Recollections of the Battle of Perryville
Remarks made by Joseph Pettus
at the May meeting of the Filson Club, 1898
On the night of October 7‘, 1862 the Sixth Kentucky Confederate Cavalry regiment commanded by Col. J. Warren Grigsby encamped in Barber’s woods just outside of Danville, Kentucky near the turn pike from Danville to Stanford. The night was clear and cool and the morning of Oct 8’ was bright and frosty. After an early breakfast, the command to “saddle up” was given and the regiment marched through Danville out the turnpike toward Perryville. As we approached the latter place we could hear firing, and knew there was fighting going on, but did not know just where it was or what commands were engaged. When near Perryville the regiment was halted, formed in line and counted off by fours, ordered (nos. 1-2 and 4) to dismount to fight, while no. 3 held horses. As soon as a line was formed, the command “Forward” came and with it the order to get corn for your horses from the field we halted in. When the horses had eaten, the command mounted, and starting in columns of fours, was soon going forward at a trot in the direction of the battle. Company “A” in front, Company “B” of which the writer was a member second, and the other Companies of the regiment following in alphabetical order. This gait was kept up until suddenly and unexpectedly to me the command was given to “Charge”.
As the regiment went forward in the charge the first intimation of the locality of the enemy was a shell from a battery on the bluff of a creek. It was this battery we were ordered to charge. On the top of a crescent shaped bluff about forty feet high as it appeared to me. The impression made on me by this first shell ever fired at me is vivid yet. It went perhaps a hundred feet or a hundred yards above us, but the peculiar hum of that shell had a depressing effect in the back of my neck, and I “ducked” to use a technical phrase. The moment I did so the thought occurred to me to wonder if any one else had the same inclination to bow the head in recognition of the “Salute” given us and I determined to watch if another shell came. The next one came without any unnecessary delay and it was not a hundred feet away either but came with a hiss or a swish parallel with the advancing column, striking the ground right by the side of one of the rear companies and exploded throwing dirt over those nearest to it but injuring no one so far as I remember. I took and instant to glance up the line, and every man seemed to be in contact with his horse’s neck, but going ahead a fast as we could go. When I saw that, I did not think my “duck” at the first shell was so bad after all. We dashed up to the bluff which we could not ascend, and where the enemy’s cannon could not be trained on us.
The next thing was to go around the bluff and by the time we could do so the battery had limbered up and was in full retreat. We did not capture it. The Sixth KY Confederate Cavalry was part of Genl Abe Buford’s Brigade at the time and Genl Joe Wheeler was in command of the Cavalry of Braggs army. Whether any other troops were engaged in this small affair with the Federal battery, I did not know. I only saw my own regiment and in fact know but little of what happened outside of Company “B”. A few men were slightly wounded in the charge, none killed, and the wounds were from small arms not the cannons. We were marched and countermarched, in an aimless way, it seemed to me, and had no more fighting that day, so that I had but a slight conception of the terrible battle that had been fought on that bright October day in 1862. Late at night, it seemed to me near midnight a detail was made for vidette duty which included the writer.
We marched out toward the battle field, and were stationed as near as I could judge about fifty yards apart with orders to challenge any one who approached and if the countersign was not promptly and satisfactorily given to fire, and hold position until reinforced by the other videttes. My number I think was “eleven” and the thoughts I had sitting on my horse that night were any thing but comfortable. I thought it a decidedly foolish proceeding altogether, for I reasoned that if the enemy came he would see me as soon as I could see him, and that there would more than likely, be several of them if they came at all. The shivers were creeping all over me, my hands were cold, it was dark out in the woods before me, and I was morally certain that I could not shoot any one before he could shoot me. Then if accidentally I did shoot one what was I to do with others until help came. My gun would have to be loaded again before I could shoot and it took time to load an old Belgian rifle such as I had then. I did not think my saber would be of much use if the enemy began shooting at me out of the woods and from behind the fence with the corners full of high weeds.
I could hear the Federals swearing at their teams, their whips cracking and commands being given though I could not distinguish the words, and on the whole had made up my mind, that my military career would be cut ingloriously short if any one but a dear friend with the countersign came along that way. About one oclock in the morning I heard something coming and before I could distinguish whether it was a friend or a foe a man or a beast with my gun cocked and finger on the trigger I shouted “Halt, who comes there.” The answer came at once “friends” and few sounds have ever come to as sweet as the tones of my Captain, Tom Shanks’ voice when be answered my challenge. He was coming with the rest of the detail to call in the videttes, and take up our march toward Danville, the beginning of a retreat which ended in Powells Valley Tenn just over Cumberland Gap. This was my first experience in war and my impressions at the time.
I had been a soldier only since the first of Sept 1862, a school boy before that, having been graduated at Centre College in June. The news of the great battle came to me afterward, and most all of it was news to me, as outside my own company or regiment I could form no opinion as to numbers, movements or results of those engaged in the Battle of Perryville, KY
Transcribed October 15, 2007 by H. Scott Hankla (first cousin three times removed to Joseph Pettus) from a copy of a three page handwritten document obtained from the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, KY.