Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/19
The Perryville Campaign.—1862
NEXT morning I wrote up my notes made during the march, and, after noon, set out in search of McCook's division, which I found encamped near the Jefferson ferry. I also called on my Louisville friends and received a hearty welcome from them. They expressed the intense anxiety which the loyalists had undergone for a fortnight, owing to the steady approach of Bragg's army. Nor did they feel at ease after our arrival, for they had lost all faith in General Buell, and believed that he had been entirely out-generalled by the rebel commander. In the course of the evening, I learned from the chief of staff, Colonel Fry, that the army was expected to move anew against Bragg within a few days, which put an end to my plan of visiting Cincinnati.
The invasion of Kentucky by Bragg's army had been preceded in the middle of August by the advance from eastern Tennessee into the State of a rebel force of about fifteen thousand men under General Kirby Smith. Crossing the Cumberland Mountains through two passes to the east of Cumberland Gap, he had turned the Federal force of about 10,000 men under General Morgan at the latter point and moved unopposed toward the “Blue Grass” country. About the same time, another rebel body, of about four thousand, under General Humphrey Marshall (a member of the prominent Kentucky family of the same name, who, in spite of his very fat body, displayed great physical energy and mobility), had entered the State from western Virginia, seeking a junction with Kirby Smith. John Morgan, the notorious rebel raider, was also coursing again through central Kentucky.
General Nelson, detached from his division by General Buell and ordered to Kentucky to clear it of guerrillas and raiders before Kirby Smith's appearance on the scene, reported to Major-General Wright at Louisville, and was sent by him at once to Lexington to take command of all the troops in that vicinity. They consisted of about ten infantry regiments from Indiana and Ohio and a Kentucky cavalry regiment, most of them just organized, with perfectly raw officers and men, a large portion of whom were going through their first drill. They numbered between seven and eight thousand men. Kirby Smith reached their advanced posts on August 29, and drove them and their supports steadily before him upon the main body at Richmond, some twenty miles south of Lexington. He attacked the Unionists there with his whole force the next day, and, after driving them from position to position, completely overwhelmed them. The routed Federals lost nearly half their number in killed, wounded, and prisoners, the remainder fleeing in the greatest disorder, and without stopping, through Lexington to Louisville. This victory gave Kirby Smith the choice of an unobstructed advance, either upon Louisville or Cincinnati. He marched toward the latter city, and came within six miles of the Ohio River. His approach caused the greatest consternation, not only in Cincinnati, but throughout Ohio and Indiana. Martial law was proclaimed in the Queen City, and preparations pushed night and day for her defence.
The indignation and rage of the Kentucky loyalists and the authorities and people of the two other States over the new rebel invasion was intense, and centred upon General Buell. In the press and at public meetings he was denounced, not only for his incapacity to cope with his rebel adversaries, but for his alleged sympathy for the South and consequent half-heartedness in waging war against it. Hot demands for his removal were made upon the President and Secretary of War by the Governors and members of Congress from the threatened States. The President resisted till Buell was obliged to follow Bragg back to the Ohio River, when he finally yielded to the rising pressure. An order was delivered to General Buell, on the morning after his arrival at Louisville, by a staff officer of General Halleck sent especially for that purpose, requiring him to turn his command over to General Thomas. General Thomas simultaneously received an order to assume command, but immediately telegraphed a request to Washington that the orders be countermanded and that General Buell be retained, to which the President assented. I learned this portentous news about noon on the 29th, but, secrecy being enjoined, I made no use of it. It became known, of course, to the general officers under Buell, and brought out divided opinions as to the justice and propriety, in the then situation, of his removal. It naturally had the effect of weakening his authority, and led, as I personally had occasion to observe, to still louder criticism of him.
Owing not only to this surprise, but to a terrible tragedy enacted almost under my eyes, September 29th will always be literally a red-letter day in my recollection. I was just finishing breakfast in the hotel dining-room on the ground floor when I heard the sound of a shot coming from the large entrance hall directly in front. I hurried out, and learned to my horror that General Jefferson C. Davis had shot General Nelson with a revolver, and that the victim was being led to his room, toward which I hastened. He was just able to reach it with the support of two friends, only to sink on the bed with life fast ebbing away. The bullet had penetrated the left breast near the heart. There he lay, bodily a giant among men, reminding one of a dying lion. A clerical friend of the General, who happened to be in the hotel, appearing, I retired. In ten minutes death ensued. This dreadful end was caused by Nelson's violent temper. After the disaster at Lexington, he had been ordered by Major-General Wright to take charge of the defence of Louisville. General Davis, who commanded one of the divisions sent by General Grant to General Buell but had been at home on sick-leave, on finding himself unable to join it, owing to the interruption of communications, had reported a week before for duty to Nelson, who placed him over a body of militia known as the “home guards.” Nelson was not satisfied with the way he filled this function, relieved him from duty after a violent scene, and ordered him to report to General Wright at Cincinnati. The latter sent him back to Louisville, where he had arrived the day before. At the fatal moment, General Nelson was standing with Governor Morton of Indiana in front of the office counter, when General Davis approached and asked him to apologize for his rude behavior when he removed him from command. General Nelson refused to listen and turned away. Davis, who was a small, frail-looking man, followed him and insisted upon an apology. Nelson there upon called him a puppy and struck him in the face. Davis at once went for a revolver, re-approached Nelson, and fired it at a distance of only a few feet. That Nelson's conduct was utterly unjustified and brutal, admits of no doubt. Indeed, his excitable temper made him too often play the part of a bully, although he was really good-natured and kind-hearted. The awful event made a sensation in the army and throughout the country, but Davis was released from arrest without a trial.
