On October 8, 1862, Union and Confederate forces fought at Perryville, Kentucky, in a one-day battle that repulsed the South’s attempt to bring that border state into the Confederacy. Although the summer of 1862 began promisingly for the Confederate cause, the fall brought failure and disappointment.
By early September, Southern armies were marching north taking the offensive on both the eastern and western fronts. Flush with victory after the Second Battle of Manassas, General Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland. Moving westward, Generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg spearheaded a Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Their goal was to bring Kentucky into the Confederacy and refresh their armies with new recruits.
In August, General Smith led Confederate forces away from Knoxville, Tennessee, through south-central Kentucky to win an engagement at Richmond, Kentucky. Victorious, he moved on to capture Lexington—a city of considerable Southern sympathies. (Smith’s name also is seen frequently as Edmund Kirby-Smith, though biographies tend to agree that the hyphen was added by his family in the years following his death. Although some sources index his name under Kirby-Smith, most contemporary sources, and most Civil War historians, have continued to use Smith.) One of the Confederacy’s best cavalry officers was Lexington resident John Hunt Morgan who successfully targeted the rear of the Union lines in a spectacular raid around the Union Army.
Morgan in Kentucky
The gray figures of Morgan’s men appeared out of the distance. They showed the strain of a hurried and harassed march; both men and beast were weary. Four of the men stopped before me perched on the fence and said, ‘Son take these canteen and fill them with water.’ I didn’t refuse but hurried across the road to Mr. Alexander’s Robinson’s well where two or three other boys were drawing water for the Raider’s men with a windlass…
After this short period of service we were mustered out; and Morgan, the raider, with his men went their way with their jangling and clanking of arms to disappear in the horizon toward old Paris.
“Morgan’s Raid as Mr. Johnson Remembers,” Grace Monroe, interviewer, circa 1938-39. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940
With Smith ensconced at Lexington, Bragg positioned himself about a hundred miles northwest of the city. Meanwhile, Union General Don Carlos Buell left Tennessee in pursuit of the invaders. After much delay, Buell clashed with Bragg at Bardstown, Kentucky, where Bragg hoped to join Smith’s army. Outnumbered, the Southern forces withdrew.
Parched from a long campaign in drought-stricken country, gunfire was exchanged on the evening of October 7 near Perryville over control of a few small pools of water. Union troops under command of Philip Sheridan failed to gain the upper hand, but at sunrise they attacked again.
On October 8 the encounter escalated from a fight over water to a full-fledged battle for control of Kentucky. The confrontation lasted all day without victory for either side. When the morning of October 9 dawned, Union forces moved to confront the enemy again only to discover Southern troops had retreated leaving the field in the hands of the North.
Although Bragg remained in the area for the next three months, the Confederacy never again mounted a sustained effort against Kentucky. After the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky remained in the Union, albeit uneasily allied with other loyal states.
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