Murdered by General Buell: A Wisconsin Soldier on Perryville

Suffering from a pair of wounds sustained during the Battle of Perryville, Private David J. Ryan of the 21st Wisconsin held one man responsible for his calamity: his commanding officer General Don Carlos Buell. 

    "General Buell is responsible before God and man for the slaughter of our troops in the late battle," Ryan charged. "He was in full hearing of the cannonading of the fight all day long and never sent a man to reinforce us. Everyone of the 500 dead of Perryville should have marked on his headboard, “Murdered by General Buell!” 

    The 21 year old soldier, the youngest of five brothers, recounted his experiences of the battle to his parents back home in Appleton, Wisconsin. Ryan's father, Colonel Samuel Ryan, shared the letters with his son Francis A. Ryan, editor of the Appleton Motor newspaper who published them in his columns. 


This detailed view of Alfred E. Mathews' color lithograph published by Middleton, Strobridge, and Co. in Cincinnati depicts the men of  the 21st Wisconsin in their engagement in the cornfield behind Bald Knob at Perryville on October 8, 1862. "It was a very ticklish position," recalled Private David Ryan. "If we arose, we would be in danger of being shot from behind and the cursed Rebels were shooting at us in front like a parcel of devils." The Wisconsin soldier would be wounded twice in the fighting, first through the arm and finally through the hip, a wound that "settled me for that day's battle." Visitors today can walk this very ground at the Perryville State Battlefield, the cornfield being just a short walk from the visitor's center. 
(The Huntington Library)

Perryville, Kentucky

October 20, 1862

Dear parents,

          On the day of the battle, we were marched to the edge of a cornfield at the foot of a hill with a battery (Stone’s I believe) right behind us. We were then placed in line and ordered to lie flat on our faces while the battery poured shell and canister over us into the Rebels who were advancing on us. It was a very ticklish position; if we arose, we would be in danger of being shot from behind, and the cursed Rebels were shooting at us in front like a parcel of devils, sending a perfect hailstorm of bullets of shell into poor us, thinning our ranks considerably.

          The battery dosed them with iron pills until they were about 40 yards from us, when we were ordered to rise and fire, which we did, sending many Rebels home. By order, we fell back to a fence and fired again. The regiment retired in good order. I remained behind to get a good shot at the enemy who seemed to be not over 20 yards from me. I fired and received a flesh wound in the left arm at the same time. I did not mind that, but loaded, fell back a few paces where the 1st Wisconsin was stationed and fired once more. I was struck in the hip by a ball just after I had fired and that settled me for that day’s battle.

          Appleton Motor proudly reported that “when the 21st was ordered to fall back and give place to the 1st Wisconsin, the brave boy [Ryan] at once placed himself in the thinned ranks of the latter regiment, determined not to retreat. This unconquerable valor won him his glorious wounds!”


          I managed to crawl back a short distance but the balls fell around me nearly as thick as they did on the battlefield. A couple of men happened to come along just then while another helped me to a building which was converted into a hospital. By the time I got there, the building was full of wounded and the yard was nearly full also. I had to lie outside all that cold night with nothing over me except a thin shirt and pants, having lost my coat and blanket on the battlefield.

          I was moved the next day in an ambulance over an awful rough road to a church about two miles off. That was full also, and I had to lie outside again. A young man in our regiment gathered what wounded he could find and placed us in a shady spot. He also washed our wounds there being no doctor near us. I was out that night with no more protection than the first night.

          The next day, an old man (himself unwell) from our regiment cared for us and continued to do so until we came here. He is still with us- his son was wounded in both legs, not bones broken, however. We lived in the open air, suffering a good deal of pain until the 15th when we were moved by ambulance to this place. The road was horrible and the trip nearly killed us. Captain Nelson has been to see me every day since I arrived; he is very kind, offering to do anything for me I desired. I expect to be furloughed and come home in about two weeks to recuperate my strength for another campaign.


          Two weeks later, David Bryan remained in the hospital at Perryville. His local newspaper the Appleton Motor reported in their November 13, 1862, issue that “he is getting on well with wounds less painful, eats as much as he ever did when well, and has the best of treatment. One of the best surgeons in Kentucky is in charge of the hospital [No. 10] and he thinks he will not be able to come home for at least a month. He will not attempt it until he is satisfied that he can stand the fatigue. Drs. Fuller and Wolcott of Milwaukee and Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Hobart has been in to see the men. Dr. Fuller visited them daily and was the only surgeon they had seen since the battle. Too many army surgeons care for little besides drawing their pay and experimenting on the sick and wounded, including the needless cutting off of limbs.”

The villain of Perryville?
Ryan thought so...

          “Mr. Secesh didn’t get me this time!” Bryan noted. “David says he only wants a chance to pay back that last wound, the first one having been cancelled by the dropping of a Secesh color bearer. The Rebels suffered terribly and lay four deep in some places. If Buell had come up with his division as he ought to, they would have captured the whole Rebel army. There is an intense feeling of bitterness against Buell throughout the whole army and David has never heard anyone speak a good word of him.”

          “The Secesh stripped the people throughout the region of about everything they had and what they could not carry off, they destroyed,” the newspaper continued. “After the battle, they stripped the dead of their clothes and money. They treated our wounded well, however, giving them water and blankets. General Buell is responsible before God and man for the slaughter of our troops in the late battle. He was in full hearing of the cannonading of the fight all day long and never sent a man to reinforce us. Everyone of the 500 dead of Perryville should have marked on his headboard, “Murdered by General Buell!”

          Private Ryan would eventually be discharged for his wounds on March 21, 1863, and returned home to Appleton, Wisconsin. He later enlisted as a corporal in Co. D of the 41st Wisconsin in September 1864 and served with that regiment through the rest of the war.  Returning home in 1865, he worked for many years as bookkeeper for Sym & Co., barrel stave manufacturers at Menasha and Appleton, retiring from the business in the fall of 1916. Never married, Ryan was active in the Knights Templar, Odd Fellows, and was a member of the George Eggleston Post G.A.R. In January 1917, he moved into the state veterans’ home at Waupaca and only resided there three weeks before succumbing to heart failure on January 28, 1917, aged 76. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Appleton, Wisconsin.

        To read more about the Battle of Perryville, please check out these posts:

"Come, my dear husband, this is no place for us!"

"The Solemn Realities of War: A Hoosier Greenhorn Sees the Elephant at Perryville"

"With the 1st Wisconsin at Chaplin Hills"

"A Mississippi Gunner at Perryville"

"Losing Colonel Webster: The 98th Ohio at Perryville" 


Letters from Private David Johnston Ryan, Co. I, 21st Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Volume 6, Quiner Scrapbooks, Wisconsin Historical Society (the letter was originally published in the November 6, 1862, edition of the Appleton Motor, also called the Appleton Post)

“David J. Ryan, Co. I, 21st,” Appleton Motor (Wisconsin), October 30, 1862, pg. 2

“Sudden Death of David J. Ryan,” Appleton Evening Crescent (Wisconsin), January 29, 1917, pg. 1


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