Anxious for the Engagement: The 15th Wisconsin is Jilted at Perryville

Lieutenant Colonel David McKee of the 15th Wisconsin was perplexed by the blundering evident at the Battle of Perryville and appalled at the butchery.

          “The slaughter had been terrible on both sides,” he wrote. “I have no means of ascertaining the number of killed or wounded on either side, but I have no doubt it reaches into the thousands. The amount of good accomplished in this battle is unknown. True we have killed and wounded many men, but some great want in either judgement or loyalty on the part of the managers of this army in failing to make a complete and annihilating victory out of what now remains but a barren success certainly exists."

          The 15th Wisconsin, primarily comprised of Norwegians and other Scandinavians, was part of Colonel William P. Carlin’s 31st Brigade of General Robert B. Mitchell’s Ninth Division of General Charles Gilbert’s Third Army Corps. The division stood in ranks less than a mile away from McCook’s corps and witnessed its hard fight before being sent into the village at the end of the battle. McKee’s account of the battle first appeared in the November 4, 1862, edition of the Grant County Herald published in Lancaster, Wisconsin. McKee would subsequently be killed in action during the Battle of Stones River

Lieutenant Colonel David McKee of the 15th Wisconsin was killed in action December 31, 1862 during the Battle of Stones River. McKee had presentiments that he would be killed in action that day and went into battle on foot; he had also given his watch to the surgeon for safekeeping. 

Headquarters 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Camp near Perryville, Kentucky

October 12, 1862


          We have met the enemy here and my impression is that we have whipped them handsomely although not so completely and thoroughly as we had it in power to have done. Buell’s army left Louisville on the 1st of October in pursuit of Bragg and his army. I must confess that personally I had not so much confidence in the commander of our forces as some men have in their wives; nor have I seen much more yet to change my opinion or restore my shaken confidence than is generally adduced from the evidence elicited in divorce cases for adultery to restore the confidence of an injured husband or wife and bring a return of first love. However, I am not disposed even were I permitted by military regulation to enter into the discussion of the merits or demerits of our army officers- such discussion could result in no good at the present time. We need the services of all men now.

          You are aware, I suppose, of course, that a battle could hardly be avoided in Kentucky with Bragg’s army. From the time we left Louisville we were within the hearing of field artillery every day at some time when our advance was skirmishing heavily with Bragg’s rear guard. We followed him from within a few miles of Perryville through Washington, Fredericktown, Bardstown, and Springfield to within six miles of Perryville before we halted and formed line of battle. Here we were informed that the Rebel forces had halted and were determined to give us battle.

The ground chosen by them was most excellent for defense. Our army was camped where water was extremely scarce, and we could get none that was good until we reached Perryville. Our men would travel miles to either side of our encampment for the privilege to fill their canteens with water taken from mud holes which the horses in Grant County would not drink. Our horses and mules were in a suffering condition and if we were defeated in such a country the consequences would have been terrible and disastrous. Our wily enemy was fully aware of all this, but I am convinced they were deceived in one national point. Bragg supposed we had but one division of our army upon this road. This I have from numerous prisoners with whom I have conversed, and I also judge so from the many in which their troops were disposed at the time of the battle.

On Tuesday the 7th, skirmishing began so brisk that we formed in line of battle some four miles from the enemy’s front. The principal part of the day was occupied in reconnoitering and discovering the position of the enemy and the location of their batteries and no fighting of any consequence was done on that day. Our men occupied their positions during that night and rested on their arms. On the following morning at 8 o’clock a pretty brisk fire was opened on both sides and was continued steadily until about 1 o’clock in the afternoon when the battle opened with most terrible and fierce earnestness. General McCook’s corps occupied our left, Gilbert’s corps the center, and Crittenden the right. The heavy fighting was done almost exclusively by General McCook’s corps, no other troops being engaged except Sheridan’s division and a portion of Mitchell’s division of Gilbert’s corps. Only two brigades of Mitchell’s division were engaged: the 30th Brigade commanded by Colonel Michael Gooding consisting of the 59th, 74th, and 75th Illinois, 22nd Indiana, and Captain Pinney’s 5th Wisconsin Battery and the 31st Brigade commanded by Colonel William Carlin consisting of the 21st and 38th Illinois, 15th Wisconsin, 101st Ohio, and Captain Hotchkiss’ 2nd Minnesota Battery.

