“From the Battle of Chickamauga to the Carnage at Kennesaw Mountain” – The Untold Tale of William M. Perry

Confederate General Braxton Bragg

Confederate General Braxton Bragg

By the summer of 1863, the South had lost control of Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans, three of its most strategic cities. On July 4th, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Tennessee would finally prevail at The Siege of Vicksburg and gain dominance over the Mississippi River. After 2 1/2 years of bloody battle, the direction of the war was beginning to turn decisively in the Union’s favor.

And so at long last, Gen. Grant was able to turn his attention to opening a route to Atlanta and driving a stake through the heart of Dixie. After their great victory during the Tullahoma Campaign, The Army of the Cumberland, led by Major General William S. Rosencrans, began to advance towards Chattanooga, Tennessee – a vitally important manufacturing/supply center and logistical hub for the struggling Confederacy. The Second Battle of Chattanooga was fought on August 21, 1863, and was a huge strategic success for the North. Rosencrans outmaneuvered Confederate General Braxton Bragg and forced him to abandon the city and withdraw his Army of Tennessee back into North Georgia. Although Rosencrans continued his pursuit, Bragg was determined to return and reoccupy Chattanooga.

A series of feints and skirmishes between the two armies would follow over the next few weeks, setting the stage for the Battle of Chickamauga, GA on September 19-20, 1863. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, with total casualties exceeding 33,000 men, and second only to the Battle of Gettysburg in terms of overall losses.

Union soldiers resting at the Lee and Gordon’s Mills (view from behind the main building)

Union soldiers relax at the Lee and Gordon’s Mills (view is from behind the main building)

The battle was fought over two harrowing days in the vicinity of Lee and Gordon’s Mills. Bragg and his reinforced Army of Tennessee were victorious, pushing the Union forces back into Tennessee. It was by far the most significant defeat for the Union Army in the Western Theater during the Civil War – but it proved a short-lived success for the South. Bragg paused after his victory and did not mount an immediate pursuit, allowing his enemy time to withdraw and erect a strong defensive position back in Chattanooga.

When Bragg finally pursued Rosencrans back to Chattanooga, he besieged the city in a series of maneuvers and battles in October and November of 1863, establishing positions on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain that gave him control over the city’s supply lines. The North immediately sent in reinforcements, but Grant also relieved Rosencrans of his command. Two months later Bragg would be routed by a disorganized but effective Union advance and pushed back to Dalton, GA– effectively ending the siege. Bragg’s defeat ended Confederate control over Tennessee, and opened the door to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, followed by his infamous “March to the Sea” in the winter of 1864.

William M. Perry

Private William M. Perry, from Knox County, Illinois, mustered into the 86th Regiment Illinois Volunteers in August of 1862. Four months later his Regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland, and he fought with them in many of their battles throughout the Western Theater. He wrote the following letter to William Watson Mathews shortly after the Battle of Resaca on May 13-15, 1864, during a short break from the fighting while his regiment camped out on the still smoldering fields of Chickamauga.

Less then a month later, he just quit. The records show that he deserted on June 27, 1864, the very day his regiment charged up Kennesaw Mountain – it  cost the Union 3,000 casualties. War weariness, delay in pay, panic before battle – whatever the reason, he made certain that he was not present and accounted for on that bloody morning.

–Clifford B. Davids

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Chickamauga letterhead

Letterhead used by William M. Perry for his correspondence to William Watson

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Lee’s Mills, South Chickamauga

May /1864

Dear Friend Watson

I take this opportunity to write you a few words about affairs in Dixie–at least in this section of War and Strife. Our Brigade is encamped on the battlefield of South Chickamauga. It bears the marks of a terrible battlefield, and will for some time to come. The timber is shattered by Bullet and Shell.

There were two other hard fought battles in this region of northern Georgia. I suppose you have heard of them by now–one at Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee and the other at Dalton, Georgia. Our Brigade did not suffer much loss at Missionary Ridge. The 86th lost one killed and 7 wounded at Dalton. The 85th had twenty-five killed and wounded–the rest of the Brigade about the same. I suppose that you see and read enough war news in the paper, so I will write about something else.

I wrote a letter to you some time ago, but I suppose that you did not get it. As Charley was writing to Thomas today, he requested me to write to you and tell you what we were doing. Charley was at home on furlough–he just returned a few days ago. He did not get time to come and see you and he did not stay long. I think of coming home soon. If I do I will give you a call and then we can talk matters over and have a good time in general.

There was a deep snow that fell here last week. The Southerners say it was the deepest that ever fell here. They say that it was the Yankees that caused it all. They tell me that if the Yankees would go to Africa, it would snow there also.

We do not have much to do at present. We go on picket duty once a week and drill once a week. We are almost perfect in that line and the 3rd Brigade make a fine appearance on Drill and Dress Parade.

What do you think of General U.S. Grant and Richmond? I think he is the right man in the right place, and that Richmond is a damned city. Write and tell me what you think of General Sherman, the Western Department, and the war in general. Write also something about the next presidential election—do you prefer Fremont, Lincoln, or McClellan for President?

It is getting right cool this evening and I will not write any more at present. This leaves me in good health. I hope that it will find you the same.

Yours truly

William M. Perry

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The Killing Fields of Kennesaw Mountain

The Union entrenchments on the killing fields below Kennesaw Mountain in Marietta, GA

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4 Responses to “From the Battle of Chickamauga to the Carnage at Kennesaw Mountain” – The Untold Tale of William M. Perry

  1. maye45@att.net says:

    Again, this is amazing. I’m reading the book “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and that is making me understand what a bloody war this was. Reading these letters makes it even more personal. Again WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Cliff, keep up the good work!

  2. Robin Richardson Gilbert says:

    This story of William Perry is so interesting, especially knowing that he decides to go home “early.” His participation in so many famous battles without getting killed shows he was a skilled soldier–I cannot call him a coward. He just knew when he had enough. Growing up in St. Louis, learning about the war in school, everything seemed so distant and long ago.

    Now that I live in Marietta, GA the names of the places surround us–Kennesaw Mountain is just a few miles away. I have placed Memorial Day flags at the Marietta cemetery where the Union soldiers are buried, and a historic site sits opposite my children’s elementary school. William Perry was among many young men who volunteered from Knox County, Illinois, all of whom faced many horrible things during the Civil War.

    Thank you Cliff, for another thoughtful article.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Another great article! Who knew that Yankees could cause snowstorms?? Stephanie

  4. Mary James says:

    What a gem you found in this letter by Perry that essentially announces his intention to desert. Given the unthinkable losses in these Civil War battles and that the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, this same day, would be yet “another vicious fight”, Perry might well have become one of the many casualties. You wrote beautifully, Cliff. Words like “… camped out on the still smoldering fields of Chickamauga” read like poetry. Great job, as always!

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