General Buell found a motley mass of about twenty thousand officers and men at Louisville, consisting of newly organized regiments from several Western States, of men discharged from hospitals or returning from furloughs and trying to reach their commands. There was great need of this accession of force. For, in truth, not a single regiment in his army had more than half of the officers and men on its muster-rolls present for duty, while a number had not more than one-third. The causes of this depletion were disease, straggling, desertion (very few to the enemy, but many to Northern homes), and the furloughing which was practised to a most reprehensible extent by regimental and company commanders. Aspiring local politicians, as so many of them were, they were afraid to refuse strongly backed applications for leave. Moreover, incredible as it may sound, thousands of furloughs were granted, at the instance of political leaders and with the approval of the Washington authorities, in order to assure satisfactory results in State, Congressional, and county elections. Heavy drafts for voting purposes had been especially made on the Army of the Ohio in order to defeat the dangerous and rising “copperheadism” (the telling generic term applied to disloyalty throughout the North) in Indiana and Ohio. The aggregate effect of these several sappings of the strength of the army was, that General Buell reached Louis ville with only between 37,000 and 40,000 effectives. Under the circumstances, it was the part of prudence not to attempt to form new organizations out of the new troops he found gathered in the city, but to strengthen existing ones with them. Nor was any other course practicable. They were mostly raw, undrilled, undisciplined, and not even all armed, and there were not enough experienced officers to command them.
For once, not a moment of time was lost in preparing for the new offensive campaign. Under the spur of threatened removal and disgrace, General Buell devoted night and day to the arduous work of reorganizing the army and supplying it with food, forage, and ammunition, and re-clothing the older troops. He allowed only the last three days of the month for this heavy task. Three army corps were formed, consisting of three divisions each: the first commanded by General McCook, the second by General Crittenden, and the third by General Gilbert, a newcomer, the singular circumstances of whose appearance will be told later on. The new regiments were distributed among the three corps, bringing their aggregate strength up to 58,000 effectives of all arms. The march from Louisville was commenced on October 1. Owing to the shortness of time, it had been impossible, notwithstanding the most strenuous efforts, to issue a full supply of clothing and footwear and canteens and haversacks to all the troops that needed them. The army moved in the lightest marching order. No baggage was allowed to be taken along, for either officers or men, and I set out with a roll of blankets strapped to my horse and one change of underclothing and toilet utensils in my saddle-bags. Only one wagon per regiment was allowed for officers blankets and rations, and one other for cooking-utensils for the rank and file.
I obtained leave to accompany General McCook and staff again. I naturally felt most at home there, and should have better facilities for my work than before, owing to the higher command of the General. Our corps formed the left wing of the army. On leaving Louisville it divided. The second division, now commanded by General Sill, took the road to Frankfort, while the third, under General Rousseau, and the tenth, under General Jackson, consisting mainly of new regiments, with the corps headquarters, took the road to Bardstown. After following this for six miles, we took another, bearing to the left toward Taylorsville. We camped for the night, after marching about twenty miles. The next day we reached Taylorsville on the Salt River. Despite the fall season, a July heat prevailed, the roads were dusty, and water was scarce, owing to the extremely dry summer. We rested at Taylorsville on the 3d, and the next continued on to the town of Bloomfield, where we bivouacked for two days. On the 6th, we made a short march of seven miles to the Chaplin River, and on the 7th we pushed a few miles further on to Mackville. Thanks to the kindness of my friends of General McCook's staff, I slept in houses every night but one, and had enough to eat. The unseasonable heat and constant dust on the road were as trying to me as to everybody else.
We knew we were nearing the enemy, Bragg's main force, and advanced cautiously, with flankers and skirmishers thrown out. From the 2d, the latter came in touch with detachments of rebel cavalry and artillery, and frequently exchanged shots with them as they fell back. About two in the morning of the 8th, our headquarters were roused by an order from General Buell to move the corps at 3 A.M. to a position near Perryville. The Commander-in-chief had discovered, through a reconnoissance in force, that the enemy was in great strength between him and Perryville and evidently forming for battle, and he took his measures accordingly to get the three corps into a strong connected line during the night. Owing to the darkness, it was impossible to get the order distributed and the divisions under way before 5 A.M. Shortly afterward, we heard the continuous booming of artillery, which electrified the troops — being the first real sound of battle we had heard since Corinth — and quickened our movements. The ground on which the two divisions (the third had not yet rejoined the corps) were to form a line, about three miles northeast of Perryville, was reached between 10 and 11 A.M. We found troops of Gilbert's corps already there, and proceeded to select a line starting from its left. Everybody expected hard fighting. The day was to be, indeed, a most bloody one for McCook's command. The troops could not be said to be in good fighting condition. For several days men and animals had suffered severely from heat and dust, and, most of all, from the scarcity of water; on the 7th, hardly any was obtained. The line of battle crossed Doctor's Creek, a tributary of Chaplin River, but it contained water only in pools, access to which the rebels were evidently bent on preventing.
