Mr. Cotter Gets Gobbled at Perryville

The Battle of Perryville fought October 8, 1862 was a tremendously trying experience for the officers and men of General Alexander McCook's command; it was a poorly fought battle in many respects, one dare say it was an utterly chaotic engagement where the newly raised troops of Don Carlos Buell's army received their first lessons in the horrors of Civil War combat. But for Major Charles S. Cotter, chief of artillery on McCook's staff, the battle ended in a rather embarrassing fashion. As the sun was setting, he rode straight into Major General Leonidas Polk's headquarters camp and was captured by no less a personage than Bishop Polk himself.

Major Charles S. Cotter stands among this group of Federal officers atop Point Lookout at Chattanooga, Tennessee in this image dating from early 1864. Cotter had led Battery A of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery at the beginning of the war and served on McCook's staff through the Chickamauga campaign. (Library of Congress)

At the end of October, Major Cotter was given leave to return home to Ravenna, Ohio and on the way stopped into the offices of the Cleveland Morning Leader to relate the circumstances of his capture and his short experience with the Army of Tennessee as Polk's "guest." Cotter's account was published on the fourth page of the October 30, 1862 issue.

Return of Major Cotter: Major Cotter of General McCook's staff, who was captured on the 8th instant at the Battle of Perryville, reached here yesterday morning having been paroled. He was captured at the close of the battle when it was almost dark, having mistaken the enemy's lines for our own. He had the supervision of 26 guns in the fight which were located on different parts of the field. He had left a battery at a certain point to visit a battery further down the line and was not absent over 20 minutes. While he was gone, however, the former battery fell back, and the enemy following up took the position they had just vacated.

Major Charles S. Cotter of Ravenna, Ohio

Major Cotter, in riding back, heard the cheers of the Rebels, but supposed they came from his own men, not knowing that they had fallen back. He rode up and inquired the cause of the cheering. They said, "We have driven the enemy- they are running." He replied, "You will find plenty of gray coats down below there, yet," meaning Rebels. This reply caused an officer to inquire "Who are you, sir?" Cotter said "I am Major Cotter of General McCook's staff." The Confederate replied "And I am Major General Polk of the Confederate Army, and you are my prisoner." The Major saw that he had got into the wrong box, but had no alternative but to submit.

Major General Leonidas Polk

Before he left the spot, seven other Federal staff officers rode up and were captured as he was. General McCook's ambulance, containing all the General's clothing except what he had on, the carpet bags of his staff (they were not allowed any other baggage on the march), refreshments, etc was driven to the spot and fell into the hands of the Rebels which rejoiced them greatly. With the ambulance were two Negroes whom General Polk recognized as slaves who had belonged to him in Tennessee and had run away. This was very gratifying to the Bishop without doubt.

Although it was promised that Major Cotter's private property should be respected, nearly everything was taken from him, even the spurs from his boots, his sword-knot, etc. He had $200 in greenbacks which were not taken until he reached the lines when paroled. Then Morgan's Rangers took all but $10 of it. The Major says he was treated very kindly except being robbed. He was taken about ten miles from Perryville and was paroled and sent to our lines. (Cotter was paroled on October 10, 1862 at Harrodsburg, Kentucky.)
A not-very-complimentary view of a corpulent General Alexander McCook as depicted by Adolph Metzner of the 32nd Indiana Infantry during the summer of 1862. Was the General's broad-brimmed sombrero among the captured items at Perryville? 

The Major saw Generals Bragg, Cheatham, Tilghman, Buckner, and others and talked with them. General Bragg said the Battle of Perryville was the most closely contested fight of the war. Our men supposed that they were only fighting the rear guard of Bragg's army in whose pursuit they were, but after an artillery duel at long range which lasted for some time, they discovered that the whole of Bragg's army was pitted against them. The Major says, had Buell sent two brigades to their aid at 4 p.m. who were but from one to four miles distant, the Rebels, who were defeated, would have been captured or broken up. 

The Major says the Rebels fought with desperate bravery. They attempted, at one stage of the fight, to flank his batteries. They marched up in line right deep and although the grape from his guns made chasms in the line yards in width, they would close up and march steadily on. Mortal men could not endure the fire, however, and they at length fell sullenly back. At one time there was a hand to hand fight over Parson's Battery, in which clubbed muskets were used. The battery was three times captured by the Rebels and three times taken by our own men. It was during these close and desperate encounters that the brave General Terrill fell.

Major Cotter lost none of the 26 guns under his command and escaped any serious injury. Riding through a cornfield, a 12-pdr ball struck the ground directly beneath his horse's belly, the concussion knocking horse and rider completely over amid a cloud of dust. The Major then mounted a cavalry horse he found and had not been on him long before a solid shot came along and struck the horse in the hip. The Major's leg was badly sprained by the horse falling on it. He then went back and got his first horse which had recovered from the shock and scare to which the 12-pdr shot had treated him. The horse was a favorite of the Major's and he regretted being compelled to leave it with the Rebels.

The Rebels had 63 pieces of artillery and our side had 43. The determined bravery evinced on both sides is warmly spoken of by Major Cotter. He said for 40 minutes each line stood a murderous fire from the other line without wavering. During the artillery firing, which opened the engagement, three of the enemy's pieces were dismounted by our artillerists as a Rebel officer admitted to Cotter. None of our pieces were dismounted by the enemy.

Confederate prisoners of war from the 20th Tennessee Infantry taken at Missionary Ridge more than a year after Perryville. (Library of Congress)

The Major found the Confederate soldiers in a condition of great filth and destitution. Some of them had shirts made of carpets, table cloths, old calico dresses, blankets, etc. They were greasy from head to foot. They carry their rations of pork in a haversack by their side and the grease running down their pantaloons, which are wore as long as they will hang together, gives them a filthy appearance besides creating an odor perfectly sickening. The Major says it "turned his stomach." 

Field officers can be distinguished but line officers cannot. Colonel have three stars on the collar, lieutenant colonels two, and majors one. Sometimes a line officer has on a sword or a sash captured from a Federal officer, and he is usually very proud of it. The men look pale and callow on account of hard marching and short rations. They told the Major that when they came from Chattanooga they marched seven days with rations of three ears of corn, each picking up a little something on the way. They are desperate, and fight desperately. They said they didn't want to fight the Western troops but expressed very sanguine desires with regards to meeting the Yankees. They wanted to know if we in the North were getting about sick of the war. They said they were, but added that they would never be subjugated. Lincoln's proclamation [Emancipation Proclamation] was denounced with great bitterness by Bragg, Polk, and the rest. 

A determined unidentified Confederate with an huge Bowie knife, musket, and revolver. Cotter said that men like these told him that they were tired of the war but would never be subjugated. 


  1. I read this with great interest. Perryville is one of my Faves. I have been there many times and have met great friends there. My GGG Uncle Captain Leroy S Bell 3rd OVI fought in the battle under McCook/Rousseau/Lytle/Beatty.


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