill but were stopped from making further advances due to stiff Confederate resistance. Because of this early morning action, General Braxton Bragg ordered his second in command, General Leonidas Polk, to attack the Federal force on the field. Several hours later, Bragg discovered Polk hadn't attacked, which infuriated him. After a series of unfortunate events, Bragg was led to believe the Union force to his front had spread north, taking positions near the Dixville Crossroads. Bragg then ordered Polk to attack toward the right, hoping to flank the Federals and crush them. Bragg left three brigades to cover the Springfield Pike and the town of Perryville. Two were from General Patton Anderson's division (General Daniel W. Adams's Louisiana brigade and Colonel Samuel Powell's brigade) and Brigadier General Preston Smith's Tennessee brigade from B.F. Chetham's division. While the Confederates were developing their battle plan, more Union troops arrived on the field. First, the rest of the 3rd Corps under General Charles C. Gilbert along the Springfield pike, and to the north, the 1st Corps under General Alexander M. McCook, along the Dixville Crossroads. It was McCook's corps, made up of largely inexperienced men, that Bragg would ultimately attack[I].

Map available in the public domain.

The fighting began around 2:00 pm when Polk's attack got underway and quickly became a bloodbath for both sides. At 3:30, Adams’s brigade was ordered north to join into the fray at H.P.Bottom's farmstead. Leaving Powell's brigade to defend the Springfield Pike. As Adams’s Louisianans joined the battle, Hescock's Missouri Battery, stationed on Peters Hill, began to fire on their line and engage with the Washington Artillery. Bragg believed this battery was the extreme flank of the Federal line and ordered Powell's roughly 1,200-man brigade to silence the guns. Powell had no idea that he hit almost two divisions of the 3rd Corps instead of hitting a mere battery[II].


Powell attacked around 3:45 with three regiments—the 29th Tennessee, 45th Alabama, and 24th Mississippi, and held his artillery, Barrett's Missouri battery, and the 1st Arkansas on Edward House Hill. Meanwhile, Sheridan believing that the small brigade to his front was a division of Confederates, called for help from General Robert B. Mitchell's division which was to his right. Once Powell's men reached the base of Peter's Hill around 4:30, they quickly realized they were grossly outnumbered but decided to fight anyway, taking cover behind a rail fence at the bottom of the hill. After more Union reinforcements arrived, Powell retreated[III].

Map available in the public domain.

Those reinforcements came from Colonel William P. Carlin's brigade of Mitchell's division, which was comprised of the 15th Wisconsin, 21st and 38th Illinois, and 101st Ohio infantries. Carlin's orders were to swing around Sheridan's right and flank the Confederates. Accordingly, Carlin's men, led by skirmishers from the 15th Wisconsin, advanced through the woods towards the open flank of the 24th Mississippi. However, before his men could surprise the retreating enemy, the men ran into a fence row covered with thick thorns. Colonel William F. Dowd of the 24th Mississippi saw them and fired as they retreated, ruining Carlin's chances of a surprise attack[IV].


Nevertheless, Carlin's brigade crossed over the fence and pursued the broken enemy while taking fire from Barrett's battery above. Arthur Siver of the 15th Wisconsin stated, "It was like a running marathon, over the fences and ditches and corn fields, the enemy ahead and we in pursuit." After reaching Edward House Hill, Powell's worn-out men didn't stop there. He directed his men to fall back into the town and take positions on the eastern edge of Seminary Hill. After reaching the now-vacated Edward House Hill, Carlin's lead regiments, the 21st Illinois and 15th Wisconsin, saw the town of Perryville. Soon Barrett's battery across the valley opened up on the Federals forcing Carlin to order his men forward[V].

Brig. Gen. William P. Carlin

Near 5:15 pm, Carlin’s lead regiments made it to the western edge of the town. The men took positions behind the stone fence of the cemetery and close to the hill on which the Perryville Elementry school sits today. While the main body took positions near the hill, the skirmishers from the 15th Wisconsin and 21st Illinois moved into the community near the Chaplin River, which ran in the center of town. Supposedly, the first of the two regiments to make it into the town was Company F under Captain David Blackburn of the 21st Illinois infantry[VI].


Nevertheless, the Federals in the town and near the cemetery could only take cover because of the growing Confederate fire directed toward them. Thankfully for Carlin, a section from Hotchkiss’s Minnesota battery, under the command of Lieutenant Richard J. Dowley, came up and unlimbered on the hill Carlin’s men hid behind and fired at the Confederate guns. Preston Smith’s 1,700-man brigade, positioned near the northeastern side of town along the Harrodsburg and Danville Pikes, now joined the fight. Barrett’s battery, located where the rock quarry is today, and a section of Semple’s Alabama Battery, located near Harmonia College, opened on the Federals. Finally, the rest of the brigade showed up, along with Co. B of the 36th Illinois, which was mounted and helped bolster the Union line to Carlin’s left. Carlin then positioned the 38th Illinois to his left, the 15th Wisconsin in the center, and the 21st Illinois on his right with the 101st Ohio in reserve and threw out skirmishers from the 38th Illinois to his left[VII].

