On Oct. 8, 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed outside Perryville, Ky.When the five-hour fight ended, more than 7,500 dead and wounded were strewn across the bluegrass pastureland, most of it owned by Henry P. Bottom, a local farmer. In the wake of the battle, his land was denuded of forage and livestock, his barn was burned, and the Union Army commandeered his home as a hospital. The horrors that Bottom experienced that autumn, according to one resident, left him “broken in spirit from that time on until he died.”
Henry Pierce Bottom was born on Jan. 9, 1809. His family settled near Perryville after his grandfather, a Virginian, received a land grant for his Revolutionary War service. When Henry reached adulthood, he farmed, worked as a cabinetmaker and served as a justice of the peace. He married in 1840, and he and his wife and three children lived a quiet existence in a weatherboard-and-log farmhouse a mile and a half northwest of Perryville. In 1862, this solitude was shattered.
That summer, two Confederate armies invaded Kentucky to draw Union troops away from the vital railroad junction of Chattanooga, Tenn. The Southerners also hoped to procure recruits, supplies and horses. One army, led by Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, advanced through the Cumberland Gap, was victorious at the Battle of Richmond, Ky., and then captured Lexington and Frankfort.
The other army, Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi, entered western Kentucky. It found success early in the campaign after besieging a Union garrison at Munfordville, but the delays of the siege enabled Union reinforcements to gather. By Oct. 8, about 18,000 of Bragg’s troops faced 58,000 Federal soldiers outside Perryville. Because of faulty intelligence and a Union diversion, Bragg wrongly believed he faced a small army, and he ordered an attack.
When the Battle of Perryville commenced, the whitewashed farmhouse of Henry Bottom was in the crossfire. The Union right flank was on a ridge above the home, and most of their battle lines snaked across Bottom’s property. Suddenly, as other Southern brigades moved against the Union position, Confederate troops led by Brig. Gen. Bushrod Rust Johnson attacked. The infantry, supported by several batteries of artillery, passed through Bottom’s yard and slammed into the 15th Kentucky and 3rd Ohio infantry regiments. One Rebel noted that the assault resembled a “battle like you see in pictures. For a mile we could see them, their splendid looking lines. Flags flying, bands playing.”
The Union right flank ended at Bottom’s barn. As the Confederates attacked, an unrelenting barrage of artillery fire supported them. One shell struck the barn, and the structure soon burst into flames. According to a war correspondent, “Many of [the Union] wounded had crawled into this barn for protection, but a rebel shell exploding directly among the hay set the barn on fire, and several of our poor wounded boys perished in the flames.”
Smoke and fire from the burning barn, combined with the intensity of the Confederate assault, forced the Union troops back. The battle, however, continued on Bottom’s farm for several more hours.
Eventually, Bragg’s Confederates broke both flanks of the Union I Corps. After five hours of fighting, darkness ended the struggle. Although the Confederates secured a tactical victory, they realized they were outnumbered and left Perryville that night.
When the Union Army regained control of the battlefield, Bottom’s home was converted into a field hospital. William McChord, a 12-year-old who lived nearby, toured the property the next day. “Here we saw the first evidence of real war,” he later wrote. “The house, tents and yard were full of wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. I can never forget the groans, wails and moans of these hundreds of men as they lay side by side, some in the agony of death, some undergoing operations on the surgeon’s table in one corner of the yard. Near the table was a pile of legs and arms; some with shoes on, others with socks, four or five feet high.”
As the armies moved on, the Union troops buried their dead comrades but left the Confederates on the field. One Union officer remarked, “There are hundreds of men being eaten by the buzzards and hogs.” Because most of the corpses were lying on his farm, Bottom and a number of his field hands buried most of these Confederate dead.
Bottom attempted to identify the bodies to alert their families, but this was impossible. He buried them on a hill where he found many of the dead, and most remain unknown to this day.
While nearly every resident suffered from the Battle of Perryville, perhaps none suffered more than Henry Bottom. According to a claim filed with the federal government after the war, he had lost nine head of cattle and 30 of sheep, 8,500 pounds of pork, 4,500 pounds of bacon, 320 cords of wood, 3,000 bushels of corn, 50 bushels of oats, two horses and 22 tons of hay. The claim put the total value of these at more than $4,800, but Bottom never received a penny. For the first time, the family had to buy food to eat. It took Bottom and scores of other Perryville residents decades to recover from the economic losses.
Henry Bottom died on Sept. 29, 1901, at age 92. He was buried in a small family cemetery near the Confederate mass grave, where he had buried hundreds of fallen soldiers.
Stuart W. Sanders is director of Perryville Battle Preservation Association Inc.