Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Into the Tornado of War: Perryville - The First Battle for the 21st Michigan (photos from the 150th Anniversary Reenactment)

The 21st Michigan reenactors on the battlefield in which the original men fought almost 150 years to the day that this photo was taken
~ Back in early September, 150 years to the day in fact, we in the 21st Michigan reenacting unit did a scenario of the mustering in of the 21st Michigan men into military service in the same town - Ionia, Michigan - in which it originally took place. If you recall, I wrote a POSTING about it. 
Well, now just as originally happened back in 1862, our boys went off to fight a battle a mere month after mustering in. It took place in Perryville, Kentucky, and the boys were as green as any could be with little time for marching and drilling. Just like the previous mustering-in post linked above, I am using excerpts and snippets from the book "Into the Tornado of War: A History of the 21st Michigan Infantry in the Civil War" by James Genco to give the reader an idea of what it was like for these young men with little training to go off to what could almost be considered a foreign land to fight in a battle they were clearly not prepared for. 
On October 4th through the 7th of this year (2012) the town of Perryville held a 150th anniversary reenactment of the battle. I did not attend but my son, Robert did. It's his photos you see illustrating this post and were taken either by him or by another with his camera.
I hope you enjoy it.
By the way, if you haven't read the mustering-in posting, you might want to read that one as a prelude to this one.
At 4:00 a.m. on September 12, 1862, after only two weeks of training and less than four weeks before going into battle at Perryville, the 21st Michigan left camp Sigel for Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite the early hour, a large crowd had gathered at the village square to see them off. It was a beautiful morning and the residents (of Ionia) had prepared a large breakfast. The Ionia Cornet band was also present to lighten the mood with patriotic tunes.
 ~The men arrived in Cincinnati on Sunday September 14 after an arduous journey including a train accident and hot weather during the day with dropping temps at night, making for a very uncomfortable couple of days.~
It was a beautiful Sunday morning as the men of the 21st Michigan climbed down from the train  and formed in line of march to the accompaniment of church bells. To the frightened people of Cincinnati, the Michigan men, along with other troops arriving from Midwestern States, were saviors. For over a week the city had been in a state of anxiety, with Confederate forces hovering in northern Kentucky a few miles from Cincinnati.
As the Union soldiers made their way through the streets to the center of town, hundreds of citizens lined the streets to welcome and cheer them on. When they reached the Fifth Street market place, the tired and hungry soldiers were grateful to find a large breakfast awaiting them, compliments of the people of the city. Amid the cheers of their hosts on that clear fall morning, the men enjoyed what was to be their "last square meal" as a regiment until the close of the war.
With the Confederate forces menacingly near, Union General Lew Wallace had ordered the construction of a series of fortifications and redoubts in an eight mile arc in the hills around Covington. Many of the merchants of Cincinnati had closed their shops to join in the construction. Women supported the effort by bringing food and water to the weary men,
Around 1:00 p.m., the regiment reformed in a column of march and continued on through the streets until they reached the banks of the Ohio River. Since the construction of a permanent suspension bridge had been delayed by the war, the military engineers had erected a pontoon bridge to connect Cincinnati to Covington, Kentucky.
The Michigan men found the Kentucky foothills scenic but scarred with the newly erected earthworks. Private Arza Bartholomew of Company G described the area to his wife as "very hilly and broken," adding "every hill is fortified. Rifle pits are dug all over the country."
Over the next few weeks the 21st Michigan, along with regiments from the other Midwestern States, made their way south in Kentucky.  On October 7, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell's army, in pursuit of Confederate General Braxton Bragg, converged on the small crossroads town of Perryville in three columns. Union forces first skirmished with Confederate cavalry on the Springfield Pike before the fighting became more general, on Peters Hill, when the Confederate infantry arrived. Both sides were desperate to get access to fresh water.

The Battle of Perryville October 8, 1862
During the predawn hours, Federal troops continued to arrive near Perryville, and by sunrise a substantial part of Buell's army was nearing the field of battle. Throughout the morning scattered skirmishing occurred. 
It was around this time the 21st Michigan arrived on the battlefield.
Heavy fighting ensued as the Confederates attacked their position on Chaplin Hills. There were moments when the battle reached a crescendo and the Federal line approached the breaking point, but the Union men held, and nightfall brought an end to the fighting with neither side having gained any significant ground. 

(It was) the largest battle fought in Kentucky during the war. Perryville witnessed horrific combat. Neither side could claim a clear tactical victory, but the Federals held the field and ended Bragg's invasion, thus giving them an indisputable strategic victory.
The pre-dawn hours of October 9 found the Federals remaining in line of battle, ready to renew the contest should the Confederates  attack. As they looked across the battlefield in the first hours of daylight, it was a gruesome sight.
 In his memoirs, George Taylor wrote:
"The next day we saw some of the fruits of war - the harvest of death in the valley between the battery-crowned hills. Coming down from the hill of our first battle experience, we saw dead men thicker than I have ever seen them since...in our little valley in front of our battery, the bodies of the slain were almost like saw-logs in a boom-blue and butternut in hit-or-miss fashion."

The Battle of Perryville is considered a strategic Union victory, sometimes called the Battle for Kentucky, since Bragg withdrew to Tennessee soon thereafter. The Union retained control of the critical border state of Kentucky for the remainder of the war.
The cart pulled by oxen gave water out to the men
Between the mustering-in ceremonial reenactment in September and the Perryville battle here in October, 2012 has been an exceptional year for those of us in the 21st Michigan. To be able - as soldier and civilian - to bring the past to life in both cases on the same grounds and on the same dates as the events originally occurred is something that not every living historian has the opportunity to do, so we in the 21st do feel blessed that we could do it.
And what an honor it was.


1 comment:


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.