It appears from the official rebel reports that Bragg's reason for turning, as already mentioned, from the direct route to Louisville towards Bardstown, in an easterly direction, was that Kirby Smith's corps was unable to join him for a direct movement on the city, and that he did not feel strong enough alone to attempt its capture with Buell at his heels. Smith's force had been sent off for a vain effort to intercept the command of the Union General Morgan, in its retreat from Cumberland Gap to the Ohio River through eastern Kentucky. Bragg moved leisurely into the Blue Grass region with the triple object of feeding his hungry troops on the abundance of that fat land, of awaiting the return of Kirby Smith's command, and of installing at Frankfort, the capital, the so-called “provisional government” for the State that had been organized by local rebels since his appearance in it. The inauguration proved a great farce. It took place at the State capitol in the presence of Bragg and many rebel generals and other officers, on October 4, but the new Governor sought safety in retreat immediately after the ceremony, in company with Bragg, on learning of the rapid approach of the Union army. According to Bragg's account, one of the leading motives of his movement into Kentucky was the strong assurance of leading rebel sympathizers that the people would rise in a body to welcome their Southern brethren as liberators from the Northern yoke. Utter disappointment awaited him in this respect. As he said in his report to the Richmond War Department: “The campaign here was predicated on a belief and the most positive assurances that the people of Kentucky would rise in mass and assert their independence. No people ever had so favorable an opportunity, but I am distressed to add there was little or no disposition to avail of it.”
Bragg was evidently surprised by Buell's early start from Louisville against him, of which he claims to have had information on October 2. On that day he sent orders to General Polk to move from Bardstown toward Frankfort and strike Buell in flank and rear, and General Kirby Smith was ordered at the same time to make a front attack. General Polk submitted his orders to a council of generals, who agreed with him that they could not be executed, and, accordingly, they were not. On being informed of this, Bragg countermanded his order to General Smith, and decided to effect a concentration of his forces further south. The action of General Polk led subsequently to an angry controversy between him and the generals who had supported him, and General Bragg; the latter contending that, but for this disobedience of his orders, Buell's whole army would surely have been beaten in detail. Having been informed in the meantime that the Union army was still advancing in three separate columns over as many different roads, he thought there was another opportunity to try the same game that Polk had failed to carry out. On October 6 he issued orders to Polk to attack the Union right, and, after overwhelming it, to join Smith in disposing of the hostile centre and left. Thus was brought on the collision known as the battle of “Perryville” or “Chaplin Hills.”
The field of action lay mainly in the angle formed by Chaplin River and Doctor's Creek. It consisted of rolling ground, with undulations here and there, high enough to be called “hills,” the summits of which commanded wide views. On one of these, McCook's corps headquarters were established. In the clear sunlight we looked upon an attractive and diversified scene of numerous farm-houses rising from large fields of ripe corn, alternating with more or less extensive patches of timber. The sight was literally one of peace and plenty — alas! to be instantly exchanged for the roar and carnage of battle.
As mentioned, we heard the sounds of fighting as we moved towards our position on the morning of the 8th. They were due to a lively skirmish between Colonel Daniel McCook's (a brother of General McCook) brigade of General Sheridan's division of Gilbert's corps and the advance of the enemy. Sheridan had reached the ground late on the preceding evening and had ordered Colonel McCook to occupy the height on the east side of Doctor's Creek, so as to command what water there was in it. The hill was in possession of the rebels, who resisted stubbornly, but finally yielded after a lively exchange of musketry and artillery fire. During the early forenoon the reënforced enemy tried to retake the position, but gave it up after a protracted artillery practice.
On reaching the ground, General McCook assigned General Rousseau's division to a position connecting with Gilbert's left, and ordered a line of skirmishers to be thrown forward to examine the woods on his left and front. He also sent an aide to General Jackson, and, in compliance with orders, galloped off to report in person to General Buell, whose headquarters were about two and a half miles to the rear, near Gilbert's left. The Commander-in-chief had had a severe fall from his horse two days before and could not move about, and this circumstance had an unfortunate bearing upon the fate of the day. McCook was verbally directed to make a reconnoissance towards the Chaplin River, and rode back at once to execute it. As Buell himself says, in his official report, he had rather expected an attack on Gilbert's corps early in the morning, when it was still alone on the ground; but, none having been made and McCook being now also in position, he did not believe that the enemy would make an offensive attempt during the remainder of the day.
I remained with General Rousseau during the absence of General McCook. The feeling" for the enemy not having discovered him in front, Rousseau decided to move his line forward nearer to the Chaplin River, so as to procure water for the parched throats of his men. After moving about half a mile, we stopped, as there were renewed indications of the appearance of the enemy in the woods in front of us. Rousseau rode forward some distance to reconnoitre; I followed him and shared his experience during the following dreadful hours. We saw directly a moving rebel force. In a few minutes its approach was signalled by the sudden opening of a rain of shells, apparently from several massed batteries, upon us. The General at once ordered two of his batteries to return the fire. Thereupon, at least twenty-four guns sent whizzing and exploding missiles at each other by and over us as a roaring prelude to the sanguinary battle that was thus begun at about 1:30 P.M.
Messengers from our cavalry pickets and skirmish line now reported the approach of heavy columns of rebel infantry and artillery. Rousseau at once rode back to prepare for the shock. To his right brigade, Colonel Lytle's, he sent orders by an aide. The centre and left brigades, under Colonels Harris and Starkweather, he put in position himself. He caused two batteries to be so stationed on adjacent heights as to give a cross fire upon the advancing enemy. These dispositions having been made, we hurried back from the left to the centre of the division, which, we could clearly see, a mighty rebel column was about to strike.