Possible positions of both Carlins brigade on the left and the Confederate positions on the right

With the Confederate artillery now preoccupied with Hotchkiss's guns, the Federals in the town fell back from the Chaplin River's edge, taking cover behind, and in, the houses along Merchants Row, and opened fire on the Confederates on the eastern edge. The Union skirmishers unleashed an accurate fire upon the Confederates of Powell's brigade, who held positions near the southeastern edge of the town. Private William E. Bevens of the 1st Arkansas stated, "The enemy opened on us with grape and canister and did deadly work. We double quicked into line, and their sharpshooters gave us a terrible assault from behind the houses." Once Powell’s men threw out skirmishers, the fighting grew in the town and on hills. Perryville quickly turned into a hailstorm of shot and shell[VIII]


Even though Carlin's brigade was behind a hill and a cemetery wall many men were still wounded from the artillery shells and bullets that were seemingly flying everywhere. Colonel Hans C. Heg of the 15th Wisconsin wrote, "We in the mean time laying down in the line of battle the shot flying over us both from the enemy's cannon and own shells would burst right over our heads, and pieces fly in all directions, often coming very near the men… One shell burst a little to the right of where I stood and wounded four men of the 21st ILL." Captain Sherer of Co. B, 36th Illinois was even knocked unconscious, and because of their exposed position had to pull back a few yards to a hill to gain protection. One eyewitness in Sherer’s company stated, “Many in the brigade were struck down and mangled by bursting missiles. The sight of their manly looking forms, stretched lifeless on the the grass, shocked as well as deeply impressed the whole command.”[IX].

Brig. Gen. Preston Smith

The fighting didn't stop there. Luckily for Powell, Smith's men started to form into a line on his right and at once began to receive intense fire from the Federals. Richard Wharton of the 154th Tennessee Infantry recalled, "The Yankees planted a battery and turned it on the town. Just then, we were ordered down the Mainstreet, (where US-150 is today) which ran east and west. They had gone further south and planted a battery to sweep the street." With Smith's skirmishers now occupying homes and any form of cover, the fighting went on for another hour until darkness overtook the battlefield and silenced the cannons, but the fighting didn't stop[X].


In the darkness, more Federal aid arrived; Robert B. Mitchell realizing the opportunity, sent orders to Carlin to move the 15th Wisconsin to the left of the Mackville road and try and swing around Powell's men and take the town. At the same time, he moved his last brigade, Colonel William W. Caldwell's, to support Carlin's men. Men began arriving on the scene from the 2nd corps posted along the Lebanon Pike. However, Mitchell's dreams of taking the town were ruined once Gen. Gilbert learned of Mitchell's move to the town. Gilbert ordered him to fall back and link up with Sheridan's men on Peter's hill. Much to the dismay of Mitchell, he pulled Caldwell's to Bottom's Hill and pulled Carlin's main line back towards Edward House Hill. However, Carlin maintained a picket line in and near the town. Even after the artillery ceased, soldiers on both sides shot at each other in the moonlight. Carlin's men even captured dozens of prisoners along the Mackville road, most notably from the men of the 38th Illinois who, after firing warning shots, captured dozens of men, mostly escorts, doctors, and wounded men, wagons, and even caisson's belonging to the Washington Artillery[XI].


During the night, Bragg learned of the main Federal army on the field and the danger, especially with the sizable Federal force to the west of town. As a result, he ordered his army to retreat to the east and eventually out of the state. On the morning of the 9th, Smith’s brigade was tasked as the rear guard for the Confederate army and, in the early morning hours, received fire from Cox’s Indiana Battery from George Wagner’s brigade, killing one man. After Smith saw the mass of Federal troops aiming for the town, he fell back with the rest of the army. Thus the street fighting at Perryville ended. Once the Federals entered the town, many saw the damage the houses took from the battle. Casualties during the street fight are hard to tell since the units involved were already engaged before the fight. However, based on reports from both sides, it could be reasonably inferred that the total does not exceed 200 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, with the majority being captured[XII].


 

Special thanks to the Perryville Battlefields State Historic Site Manager Bryan Bush for access to documents.

1st photo- https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3954p.cw0226000/?st=image&r=0.187,0.457,0.567,0.268,0

I-Noe, Kenneth W. “Perryville This Grand Havoc of Battle” the University Press of Kentucky, pg.144-173

II-Noe pg.173;277

III-Noe pg. 277-281; 281-284 Sheridan received support from both Wagner’s brigade of the 2nd Corps and Mitchell’s division of the 3rd Corps

IV-Noe pg.285

V-Arthur Siver quote from pg.285 (Noe); Noe pg. 285-286; Col Hans C. Heg letters pg. 146

VI- Time comes from the Perryville Battle map at 5:15 pm; William P. Carlin's “Ambition Carries the day” pg. 145 Carlin says his brigade got to the stone fences on the outskirts of the town; Noe pg. 286 details that the skirmishers of the 15th Wisconsin and 21st Illinois were in front of the brigade in the town; Record of events 21st Illinois- Oct. 8th, 1862, co. F first in the town of Perryville.

VII-Perryville Battlefield Commemorative program, pg. 40-41; History of the 36th Illinois Volunteers pg. 269- Co. B was mounted at Perryville and was mounted at the start of the war; Carlin pg. 145.

VIII- Noe pg.286; Beven quote from Beven’s papers 1st Arkansas pg. 99

IX- Heg letters pg.146; History of the 36th Illinois pg. 271

X- Wharton, Richard, “Reminisces of the Civil War” Detail’s that the men from the 154th and presumably the rest of Preston’s brigade got into the homes and took cover behind fences once they go into position.

XI- Noe pg. 297; Adj. Gen. Report 38th Illinois, “captured ammunition train, two caissons, and about 100 prisoners”; William j. Rogers 13th Tennessee states that pickets fires all night.

XII- Rogers-13th Tennessee- recalled a captain in the 9th Texas was killed and Ben Coleman of Co. B was wounded by straggling off and being shot by Federal pickets; Gen. George D. Wagner Buell inquiry pg. 235-238; Confederate casualties Noe pg. 370-371; Union casualties Noe pg. 379

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