The Kentucky Civil War Dispatch: A Soldier's Christmas Letter

Dec 22, 2011

Murray, KY – On this date in 1861, William Jackson Perren, a Crittenden countian who had joined the 41st Illinois Infantry, promised a special holiday meal for Confederates aiming to spend Christmas in Union-occupied Smithland, the Livingston County seat. " We will set at the head of the table and wate on them with pot pye cokt in a stove knone by the name of the columby pop gun," the Kentuckian wrote his parents two days before Yuletide, 1861. Translation: The Yankees would shoot the Rebels with their mighty Columbiad cannon. Randa Ramsey of Gracey treasures her great-great uncle's letter, which he penned to his parents, R.G. and Marey Perren on December 23rd, 1861. Private Perren perished on the first day of the battle of Shiloh, April 6, 1862. He was 21-years-old. Perren was from Dycusburg, where his family also lived. Apparently, he enlisted in Company I of the 41st Illinois after the regiment arrived in Smithland, where the Cumberland River joins the Ohio. Following the capture of Paducah, Grant sent some of his troops to seize Smithland. Union troops fortified both strategic towns against the Confederates. Perren was one of several Yankee volunteers from mostly pro-Union Crittenden County. Perren added, "The cesesh ["secesh," short for "secessionists"] say that they are agone to take din[n]er in our fort a[t] Christmas." The enemy didn't show up. Nonetheless, Union forces braced themselves for battle. They erected a pair of stout-walled earthworks on high ground overlooking Smithland and the rivers. The bastions were known collectively as Fort Smith. The larger strongpoint, which was razed long ago, bristled with the Columbiad -- which fired 64-pound shells -- and a 32-pounder cannon. The smaller work, which survives on a wooded hilltop above Livingston Central High School, sheltered another 32-pounder. In his letter, Perren assured his loved ones he was "doing well [and] hoping that theze few lines may find you all injoying the same blessing [.]" Perren bade farewell to a wife, Martha Ann Perren, when he signed up for the army. "Now Father do not forget to keep Marthey an[n] in wood and I will try to send one rebel home when they come to take din[n]er with us," he wrote. Perren didn't stay long in Smithland. In February, 1862, the 41st Illinois helped Grant's army capture Fort Donelson, further up the Cumberland River at Dover, Tennessee. Less than two months later, Grant defeated another Rebel army at the battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, near the Tennessee River. Perren lost his life on April 6, the first day of the savage two-day fight. Randa Ramsey says the family believes he was buried at Shiloh. Perren is not listed among the named burials at Shiloh National Cemetery, which is inside Shiloh National Military Park. But several graves contain the remains of unknown soldiers. They are among the more than quarter of a million estimated unknown Civil War dead. WKMS produces Kentucky Civil War Dispatches from West Kentucky Community and Technical College history professor Berry Craig. The Murray State alumnus is the author of Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers, True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon, and Burgoo, and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. For WKMS News, I'm Todd Hatton.