Colonel John C. Starkweather’s Report on His Brigade at the Battle of Perryville
In the summer of 1862, Confederate forces invaded Kentucky to capture the state and bring it into the Confederacy. A border state with slavery, Kentucky’s residents had loyalties on both sides in the war, and regiments of soldiers served in both the Confederate and Union armies. The campaign reached its climax at the Battle of Perryville on October 8th, a small town in central Kentucky, when the Confederate Army of the Mississippi under General Braxton Bragg battled the Union’s Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell. The Army of the Ohio consisted of three Corps with a total of approximately 55,300 men and 147 artillery pieces while Bragg had about 16,800 men and 56 cannons. While the numbers appear to be a lopsided matchup in favor of the Union, most of the fighting was borne by the 13,000 man 1st Corps, commanded by Major General Alexander McCook. Due to the topography of the area, Buel was in an acoustic shadow and could not hear the sounds of battle. Because of this, he did not commit reinforcements until late in the battle, and those were only a couple of brigades.
One unit in McCook’s corps was the 28th Brigade of Brigadier General Lovell H. Rousseau’s 3rd Division. The 28th Brigade consisted of the 1st and
21st Wisconsin, 24th Illinois, and 79th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments, as well as two batteries of artillery (12 guns total). These batteries were the 4th Indiana Battery of Light Artillery and Battery A of the 1st Kentucky Light Artillery. Colonel John C. Starkweather, a former commander of the 1st Wisconsin, was the brigade commander.
When Starkweather’s brigade arrived at Perryville, the fighting was already underway. The brigade went into position on a ridge on the far left flank of the Union line, with the 21st Wisconsin in a cornfield a hundred yards or so in front of the others. A brigade under the command of Brigadier General William R. Terrill had been driven back by a Confederate attack, and retreated in disorder past the 21st Wisconsin and into Starkweather’s main line before reforming. The Rebels, mostly Tennesseans under Brigadier Generals George E. Maney, A.P. Stewart, and Daniel Donelson of Major General Benjamin Cheatham’s Division advanced up the ridge towards Starkweather’s position. Infantry and artillery on both sides were heavily engaged, with the Federals repulsing an initial Confederate assault.
The Confederates attempted a second assault, and aided by enfilading artillery fire from Captain William Carnes battery, had better success. With his own artillery threatened with capture, Starkweather ordered a withdrawal to a hill to the west. It was a slow, orderly, fighting withdrawal, but half of the Federal cannons were abandoned due to attrition in horses and gun crews. The other six were dragged back to the new position and resumed firing. The Federals, now in a highly defendable position that included a stone wall, were able to hold the line and the exhausted Confederates finally withdrew.
Starkweather’s after action report described the fighting. The Battle of Perryville was also called the Battle of Chaplin Hills.
Chaplin Hills, October 11, 1862.
Sir: I have the honor to report that the Twenty-eighth Brigade, composed of the Seventy-ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, Twenty-fourth Illinois Volunteers, First and Twenty-first Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, commanded respectively, by Col. H. A. Hambright, Captain [August] Mauff (Colonel Mihalotzy being absent, sick), Lieut. Col. George B. Bingham, and Col. Benjamin J. Sweet; First Kentucky Artillery Capt. D.C. Stone, and Fourth Indiana Artillery, Capt. A. K. Bush. left Maxville [Mackville], under orders, on the 8th instant, the Twenty-first Wisconsin marching in the ear as guard to the division ammunition train, the Seventeenth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, Col. John H. McHenry, jr., having been sent to Springfield as guard to division supply train, and arrived on the field of battle at about 1.30 p. m., having marched 12 miles, about 3 miles thereof being through fields, woods, etc. Finding the troops already engaged well on the right, center, and left, and thinking the extreme left position most accessible, and, from appearances, one that should be held at all hazards, I placed my command at once in position facing the enemy’s right (countermarching a. portion of my brigade for such purpose), the Twenty-fourth Illinois and Seventy- ninth Pennsylvania forming the right wing, to be supported by the First Wisconsin and Twenty-first Wisconsin, when the last mentioned regiment should arrive, and holding my two batteries to act as the disposition of the enemy might require . General [D. S.] Donelson’s brigade at this moment engaged the Twenty-fourth Illinois and Seventy-ninth Pennsylvania on the right, but were driven from the field, after most desperate fighting. While this engagement was progressing, I placed, by your order, Bush’s battery on the extreme left, Stone’s battery next on its right, the First Wisconsin to the rear of Bush, to support him, and the Twenty-first Wisconsin, which had arrived (excepting two companies acting as flankers to the ammunition train), to the front of the two batteries, in a cornfield at the foot of the hill, upon which artillery was placed, forming it at once in line of battle. This disposition of my forces was hardly complete before General Maney’s brigade