Meantime, General McCook, finding Rousseau's line advanced when he reached the front again, had ordered part of the 33d Ohio regiment of Harris's brigade as skirmishers into the woods before its line, and then hastened to find General Jackson, his other division commander, to direct him to make his line conform to Rousseau's. Hearing musketry fire from the woods mentioned, he galloped back to Harris's front, and ordered the remainder of the 33d Ohio and the 2d Ohio to the support of the skirmishers. Thus Rousseau found part of his centre engaged on his return from the left. The formidable proportions of the rebel attack being now fully developed, he led another of Harris's regiments, the 24th Illinois, forward in person, in line of battle, till it reached the left of the 33d Ohio. I followed him and soon heard the whistling of bullets, first scatteringly and then continuously about us. Just then we were shocked by an ill-boding sight on our left. An other rebel column had pushed obliquely, like a wedge, against the right of Jackson's division, consisting of a brigade of raw men. The sheets of fire and hail of lead which rapidly burst forth from it on coming within firing distance were too much for the Federals. We plainly saw the brigade break and fly rearward in utter confusion, drawing the other brigade with them. The panic was due in part to the killing of General Jackson by the first rebel volley. Here was another striking reminder of Bull Run and Pittsburg Landing. The direction from which this terrible assault had come, made it clear that the enemy's plan was to roll up our line from left to right, and he had certainly begun its execution most threateningly.
Leaving Colonel Harris to lead his two remaining regiments, the 38th Indiana and 94th Illinois, to the support of the three already under fire, Rousseau galloped once more to his left, now imperilled by Jackson's disaster. Colonel Starkweather was ordered to open an enfilading fire with his two batteries, which was done promptly, but did not at first check the advancing enemy, who, despite the gaps torn through their ranks by our shot and shell, approached steadily, loading and discharging volley after volley from their small arms while advancing. At this stage of the combat, an incident happened that has always remained fresh in my mind. The 1st Wisconsin Infantry, although already within range of the rebel musketry and losing officers and men, when they recognized General Rousseau stuck their caps on their swords and bayonets, and, waving their arms over their heads, broke out into rousing cheers for him and shouts of defiance at the enemy. Rousseau, feeling that he was defending the key of our position and that the fate of the corps, and even of the army, would turn upon his successful resistance, remained close to the scene of this struggle. I dismounted and watched the course of the fighting for over an hour. The atmosphere was so clear and the sun shone so brightly that, barring momentary obscuration by the powder smoke, every move of assailants and assailed could be clearly perceived with the naked eye or the field-glass from the commanding point where we stood. We could see the victims drop, seemingly by the scores, on both sides, under the effect of the rapid exchange of volleys by regiments. Soon the flow of wounded to the rear indicated the severity of our losses. We could trace distinctly our shot and shells as they tore gaps through the rebel ranks, while the hostile missiles whirled past or burst above us. We were so near that we heard the peculiar pattering noise of falling bullets. We were all struck with the desperate valor of the rebels. Led by mounted officers, their broad columns came to the attack in quick movement and with death-defying steadiness, uttering wild yells, till, staggered by the sweeping cross-fire of our artillery and the volleys from Starkweather's regiments, they fell back to the shelter of corn-fields and breaks of the ground. But again and again, with revived pluck, they returned to the charge, to be again checked by our batteries and steadfast infantry. Gradually they gained ground, however, and the fire of their guns and musketry grew hotter and hotter. Still our line stood, and every once in a while a cheer arose from it above the din of battle. Towards four o'clock, the report came that the ammunition of our men was giving out, and that they were reduced to what they took from the cartridge-boxes of their dead and wounded comrades. When this was exhausted, they stood receiving fire without being able to return it. Then, owing to what had happened to the centre and right of the division, an order reached them to fall back to the position first assigned to them in the morning by General McCook. The brigade left one-third of their number in killed and wounded on the field. Its two batteries were brought off, although one of them had had nearly all its horses killed.
About the hour named, a message reached Rousseau asking him to meet General McCook at a farm-house in the rear of the centre of the corps. Being anxious to learn the course of the action in other parts of the field, and feeling very hungry and thirsty, and hoping to find something to eat and drink — not a swallow of water or any thing else had passed my lips all day — I galloped there with him. On reaching the house, we discovered that General McCook had left, as the enemy, having worked around our right, had planted a battery directly in line of the house and was shelling it furiously. We had instant proof that it was a most dangerous place, since four shells exploded at once above us as we halted in front of it. The location of this hostile battery made Rousseau anxious for the safety of his right and centre, and he determined to return at once to his front, and sent word to that effect to General McCook by an orderly, whom I concluded to accompany.
We found the corps commander some distance further to the rear, in a very excited and perturbed state of mind, as he well might be in the awful predicament of finding himself on the verge of a complete rout of his corps. His chief-of-staff told me hurriedly that the whole corps had been assailed by overwhelming numbers, that the centre was being forced back and the right turned, that appeals for aid had been made more than an hour before through staff officers to the nearest division commander of General Gilbert's corps, but that no reinforcements had yet appeared, and that there was imminent danger of a disaster. I further learned that the General and staff had been separated from the corps headquarters since his visit to Buell. It turned out that, owing to the general retrograde movement of the corps, the vehicles attached to it had fallen into the hands of the enemy, including the mess-wagon and the field-carriage with the general's and staff's papers and baggage, and my own saddle-bags containing my toilet utensils and changes of underclothing. Owing to this mishap, I got no food, but only a mouthful of brandy and water from the flask of an aide-de-camp.
