PERRYVILLE — The Battle of Perryville is not only significant because it was Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle, but also because it marked an important turning point in the conflict.
Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and his 17,000 men invaded Perryville on Oct. 8, 1862, and hoped to get enough support from Kentuckians to invade Ohio. Bragg’s men were significantly outnumbered by Union Gen. Don Carlos Buell and his 56,000 soldiers, but the Confederates still won the Battle of Perryville. However, it was merely a victory achieved at excessive cost that assured they would ultimately lose the war.
The Confederates were grossly outnumbered by Union soldiers and forced to retreat from Kentucky. More than 7,600 soldiers died, were wounded, or disappeared as a result of the battle. Soldiers represented 21 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
“A lot of people tend to focus on other battles such as Gettysburg,” said Perryville Battlefield Preservation Coordinator Joan House. “But the fall of 1862 really was the most critical time in the Civil War,” she said. “Everything that happened in Perryville really carved the ability for Abraham Lincoln to eventually issue the Emancipation Proclamation and end slavery.”
Pop culture websites such as Urban Dictionary agree with House’s observations, noting that the battle “is seriously one of the most important battles of the Civil War, that people seem to forget about it.”
House hopes the upcoming Battle of Perryville re-enactment weekend will teach Kentuckians and out-of-state visitors more about Kentucky’s role in the Civil War. Even though the Perryville Battlefield now looks picturesque with lush greenery and rolling hills, House wants people to remember what a “hellish place” it was in October 1862.
“We want people from all over to enjoy the wildlife and the scenery here,” House said. “But we don’t want them to forget why it is here and what this ground really cost.”
Some of the soldiers who died in Perryville were very young, such as 16-year-old Henry Hunter from Indiana.
“He was a young man who had never really been outside of his hometown until the Civil War,” House said. “Everything ended for him in Perryville. I hope people will wonder who he could have been.”
Plenty of innocent bystanders, especially farmers, also were negatively impacted by the Battle of Perryville.
“The battle burned everything and took everything from people living in Perryville,” House said. “Cows were slaughtered. In 1862, there was no FEMA. Consider the situation of the average farmer back then. What is he going to do to recover from his losses? That end of the war is also ugly.”