No Victory for Us: Graphic Account of the Aftermath of Perryville
The following account of the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville was written by Captain Henry C. Greiner of Co. A of the 31st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Greiner’s regiment had witnessed the battle but played no active role in the engagement of October 8, 1862. But his account of assisting with the burial of the dead in the days following the engagement is extraordinarily detailed and emotional.
"On descending a little hill, we found two soldiers digging a grave under the shade of a tree. I halted the command at this spot and they ceased their labors to answer our oft-repeated questions as to McCook’s headquarters. They could tell us nothing definite, stating that they belonged to one of Sheridan’s new regiments. They were using the pick and shovel to bury their dead brother pointing to a small soldier who lay near another few feet away. By this time the soldiers’ feeling so overcame them that they ceased speaking of him. I stepped over to look at him. There was almost a smile on his young face. He could not have suffered for he was shot through the heart. After one of the brothers had somewhat mastered his emotions, he said, “It is the thought of our mother, when she hears of his death, that is so painful to us,” he said. “She never consented to his going as he is only 17 and was never very healthy. I suppose for that reason he was always her favorite. We know when she receives this sad message it will almost kill her. Her letters were all about Willie. Here is one he received before we left Louisville. We took it out of his blouse near the spot where he was shot; it had bloodstains on it," Greiner recalled.
The following excerpt comes from his 1908 book General Phil Sheridan as I Knew Him.
A beautiful day it was on the 1st of October 1862, a day so pleasant that it should have been devoted to something less cruel than war, but Buell’s army of 60,000 swarmed out of Louisville from every avenue leading South. Everyone knew it was to give battle to Bragg who was not very distant and evidently prepared for it.
Those hosts in blue, with colors flying, marching with buoyant step to the music of so many bands, was an inspiring sight. Everyone seemed to be in fine spirits. I must modify that- all except our regiment. So far as I could see, it was the only exception with nearly all of our men looking sour and disappointed because they had been prevented from spending their money in Louisville. The paymaster had paid every regiment in the brigade but ours, and when he made his appearance to pay us an order came to strike tents and move. Oh, the disgust and disappointment of that portion that so strongly desired to invest their new greenbacks in hilariousness! When they saw the other regiments paid, they looked forward with certainty that in a few hours would come their turn. They had promised themselves a good time, and when almost within their grasp it was cruelly snatched away. Words cannot express their indignation, but there was only one course to pursue: to be resigned, a virtue which they had learned soon after volunteering.
A rumor was current that as soon as Bragg was whipped (our army always counted on being victorious), the paymaster would follow to pay their few unpaid regiments. But this was a poor consolation. They wanted their crisp greenbacks while in the city, besides, they might be killed. They could have no enjoyment in the country. For two days some of my boys muttered and grumbled like children. By that time our advance began to see and skirmish with Bragg’s rear. This we knew meant battle in a few days. He was keeping us back to give him more time to select and prepare his ground.
On the 7th, Mitchell was in the advance and kept up an uninterrupted skirmish. Notwithstanding the lateness of the season, the heat was intense with a drought that had prevailed for over two months. Our tongues were parched, and our lips cracked for want of moisture, our mouths filled with dust. We bivouacked on the side of the road that night. Very early in the morning, Sheridan’s division passed us not over ten feet distant but so dense was the dust that we could not distinguish a man. I noticed one of my men had rolled over in his sleep quite near me and that I could reach him. His features were almost obliterated by dust and perspiration. Curiosity prompted me to see how much dust I could gather with a single grasp of my hand, so I reached over, securing a handful. This experiment did not in the least disturb him and he continued his loud snoring without interruption.
Before we were up we heard firing in our front, not over a mile from us. We were soon in line and moving toward the sound. We did not go far until we halted. A few soldiers had saved a little water to make coffee in the morning, and it was quickly prepared. After breakfast I doubt if there remained a gallon of water in the whole battalion. We moved again crossing a deep, dry valley. On ascending the opposite hill, we came within the effects of the fight which by this time was becoming general on our center and left. The first thing that attracted our attention was a soldier laying in the road with his head cut off by a solid shot evenly to the chin, having the appearance of having been done with a cleaver.
We now came near the fighting without firing a shot; we were held in reserve. From the wounded who were brought to the rear we learned that Sheridan was fighting in our front. I watched with great interest. I could not very distinctly see General Alexander McCook, who commanded our left, because of the hills and the woods but we could hear very heavy fighting. He was getting the worst of it. We could plainly see the charges and countercharges of Sheridan’s division with the deadly effects of the artillery as the enemy massed to charge McCook. From what I was able to learn, it was only Sheridan’s fierce fighting that saved McCook.