I have told in the foregoing what I saw myself of the action. The following narrative of the other occurrences of the day is taken mainly from my report of the battle to the New York Tribune, which was made up at the time from accounts of eye and ear witnesses.
The enemy, intent upon rolling up the line of McCook's corps from left to right, and having made no further progress against the left after their first success in driving Jackson's division from its position, next tried to break the centre. But Harris's brigade, as well as Starkweather's, withstood their repeated, determined onsets in great force. They also held their ground firmly until after all the cartridge-boxes of the living and dead and wounded had been emptied, and withdrew only when the rest of our line fell back. The brigade on the right, under Colonel Lytle, was assailed at the same time and as vigorously as the centre. It succeeded, however, in repulsing every front attack up to between four and five o'clock, when a strong column of the enemy, concealed by the undulations of the ground, managed to pass around its right, and suddenly, almost without warning, fell upon the flank and rear of the brigade and drove it before them in much disorder. Colonel Lytle was severely wounded and taken prisoner. This turning movement would not have been possible if General Gilbert had not ordered General Sheridan to fall back for half a mile from the position Colonel David McCook's brigade had wrested from the enemy in the morning, in which it had connected with Lytle's right. The rebel success involved the gravest peril to McCook's whole corps — indeed, threatened it with utter defeat and destruction. This calamity would surely have befallen it had not, at the critical moment, the rebel move against Lytle been arrested by counter-attacks from Gilbert's corps. How this came about will best appear from the following extract from my account of the battle in the Tribune:
General McCook states that at 3 P.M. he dispatched Captain Horace W. Fisher of his staff to the nearest commander of troops for assistance. He first met General Schoepf marching at the head of his division, and reported his condition to him. General Schoepf expressed a desire to act at once, as he was moving to the front under orders for that same purpose. He requested Captain Fisher to see General Gilbert, the commander of the corps, who was riding with the column. Gilbert said that he was very sorry to learn that General McCook was in so pressed a condition, but that he could not send him reinforcements without special orders from General Buell. Owing to the delay in first hunting for General Gilbert and next in finding General Buell, the aide-de-camp did not succeed in reporting the precarious plight of the first corps to the latter until nearly four o'clock. General Buell stepped out of his tent, held his ear towards the scene of action, listened for a few moments, and then, turning sharply to Captain Fisher, exclaimed: “Captain, you must be mistaken. I cannot hear any sound of musketry. There cannot be any serious engagement.”
Captain Fisher thus returned without any assurance of reinforcements. Shortly after he had left the army headquarters, however, General Buell concluded, after all, to inquire into the alleged “serious engagement,” and sent Major Wright of his staff to ascertain whether General McCook really needed assistance and to direct General Gilbert to furnish it. But the latter had already acted before the Major reached him, in response to another and more urgent appeal from McCook through another staff officer, and ordered Colonel Gooding's brigade of General Mitchell's division with the Fifth Wisconsin battery to the relief of Rousseau. When he received Buell's order, he sent another brigade of Schoepf's division forward for the same purpose. Gooding's brigade tried to come in touch with Rousseau's retreating right, but failed to do so owing to the remnants of Lytle's brigade having fallen back nearly a mile before rallying, and became hotly engaged with the enemy. It was assailed by far superior numbers, but withstood until nearly dark, when, finding itself unsupported on either side, it fell back upon the corps line after losing over five hundred in killed and wounded out of a total of only 1423 engaged. Its commander had his horse shot under him and fell into the hands of the enemy.
The reinforcing brigade under General Steedman from Schoepf's division arrived on the field at dark, too late to do any good.
Simultaneously with the turning movement around Lytle's right, part of the rebel forces again attacked Colonel McCook's brigade, on Sheridan's left, in order to dislodge Hiscock's large battery of Parrott guns that was directing an effective enfilading fire from a very advantageous position upon the hostile infantry and batteries. But McCook's men repelled the two onsets. General Sheridan and Colonel McCook from their standpoint clearly observed the course of the rebel flanking column, and understood the danger it brought to McCook's corps. As it passed along their front, they were eager to strike it in the flank, which they could have done most effectively, but they were held back by orders from General Gilbert, and chafed in vain at the loss of this fine chance of changing the fortunes of the day. It is easy to comprehend the bitterness and pain that Colonel McCook and his younger brother John felt, as they saw their brother's command apparently doomed, without being permitted to help him. The older brother did not hesitate, during and after the battle, to proclaim loudly that the flanking operation was invited and made practicable by their change of position under the orders of Gilbert.
The rebel wave that had swept away Lytle and struck Gooding was, however, stayed and forced back during the last hour of daylight. Having passed by Sheridan and reached Mitchell's front with their left and rear fully exposed, the latter division commander, not being under restraining orders, seized the opportunity and ordered Colonel Carlin to attack the enemy with his brigade. Carlin (a regular-army officer, who subsequently distinguished himself as a cavalry commander) immediately moved forward, and, reaching the brow of a hill, discovered the rebels directly before him. He formed his brigade and led a charge at the double quick with enthusiastic cheers, and succeeded, after a short resistance of the enemy, in breaking through his line. The rebels broke and fled in confusion, Carlin following them for nearly two miles to and through the town of Perryville, and then, retracing his steps to the field of action, captured close to the town a heavy ammunition train with its guard of 150 officers and men. This was the last incident of the sanguinary day. Night fall put an end to hostilities on both sides.
