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Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 197-199

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Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. By Kenneth W. Noe. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Pp. 518. Cloth $35.00.)

The curiously neglected battle of Perryville lacked neither drama nor strategic importance. In an afternoon of fighting, which Shiloh veterans habitually recalled as [End Page 197] more vicious than the famous Tennessee bloodbath, the armies on both sides sustained eight thousand casualties. Moreover, the episode effectively delivered Kentucky—and its critical resources of manpower, rivers, and nationalism—to the Union cause. This clash, nevertheless, has long been dismissed as too small, too brief, and too much the product of an influential acoustic anomaly to rank with the war's larger and indisputably significant engagements.

Accordingly, the sanguine events of October 8, 1862, long lacked truly intense, extended scrutiny. Recent decades have seen only one amateur volume on the battle as a whole. In the last ten years, however, a score of books, dissertations, and theses have begun to rescue Kentucky's Civil War from the drums-and-trumpets antiquarians who claimed what scholars neglected. Yet none of the most professional works that touch on Perryville—James Lee McDonough's 1994 campaign study, Stephen D. Engle's 1999 biography of Don Carlos Buell, or Gerald J. Prokopowicz's 2001 analysis of the Army of the Ohio—can offer the breadth of perspective and the innovative investigation that inform Kenneth W. Noe's Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle.

This work is far more than just another battle book. The author gathers a wealth of fresh sources, including manuscript collections new to Perryville studies. Thus, in keeping with the inclusive worldview of the "new Civil War history," he places a detailed account of the battle in its full social and political context. Kentucky's 1861 neutrality, Confederate elites surrendering to the fatuous Kentucky Dream of a rising in the Bluegrass, and the fateful inadequacies of journeyman armies are but a few of the richly tangled circumstances that constitute Noe's vision of Perryville.

One of the author's bolder interpretations is his psychological portrait of Braxton Bragg. The dour North Carolinian's famously ambiguous strategy in Kentucky, as well as his pattern of vacillation between drift and, sometimes counterintuitive, decisiveness are seen here as functions of either manic depression or "narcissistic personality disorder" (18). In this model even a Bragg triumph like the sudden rail transfer of his army hundreds of miles to cut off Buell's line of march toward Chattanooga appears as a manic response to the shame of defeat at Shiloh and the aimlessness of its aftermath. Similarly, the senior Bragg's allowing himself to be drawn into the Kentucky misadventure by his conniving junior, Edmund Kirby Smith, fits the template of the narcissist who flounders submissively for direction after an episode of action.

Speculations aside, Noe unarguably performs a service when he meticulously dissects Bragg's words on paper. This autopsy reveals that at critical junctures Bragg could contradict himself several times in the same missive. "Bragg clearly had no idea what to do," the author judges, "except to attack some Federal army somewhere" (35). However acute Noe's insights into Bragg's mind may be, posthumous psychoanalysis is not required to recognize in such dispatches a fatal and confused remoteness from what was actually happening at the sharp end of war.

Equally disabling personality flaws in Bragg's chief opponent, Buell, took other forms—overconfidence, tunnel vision, and marked indifference to his troops' welfare. Carefully employing dozens of unit histories and memoirs, genres often undervalued, Noe sees the contending armies as social organizations. He demonstrates [End Page 198] how thirst, hunger, and disease inflicted by Buell's logistics inadvertently bred in his bluecoats both hatred for their top commander and fierce, small-unit resolution. The author then explains how at Perryville the disjointed Army of the Ohio absorbed and survived attacks that wrecked nearly half of its engaged units. This personal angle of vision found in memoirs and regimental histories likewise illuminates why Bragg's Confederates dutifully advanced uphill...


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