Established February 26, 1936
On October 8, 1862 the fate of Kentucky and the upper South hung in the balance. Confederate and Union forces massed for a battle outside the little Kentucky town of Perryville. The winner could claim not only Kentucky, but could also force the Union Army out of the South. Since the secession of eleven Southern states had formed the Confederacy, and the beginnings of hostilities between Confederate and Union forces in April 1861, Kentucky had desperately tried to maintain its neutrality. Caught between two powerful belligerents, the commonwealth could easily have become a major battlefield of the Civil War. For a brief period in 1861, both Confederacy and Union respected Kentucky’s neutrality. Both President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were native Kentuckians. Neither leader wished to provoke Kentucky into taking sides. Lincoln ordered his forces to treat Kentucky carefully. Davis also remained hesitant in permitting his generals to invade the state.
By the late summer of 1861 all hopes of Kentucky remaining neutral during the Civil War had vanished. Both Confederate and Union forces occupied the state. Southern sympathizers set up a Confederate government in Kentucky while the legislature in Frankfort adopted a pro-Union stand. While more Kentuckians joined the Union Army, thousands joined the ranks of the Confederacy. In 1862, the Confederacy planned to invade Kentucky. The South hoped that Kentuckians would flock to their banner and help drive Union forces from their state.
Generals Braxton Bragg and Kirby-Smith led the Confederate invasion forces into Kentucky in the summer of 1862. Bragg’s primary goal was to take Louisville. If he did that the South would control one of the major cities on the Ohio River. However, no sooner than he had crossed the state line his plans seemed to change. He did not proceed toward Louisville and he allowed the Union Army under the command of General Don Carlos Buell to gather his forces and strengthen Federal defenses in and around the city. Frustrated, Bragg turned his army toward central Kentucky and the state capital at Frankfort.
On October 4, 1862, Bragg and his army occupied Frankfort and proceeded to install Richard Hawes the provisional Confederate Governor of Kentucky. Before the ceremonies concluded, Union cavalry approached Frankfort. Bragg and his forces, along with Richard Hawes, retreated to Lexington. In the meantime General Buell and 58,000 men moved toward Bragg’s position. The Confederate Army marched toward the town of Harrodsburg to unite with Kirby-Smith by way of the small village of Perryville. There on October 8, 1862, the two forces met in one of the most intense battles of the Civil War.
Skirmishes occurred throughout the morning of the battle, but not until about 2 p.m. did the intense fighting begin. The Battle of Perryville lasted for over five hours. The ferocity of the struggle made Perryville one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Due to a drought that had dried up a number of water sources, both armies suffered from thirst and exhaustion. By 7 p.m. the fight had nearly ended. By midnight Bragg ordered his forces to retreat from the field toward Harrodsburg.
The Battle of Perryville had inflicted heavy casualties on both sides. Bragg’s losses included 510 men killed, 2,635 wounded, and 251 missing. Buell lost 845 men killed, 2,851 wounded, and 489 taken prisoner. Altogether, the Battle of Perryville cost over 7,000 casualties. Bragg decided to retreat from Kentucky to Tennessee. For all practical purposes Kentucky had been saved for the Union. Within a short time Tennessee would also fall to the advancing Union Army. Confederate General Basil Duke eloquently summed up the effects of Bragg’s abandonment of Kentucky. “On the 10th of October more than fifty thousand Confederate soldiers were upon the soil of Kentucky…the first of November they were all gone, and with them departed all hope, perhaps, of Southern independence.”
The Union dead at Perryville were buried along the Springfield Pike, but later reinterred in Union cemeteries at Camp Nelson and Lebanon. The Confederate dead lay on the battlefield for three days before being buried on the Bottom family farm. In 1901 the Perryville Commission bought the burial ground from the Bottom family to honor and maintain the graves of the fallen Confederate soldiers. In 1902, the Commission and the state of Kentucky dedicated a Confederate monument in memory of the soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Perryville. The Perryville Commission took care of the battlefield and cemetery until February 26, 1936 when the Kentucky State and Government Reorganization Act made the site a part of the Kentucky State Parks System.
From 1936 through the 1940s, few improvements took place at the park. However, beginning in 1948 the park underwent extensive renovations. The grounds were cleared, the battlefield monument was restored, and workers constructed a picnic area and shelter. Improvements continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Construction of a new museum added much to the interpretation of the Battle of Perryville.
One of the highlights of the Perryville Battlefield State Park is the annual reenactment of the Battle of Perryville held on the weekend closest to October 8, the anniversary of the battle. This popular event involves hundreds of reenactors who camp, drill and provide demonstrations of military life during the Civil War.