During this hard fighting on our left which threatened that wing with destruction, you might wonder what our right was doing. We had miles of men standing in line of battle for hours waiting to be ordered in, but such was the mismanagement that they received no order, nor did they see an enemy. There was not a man in my company so stupid that he did not see the glaring mistake and become indignant. I could hear them say “Why doesn’t Buell our right forward to save the left and easily secure a victory?” How those men cursed! What little they could see and hear from those who came back to us of how our left was hammered and broken, while thousands stood within supporting distance and were not ordered up. This fact enraged them. They were intelligent enough to see that a great opportunity was lost. There was bitter blasphemy coming from many parched lips for they knew that the wasted opportunity would compel them to face the foe again with probably less advantage to us, thus prolonging the war.
|The army mule|
As we were coming into range of the enemy’s guns, I saw on a slight eminence about 20 steps to my right a mule standing broadside to us, head up, ears pointing back, with a cannon ball hole through his neck and such a look of interest in his steadfast gaze upon the battle that one might suppose he was enjoying the fight. I could distinctly see through the neck. I said to my first sergeant who was walking by my side, “Garrett, look at that mule!” He stared for some time as though fearing his eyes were deceiving him, and I shall not forget his quaint saying, “That would be a damned good place for a window!” Notwithstanding we were in the midst of stirring scene all that day, I could not forget his reply which still causes me a smile. The mule continued on that knoll, apparently looking at Sheridan’s division fighting until we had passed out of sight, but his lifeblood was dripping so rapidly as we passed him that in a few hours at most he gave up his life of toil and hardship.
Around dusk the battle was over. We lost nearly 5,000 killed and wounded. It was no victory for us, notwithstanding that we held the field. The enemy had accomplished their object, crippling us to such an extent that we must halt for a day at least, thus giving them time to get the supplies they had accumulated in Kentucky out of the way. We laid down that night expecting to resume action in the morning. It was rumored we would attack at daylight, but when daylight came the enemy was not in our front. We afterward heard that it was not Buell’s original intention to fight until the next day; that it had been brought on by Sheridan driving the enemy from a spring for which his men were famishing, and in the attempt to retake it forces were added to each side until the battle became general.
|Major General Don Carlos Buell|
We sat in the dust that morning drinking our coffee and eating our hard bread, disappointed and gloomy. During our march from Mississippi to the Ohio, we had formed a high opinion of General Buell. No man could have moved that army with greater celerity and regularity than he. He was certainly a fine organizer, but he lacked the faculty for taking advantage of an opportunity and I think he was too deficient in nerve to assume great responsibilities.
About 9 o’clock that morning, an order came to me through our adjutant to report at General McCook’s headquarters with my company and there to obtain picks and shovels to assist in burying the dead. Before leaving, I tried to ascertain where General McCook’s headquarters were located but could get no reliable information; the best I could learn was that it was to our left about three miles. We started in that direction, inquiring of every mounted officer we met the whereabouts of McCook’s headquarters, but no one could give us the required information. In this indefinite manner we roved over this battlefield for nearly two hours when my attention was called to some soldiers digging not far away. We headed for that party, hoping to hear something of our destination.
On descending a little hill, we found two soldiers digging a grave under the shade of a tree. I halted the command at this spot and they ceased their labors to answer our oft-repeated questions as to McCook’s headquarters. They could tell us nothing definite, stating that they belonged to one of Sheridan’s new regiments. They were using the pick and shovel to bury their dead brother pointing to a small soldier who lay near another few feet away. By this time the soldiers’ feeling so overcame them that they ceased speaking of him. I stepped over to look at him. There was almost a smile on his young face. He could not have suffered for he was shot through the heart.
After one of the brothers had somewhat mastered his emotions, he said, “It is the thought of our mother, when she hears of his death, that is so painful to us,” he said. “She never consented to his going as he is only 17 and was never very healthy. I suppose for that reason he was always her favorite. We know when she receives this sad message it will almost kill her. Her letters were all about Willie. Here is one he received before we left Louisville. We took it out of his blouse near the spot where he was shot; it had bloodstains on it.”
I read it several times before returning it. The substance was so characteristic of a mother that I well remember it. Most of all, she dreaded for him the fatigue of rapid marching incident to battle with his heavy gun and the other load a soldier must carry and requested that he ask his brothers to carry it for him when the day was hot or the march long. “Perhaps after the first battle, I may not have these terrible feelings, but until it is over, and I have heard of your safety, I shall have thoughts and suspense that none but a mother can feel.”
I returned the bloody letter and looked into the grave which was almost three feet deep with an offset within a foot of the bottom where, after the body was placed, boards could be laid across to separate it from the earth. I asked the brother if he would accept our services to carry out the remainder of the sad duties and they were glad to accept. When the grave was prepared, two of my men carried the body over, gently placed him in his narrow home, procured boards to rest on the offset, and the grave was finished with a neat mound to mark the spot.
The pathetic picture before us and the story of the two brothers as they spoke of their mother’s broken heart when she should hear the death of her favorite boy caused a choking sensation in the breasts of more than one of those rough spectators and tears stood in several eyes. When the last duty of laying him away in his bloody blue shroud had been discharged, we bid them good bye hearing no requiem but the sobs of the brothers and the gentle murmur of the breeze as it rustled through the leafy bower that shaded us.
Greiner, Henry Clay. General Phil Sheridan As I Knew Him: Playmate, Comrade, Friend. Chicago: J.S. Hyland and Company, 1908, pgs. 201-209
Post a Comment