The result of the day was unquestionably a decided rebel success. The enemy had driven McCook's whole line back from a mile and a half to two miles, and inflicted a loss of 39 officers and 806 men killed, 94 officers and 2757 men wounded, and 515 missing — a total of 4211, of which the First Corps alone lost 29 officers and 643 men killed, 66 officers and 2136 men wounded, and 425 missing — a total of 3299, or more than three-quarters of the entire loss. Eleven guns and much booty were also taken by the rebels from the corps. This is sufficient proof that McCook's command bore the brunt of the fight. In fact, it fought the battle. Rousseau's division had 7000, Jackson's 5500 effectives. The greater portion of the latter were stampeded, as we have seen, at the beginning of the battle, so that hardly more than 9000 men remained fighting in line, to which, towards the close, Gooding's 1400 and Carlin's 2000 were added. As usual, both the Union and Confederate commanders, in their official reports, claim to have been attacked by from two to three and four times the number of their troops. Bragg's official account proves that the rebels had only three divisions of infantry with about 14,500 effectives engaged. But, as their attacks were made in massed bodies of two or three brigades against certain points of our line, there was good ground for saying that the assailants attacked with greatly superior numbers.
It is the simple truth that to the “daring charges” of his infantry, as General Bragg justly calls them, the triumph of the rebel arms was due. But it is equally true that their commanders ran the greatest risk in acting on the assumption that only one Federal corps was confronting them, and that they owed their escape from the severest punishment for this hardihood to faults of omission and commission on our side. The enemy rushed, in unconscious recklessness, into the trap which the convergence of our three corps upon Perryville really formed for him, and he owed it partly to accident and partly to our mistakes and blunders that it was not sprung on him. It is enough to state the astounding fact that not far from forty thousand muskets and some eighty pieces of artillery of our army never fired a shot during the whole day. We had, indeed, such an abundance of forces gathered so near to Perryville that, had there been but a proper perception of our opportunity and promptness and energy in availing of it, the enemy would have been entirely enveloped and crushed. We had five-sixths of Gilbert's and the whole of Crittenden's corps intact for that purpose. That, instead, we were badly beaten in part was clearly attributable, first, to the fall and hurt of General Buell, which prevented him from having personal cognizance of the situation at the front and taking prompt action accordingly; second, to his unwillingness to accept the assurance of General McCook's aide-de-camp that a serious engagement was in progress, and consequent delay in ordering support to the First Corps; third, to the inexperience and incapacity of General Gilbert. This officer, a captain in the regular army, appeared in the part of a corps commander literally without ever having led any troops—not as much as a company—under fire, and, strangest of all, without the shadow of a real title to his rank, as is shown by another quotation from my reports to the Tribune:
I must record a singular discovery regarding General Gilbert. Soon after the battle, General Rousseau heard some rumors of doubts relative to the former's actual rank, and addressed a letter of inquiry upon the subject to General Buell, who sent it to General Gilbert. The latter wrote on the back of it: “I am a major-general by the appointment of Major-General Wright.” General Wright, the military Department Commander for Ohio and Kentucky previous to the return of General Buell to Louisville, of course had not the remotest authority to issue commissions or confer rank. Here was the startling revelation, which excited the utmost astonishment in Buell himself, that a mere pretender or impostor had exercised the next highest function of command, to the all but fatal detriment of the whole army. Naturally, the disclosure greatly intensified the indignation and disgust of the commanders under him and under McCook at his failure to relieve the First Corps and to seize the chance, plainly within his grasp, to turn our defeat into a rout of the enemy.
The command of the corps was soon after taken from him. Brief as his career had been, he succeeded not only in proving his incompetency to command, but in incurring the hatred of his subordinates generally, for he lowered himself by abusing officers, whipping teamsters and soldiers, and by other brutal interferences in matters beneath his station.
In closing my description of the battle, I deem it my duty to state that, while I was writing it in the spring of 1896 — nearly thirty-four years after the event — the curious fact was discovered that General Buell was informed, by signal message, as early as 2 P. M., of the rebel attack in force upon General McCook's division. The discovery rests on the evidence of the signal-officer who received the message.
I have to own that, before the firing had ceased altogether, my appetite got the better of my sense of duty and my interest in the battle, and I set out in search of food and drink for myself and horse. Knowing that Buell's headquarters had been stationary all day, I felt sure that my needs could be satisfied there. I found them, after some wandering, at about seven o'clock. Colonel Fry, on my supplication, readily agreed to take care of me, and I was soon devouring a cold supper. My own and my animal's condition may be judged from the fact that I had been in the saddle since three in the morning, less two hours at the most, and had had nothing but a cup of coffee and some hard-tack at that hour. The horse had had no food or water for a whole day, and an orderly had to take him a quarter of a mile for a chance to drink. The Colonel secured me a nook in a tent occupied by staff officers for a resting-place, and a blanket to wrap up in. An almost full moon had arisen and lighted up the field very brightly, but my own and my quadruped's fatigue was too great for another effort, and I remained at headquarters.
General Buell now clearly understood the situation in which the events of the day had left his army, and decided to make a general attack on the enemy at daylight. Dispositions for that purpose were made during the night. The corps commanders were sent for to receive their instructions, and remained in consultation with the General-in-chief till after midnight. The army hardly got any sleep. All the troops at the front were kept moving into proper positions for the onset in the morning. The gathering of our wounded was also continued all night. Being fully informed as to the programme for the morrow, and having arranged to be called at four, I sought sleep early.