attacked me in front, assisted by a battery, and General Donelson’s brigade again attacked on the extreme right, the enemy at the same time placing a battery on my extreme left, upon a well-chosen position, to flank me. The flank movement on the left was prevented by Stone’s battery shelling the position chosen, and Donelson’s brigade was again forced to retire by the well-directed and continuous fire of the Twenty-fourth Illinois and Seventy-ninth Pennsylvania. I then ordered the Twenty-first Wisconsin to fire and charge the front, but, being a new regiment, their colonel being severely wounded and their major killed at about the time such order was given, no field officer was left to carry the command into execution, although several companies, hearing the order, attempted to obey it, but being sorely pressed by the brigade and battery in front, it retired in some disorder and confusion. I immediately advanced the First Wisconsin to the front, supported by an oblique fire from the Seventy-ninth and with canister from my artillery, and held such position until many of the artillery horses were killed and the balance became unmanageable, creating such confusion that proper discharges could not be continued. Other regiments on my right at this time were retiring, and being unable to obtain any support from them, I ordered the Seventy-ninth, Twenty-fourth, and First to hold their positions while Stone’s battery, of four guns, and Bush’s battery, of two (all that was manageable), were retired to a new and safer position. The retirement was made in good order, and the fire from the artillery again opened. A part of the First Wisconsin then charged to the front, capturing the colors of the First Tennessee. The fire from the Seventy-ninth and Twenty-fourth held the enemy in check; while the balance of the First Wisconsin took by hand every remaining gun and caisson from the field. The enemy by this time was completely routed, the firing ceased on our front and flank, and the regiments were retired to the support of the batteries in their new position, which was occupied until 12 o’clock at night, when a change was made by your order.
My loss in officers and men was terrible indeed.
Where all did so nobly and well, one cannot be mentioned without doing injustice to others; but I must acknowledge the great service rendered me by my Staff officers, Lieutenants Franklin, Searles, and Bingham, in carrying orders to and fro in the midst of the terrible fire surrounding them.
Trusting that the brigade will receive at your hands the proper mention which it deserves for its bravery, good conduct, and magnificent fighting, I subscribe myself, yours, to command,
JOHN C. STARKWEATHER,
Colonel First Wisconsin, Commanding Twenty-eighth Brigade.
Capt. W. P. McDOWELL,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Third Division
In his own report, General McCook stated “The posting of Starkweather’s brigade and Stone’s and Bush’s batteries saved my left and secured to us the Mackville Road, upon which stood our entire ammunition train and ambulances”. Starkweather’s brigade had successfully held the left flank, but as he had written, it came at a high cost. Casualties for the brigade were listed as 170 killed, 477 wounded, and 109 captured or missing, or about 30% of those engaged. (Civil War casualties often vary slightly depending on the source).
During the night, Bragg learned that the rest of the Army of the Ohio was arriving at Perryville. With no reinforcements of his own, and a poor supply situation, the Confederate commander elected to withdraw from Kentucky. The Battle of Perryville, or Chaplin Hills, was the largest Civil War battle fought in the Bluegrass State. Although there would be smaller actions throughout the war, the state would remain under Union control for the rest of the war.
“On the Field at Perryville” by Charles C. Gilbert. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. XVI, Part 1.
Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle by Kenneth W. Noe.
Staff Ride Handbook for the Battle of Perryville, 8 October 1862 by Dr. Robert S. Cameron.
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