Looking Back: Three top Union officers died in Perryville battle

October 06, 2003|STUART W. SANDERS

On the night before the Battle of Perryville, three Union officers discussed the chances of an individual soldier being killed in battle. All agreed that troops would never be fearful, a Federal colonel later wrote, "if they considered the doctrine of probabilities and how slight the chance was of any particular person being killed. Theory failed, as it has often done before; all three were killed in the next day's fight."

The three officers who discussed their possible fates were all members of the Union 10th Division in Gen. Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio. Brig. Gen. James S. Jackson was division commander. A Kentucky native, attorney and Mexican War veteran, Jackson, who attended Centre College for a time, left Congress in 1861 to enter the military. An Oct. 11, 1862, New York Times article called Jackson "brusque and overbearing ... a party to numerous quarrels, which sometimes resulted in duels."


During the Mexican War, he dueled a fellow officer. Because of this incident, he was threatened with a court-martial and was forced to resign. The Times also accused Jackson of killing a man in a street fight in Hopkinsville, where he was a practicing attorney. The Battle of Perryville was Jackson's first divisional command.

Brig. Gen. William Rufus Terrill also believed that the chance of dying in battle was slim. A soldier in the 105th Ohio Infantry Regiment once remarked that "Our Brig. Gen. Terrill is a tall, light-haired man with a coarse voice which makes him quite a target for the boys to mock at. He loves good liquors and beef for his table." A former instructor at West Point, Terrill was one of 16 Virginians who became generals in the Union army. His brother James had cast his lot with the Confederacy. Although war divided the family, by 1864 both men would share the same fate - death in battle. At Perryville, Terrill commanded the 33rd Brigade in the 10th Division.

Joining Jackson and Terrill was Col. George Penny Webster. A Mexican War veteran, Webster left his law practice to serve in the Union army. He saw action in western Virginia earlier in the year. In the summer of 1862, he was promoted to colonel and was transferred to the Army of the Ohio, where he led the 34th Brigade in the 10th Division. This division was comprised of troops from Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. Many would find their baptism by fire at Perryville.

At 2 p.m. Oct. 8, Confederate forces struck the left flank of Alexander McCook's corps of Union soldiers, which was located on ridges north of Perryville. Encountering heavy resistance, the Southern troops rolled McCook's left flank back toward his headquarters.

A few miles to the south, the Confederates simultaneously attacked McCook's right. These veteran Southerners also pushed the Federal troops back to the headquarters building. The fight finally ended when darkness fell. The Battle of Perryville had lasted nearly five hours.

Gen. Jackson was present on the Union left flank when the Confederate attack commenced. Standing between the 105th Ohio Infantry and an artillery battery, Jackson was, according to one Union captain, "encouraging the men to stand to their places." As the attacking Southerners climbed a hill toward the Union position, Jackson remarked, "Well, I'll be damned if this is not getting rather particular."

Union Capt. Percival Oldershaw confessed that the "regiment fired a volley and fell back, when almost immediately afterward Gen. Jackson ... was killed, two bullets entering his right breast. ... I found him on his back, struggling to speak, but unable to do so. He died in a few moments." Jackson died on Parsons' Ridge, which is located on the grounds of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site, north of the present-day museum. A historical marker now stands near the site of his death.

A half-hour later, Gen. William Terrill also was cut down. After the Federal left flank collapsed, Terrill's brigade regrouped several hundred yards beyond Parsons' Ridge. When the Union left needed reinforcements, Terrill again moved toward the fighting. As he did so, an artillery shell fragment struck him.

Union Major James A. Connolly wrote, "I was within 5 feet of Terrill when he was killed ... his entire breast was torn away by the shell. He recognized me and his first words were, 'Major, do you think it's fatal?' I knew it must be, but to encourage him I answered, 'Oh, I hope not.' Then he said, 'My poor wife, my poor wife!' He lived until 2:00 the next morning."

Terrill's body was returned to Virginia for burial. On May 30, 1864, his younger brother James was killed at Bethesda Church, Va., while fighting for the Confederacy. After the war their grief-stricken father reputedly erected a monument to his sons that reads, "God Alone Knows Which Was Right."

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