When I was aroused at four, I found that nobody else at headquarters had slept. A light breakfast was ready, at which I learned from the staff that, since one o'clock, several reports had come in from our picket-lines that continuous noises had been heard, indicating the movement of artillery and trains and a general retreat of the enemy. Naturally, this was not considered satisfactory news. It was confirmed between six and seven by the forward movement of the corps of Crittenden and Gilbert, which were to attack the enemy's front and left, while McCook remained in reserve. They met no resistance, and fully developed the fact that the whole rebel army had disappeared from our front. They left behind all their dead and severely wounded, and all the captured pieces of artillery but two, and about fifteen hundred of our small arms which they had collected.
General Buell was greatly disappointed, as he had confidently held to the opinion, based on his overestimate of the rebel strength and on the theory that Bragg had to await the approach of Kirby Smith's force, that the rebels would stand and fight. He was so satisfied of this that he would not entertain a suggestion made by General Crittenden to swing his corps around on its left during the night, so as to bring it across Bragg's only line of retreat. Buell did not think, however, that the rebel move meant an abandonment of Kentucky, but simply a falling back to another position with a view to facilitating the junction with Smith. This wrong supposition led him, after crossing the Chaplin River, instead of undertaking at once an energetic pursuit, to get his army into a favorable position just beyond Perryville and there await the arrival of General Sill's division, which took place only on the third day after the battle.
I spent the morning of the 9th in writing my first account of the battle, which a surgeon in charge of an ambulance train of wounded bound for Louisville promised to mail at the first railroad station, and devoted the afternoon to a ride over the entire battle-field. I could easily trace the course of the action by the ghastly lines of dead and severely wounded from the points of the first rebel attacks to where they stopped in the evening. On our side, most of the victims lay in rows along our front, where the most vigorous defence was made. Along Jackson's line, the casualties had obviously been few, showing that most of his division had sought safety in flight. The number of the fallen was greatest along Starkweather's brigade, while Harris's and Lytle's losses appeared to be about even. Nearly all our wounded had been removed either during the action or at night. The direction of the rebel advances was literally marked by trails of blood from a quarter to half a mile long. I counted over five hundred of their dead. Most of them appeared to have been killed instantly by bullets and artillery fire; but many showed by their distorted features that they had passed through more or less prolonged agonies. I found some two score that had been struck and mutilated by cannon-balls and shells — some with upper and lower limbs torn off, others with chest and abdomen laid open, and one with his entire and another with half his head gone. Our sanitary corps was at work gathering up the hundreds of wounded the enemy had mercilessly left on the field. These had suffered indescribably since they fell, from pain, cold, and want of food and water. The hopeless cases were left to die where they lay, and I passed dozens of them writhing in the last agony. The track of slaughter formed awful proof of the blind heroism, born of fanatical devotion to their bad cause, with which the rebels faced—yea, courted—death. At three points I found, in spaces not over five hundred feet long and wide, successive swaths of from twenty to fifty bodies, cut down by our small arms and batteries, showing that the most murderous fire did not stop them. Altogether, the sights formed as horrifying a spectacle as those on the field of Shiloh.
I devoted the 10th to visits to General Rousseau and the headquarters of General Crittenden and his division commanders. All the generals I saw expressed their great disappointment and humiliation at the unsatisfactory results, so far, of the operations of the army since it turned north from Nashville. Several of them charged Bragg's escape without severe punishment directly to mismanagement. The belief was very general that he would not fight again in Kentucky. One of the bitterest talkers was General Rousseau. He denounced General Gilbert without stint for failing to support McCook in the battle. Rousseau, a lawyer and politician at Louisville when the war broke out, an ardent loyalist, and one of the first to raise volunteers in Kentucky for the Union cause, was considered at first a “political” general and did not stand very high with trained military men. But active service in the field had rapidly made him a true soldier and able commander. He manifested great courage at Shiloh, and his conduct in this battle was certainly admirable. His fearlessness under fire shone out all the afternoon. He was middle-aged, of tall, full stature, with fine manly face, and presented a commanding, martial appearance, especially on horseback.
I also had an hour with Colonel Daniel McCook, whose acquaintance I had made during my stay at Leavenworth in the spring of 1859, where he was practising law. Like all the McCooks, he was of a very genial, frank, and yet resolute nature. Like his father and his eldest brother, he was doomed to lose his life in the service of his country. He fell in Sherman's Atlanta campaign. In his anxiety for the reputation of his brother, the General, he fairly boiled with indignation at the derelictions of Buell and Gilbert. He conducted me to the several positions occupied during the conflict, and demonstrated how, on the one hand, the falling back from the position taken from the rebels early in the morning had left Rousseau's right unprotected, and how, on the other, the rebel turning movement might have been used to our advantage by falling upon their flank and rear. He took me to the headquarters of General Sheridan, with whom I had a long talk. I had met him casually more than once during the Corinth campaign as Colonel of the 2d Michigan Cavalry. Up to that time, his army record did not indicate the brilliant future before him. Nor did he impress me as a man of more than ordinary intellectual ability. His exterior was anything but prepossessing. Of hardly middle height, with a round head, low brow, and decidedly coarse Irish features, a disproportionately broad and long body on short legs, he did not make a very imposing personality. He looked like a bold sabreur, but nothing more.