One section of Captain Pinney’s battery had been engaged all the afternoon of the 7th and the Rebels say they did good work. One the morning of the 8th, a section of two 12-lb howitzers of Hotchkiss’ battery was ordered forward to McCook’s assistance which left the 31st Brigade with only four pieces of 6-lb artillery, all smoothbore brass pieces. Hotchkiss’ battery, it is said, silenced two Rebel batteries with the section sent forward in the morning. The 31st Brigade was ordered forward about 1 o’clock on the 8th and took position immediately on Sheridan’s left. I was in a position where I could see distinctly by the aid of a field glass the lines of our own and the Rebel troops for nearly two miles. The ground was rolling and mostly open. Skirts of timber and some cornfields obstructed the view somewhat. But I saw enough to convince me that no harder, more earnest, or desperate fighting had been done any place during this war than took place upon this field.

In one or two instances there were hand-to-hand conflicts between whole regiments. Lines advanced and retreated on both sides at different times and for a while the result would seem doubtful. I would involuntarily inquire why are not more troops sent rapidly to McCook’s assistance? Here we had brigades and divisions anxious in plain view and within 30 minutes march of McCook’s suffering and exhausted men. We had no use for them at any other point. They were all anxious for the engagement, but McCook did not receive the aid he should have had. He asked assistance but it did not come to him. I will not conjecture how much greater reason the country would have to rejoice at our success if he had received what was asked. I know what common sense and what military men say about it.

At between 3 and 4 o’clock, the 31st Brigade which was there in line of battle was ordered forward to take care of a Rebel brigade of five regiments who were advancing on Captain Hescock’s battery of the 1st Missouri Artillery. A Rebel battery on a hill at half mile range was also engaged. Skirmishers were thrown out in advance and the brigade followed rapidly. But a few rounds of canister from the battery and the rush of the brigade from the woods convinced them that that locality would be entirely too warm for them, and they turned and fled, leaving many killed and wounded on the field. The battery also limbered up and started at more than common time. The 31st Brigade followed at the double quick over hills, fences, ditches, and cornfields for about two miles and through the village of Perryville. And thus was accomplished the greatest of that day’s fighting by Carlin’s brigade, and that without firing a single volley of musketry. The loss on our part in the chase was only five men wounded in the brigade.

We had now cut the enemy’s center and penetrated their lines more than a mile and a half and to have completely annihilated the Rebel army here only required that reinforcements should be sent forward to hold the position and take advantage of it. We now had possession of good water. In this advance and while we remained in position there, the brigade captured about 140 prisoners, twelve loads of musket ammunition, two caissons belonging to the famous Washington Battery, and numerous horses, mules, harnesses, etc. The brigade remained in line at Perryville under a vigorous shelling from the retreating Rebel battery which had taken position on a hill beyond the town for more than an hour and until night closed the scene. During the whole time, however, that the Rebels were raining shells and shot around our infantry, our four guns of the Minnesota battery was doing good work on them.

Colonel Carlin’s brigade remained in the village until about 9 o’clock in the evening and expected to remain there the rest of the night and also to be supported, an order came to fall back nearly a mile and join Sheridan’s right. The mortification of the officers and men at such an order was extreme and anything else but complimentary sayings at such a step was indulged in. On the following morning, this brigade again advanced on the right and Sheridan on the left. The Minnesota battery opened a vigorous fire upon the enemy, and they again fled and thus ended the terrible battle with comparatively small forces engaged.

Today I visited a portion of the battlefield and one or two of the Rebel hospitals. The slaughter had been terrible on both sides, but it is easily seen by a visit to these fields when most of the dead yet remained unburied that the Rebel losses far exceed ours. I have no means of ascertaining the number of killed or wounded on either side, but I have no doubt it reaches into the thousands. Wisconsin has suffered considerably in this contest. The 15th, however, lost none in killed or wounded although they were under a heavy fire for more than an hour. The amount of good accomplished in this battle is unknown. True we have killed and wounded many men, but some great want in either judgement or loyalty on the part of the managers of this army in failing to make a complete and annihilating victory out of what now remains but a barren success certainly exists. God grant that my opinions of all men may not be well founded.


I am ever your friend,

David McKee



Letter from Lieutenant Colonel David McKee, 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Grant County Herald (Wisconsin), November 4, 1862, pg. 1


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