Tuesday, October 5, 2010

He Fought and Died at Perryville: Brigadier General William Rufus Terrill

As the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville quickly approaches and my hopes for a fall return trip to the battlefield seem to be extinct, I felt it was appropriate to post another entry exploring this fascinating and ferocious fight. 

After thinking of a few different ways to approach this challenge, I decided to write a brief profile of Brigadier General William Rufus Terrill, who commanded a brigade in the Army of the Ohio at this battle and whose service in the Union army is an excellent example of the brother-against-brother nature of the war, especially in Kentucky. 

Courtesy of artilleryreserve.org

A native of Virginia, Terrill faced family pressure similar to that confronting another, more famous, Virginian who chose to support the Union and who fought at Perryville - George Thomas. Terrill remained in the Federal army while his brother James (and cousin J.E.B. Stuart) served as Confederates. According to Kenneth Noe, in Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle, William's decision to stay in the Union army "crushed" his father and the "thought of one son killing another so upset Terrill's mother that she secured a transfer to the West" for him to try to eliminate that possibility. (See page 186.)

Now, in early October 1862, here was William fighting in the west, in a state where prominent and nationally-known families like the Crittendens, Breckenridges, the Todds, and, by extension, even the Lincolns found themselves facing similar divisions and angst as did the Terrills.

At Perryville, William Terrill commanded a brigade of inexperienced men who were soon to experience their baptism by fire. In the early afternoon, his men held a position on land now known as the Open Knob or Parson's Ridge. As Confederates commanded by George Maney approached and attacked this hill, Terrill's men could no longer maintain their position. The Confederates captured several cannon, and drove Terrill's men down the back of the hill and through a cornfield. The Union men did not stop until they reached the top of another ridge, where they met the men of John C Starkweather. The Union men rallied here and fought off the Confederates bravely, but eventually the southerners took yet another position from them. Soon enough, though, daylight was starting to disappear, and the action here proved to be the last fighting in this sector of the battlefield (the Confederate right.) The battle itself would end around two hours later as autumn darkness began blanketing the hills and valleys in the region.

View from Open Knob of route Maney's Confederates traveled
It was early during this fight on Starkweather's Hill when General Terrill suffered a mortal wound when hit by an artillery shell while trying to hold his lines together and rally his men.

View of Starkweather's Hill from approximate location of cornfield

William Terrill was just 28 years old when he passed away this day,  October 8, 1862. He had been born on April 21, 1834 and had entered West Point in 1849, graduating 16th in his class four years later.

He later served as a professor of mathematics at the academy, but his most notable experience on campus occurred during his cadet days, when he got into a fistfight with Philip Sheridan, resulting in a one year suspension for the future Union hero of the Shenandoah Valley. (According to Noe's book (see pages 187-188), Sheridan, who also fought at Perryville,  "despised" Terrill terribly after their West Point days. Sheridan did, however, later claim that the two men had met on the night before the battle and had ended their feud and enjoyed a pleasant evening.)

After graduation, Terrill, besides his teaching job,  fought in the Seminole Wars and spent time in "Bleeding Kansas." His early Civil War career included time as a captain of artillery and as the head of a battery of artillery at Shiloh and in the eventual siege of Corinth. He gained his promotion to Brigadier General in early September 1862, only a month before the fatal fight at Perryville.

His brother James, four years his junior, served in the Army of Northern Virginia in the Virginia Theater after having attended Virginia Military Institute and becoming a lawyer. He saw action at 1st and 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness and other battles before being killed in May of 1864 at Bethesda Church. (See also Battle of Totopotomoy Creek .)

Not only had both brothers served in this war on opposite sides, but both lost their lives during this conflict,  a sad and powerful symbol of the tragic nature of the war, when a "house divided against itself" finally collapsed, leading to enormous suffering, loss and sadness on both sides, as even the best-laid plans of loving mothers could not avoid such tragedy.

Thanks to the following links for providing helpful information and details on the Terrills and the battle.




Further thanks to The Civil War Dictionary: Revised Edition Mark M. Boatner III (copyright 1988, David McKay Company Inc, New York) and

Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle  Kenneth W. Noe (copyright 2001 University Press of Kentucky, Lexington)

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