The arrival of General Sill's division being assured for the evening of the 11th, Buell, on the same day, sent out three brigades from Crittenden's and Gilbert's corps, headed by my friend Colonel Edward McCook's and Colonel Gray's mounted commands. Having learned this, I made my way at once to McCook, who was very willing to have me accompany him again. He had been incessantly engaged in outpost and advance-guard duty during the march from Nashville to Louisville and thence to Perryville, and there had been but few days on which his command had not rubbed against the enemy. We followed the pike from Perryville to Harrodsburg, and encountered and skirmished with rebel cavalry, apparently supported by a strong infantry force. But they fell back before evening, and we entered Harrodsburg unopposed, where we found more than a thousand rebel sick and wounded. The next day we moved on toward Dix River, a tributary of the Kentucky, and discovered that the whole rebel army had crossed it. Buell, being uncertain whether the enemy would retreat further or would avail himself of the strong positions which the country between the two rivers afforded and await attack, had ordered his whole army to advance on the same day from a line extending from Harrodsburg to Danville. On the 13th, our movement was continued in a southeasterly direction upon the last-mentioned place. There we ascertained definitely that Bragg was really in full retreat towards the Cumberland River. Even Buell now had to believe this, and he decided upon an energetic pursuit in force. At midnight General Wood's division marched from Danville and came up with and engaged the enemy's rear-guard of cavalry and artillery in the morning at Stanford. But it became evident during the day that the enemy's object was only to obstruct our advance, which he did by destroying bridges and blocking the road by felled trees. I rode with McCook's cavalry brigade in advance of Gilbert's corps through Lancaster to Crab Orchard, but we did not collide again with the rebels. At the last-named point, the several roads followed by the army converged into one, of a very rugged and difficult character, so that the army could have followed the enemy only in one column twenty miles long, which would have been useless and absurd. McCook's and Gilbert's corps were therefore halted on the 15th.
All the reports from the pursuing column confirmed the general impression that Bragg and Kirby Smith were making for Cumberland Gap and would not stop short of East Tennessee. This meant the end of the Kentucky campaign for Buell's army. In view of this, and the destitute condition in which the loss of my travelling-bag had left me, I resolved to return to Louisville, and set out on the return journey on the afternoon of the 15th, bound for Bardstown, the nearest railroad station to which trains were known to be running. My route was via Stanford, Danville, Perryville, and Springfield, and I reached the railroad late on the 17th. While riding along the turnpike that intersected the battle-field about two miles west of Perryville, I smelled a sickening stench, obviously arising from a spot close to the highway. Suspecting an effect of the battle, I turned into a field to discover the cause of it. Not more than a hundred yards from the road, a terrible sight shocked me. In a clear space of not over an acre, there were more than fifty dead rebels, off whom at least a hundred hogs were making a sickening feast. The fallen Confederates had evidently been overlooked by our burying parties. Decomposition had swelled the bodies into awful monstrosities, and the nasty beasts were hard at work disembowelling them and gnawing into the skulls for their brains. Such is war!
I reached Louisville on the 18th. I wired immediately to the Tribune that the campaign was ended, and that no important events were likely to occur for some time, and asked for instructions. The next morning the answer came to report in person in New York as soon as possible, which obviously meant a change of my field of duty. The order was very welcome, and I started for the East on the 20th.
General Buell was relieved from the command of the Army of the Cumberland soon afterwards, and General Rosecrans put in his place. The change was inevitable. The Government, it will tie remembered, had already tried to replace him with General Thomas, and was now determined upon removing him. The loyal public and the governments of the Western States again demanded his displacement, more vehemently than before. The greater portion of his army also wished for a new commander, and Buell himself was conscious that his prestige was gone, and intimated to the Government that he expected to be relieved. He never was given another active command, and takes his place in history as one of the failures of the war, beside Frémont, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Pope, and Halleck. The main cause of his downfall being the delay in his march to East Tennessee in consequence of Halleck's order to repair the Memphis & Charleston Railroad as he advanced, Buell may be considered a victim of circumstances as well as of his own personal defects. He possessed much natural ability, and probably more theoretical knowledge of the science of war than any other Union commander. But the latter acquirement proved more of a detriment than an advantage to him, for it made him too prone, in preparing his army for active operations, to require a greater degree of readiness than the known worse condition of his adversaries called for. And again, he was too much inclined to base his deductions as to the purposes of the enemy on what, according to the theory of strategy, leaders of armies ought to do under certain circumstances. The rebel commanders regularly set his calculations at naught by defying theory and rule in taking the offensive, whether their troops were well clad or shod, or well supplied with provisions and transportation or not, and passing over mountains and rivers and through sterile regions that he assumed to be insurmountable obstacles. The subsequent publications in his defence show this short coming clearly, and also bring out his excessive caution very distinctly. He was incapable of bold resolution and daring action, contrasting strikingly in this respect with the Confederate generals. Notwithstanding the uniform superiority of his army in numbers, armament, equipment and supplies, he was (with the exception of the second day at Shiloh, when he acted under orders) always on the defensive. If the conditions had been reversed and his antagonists had enjoyed such superiority, they would doubtless have made short work of him. General Buell is entitled to full credit, however, for always faithfully and tirelessly discharging his duties to the best of his ability. The charges made in the press and otherwise at the time, that he was at heart not loyal to the Union, and even sympathized with the Southern cause, were utterly unfounded and calumnious.