With increased interest and attention stemming from the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Perryville, organizers are hoping to educate people not only about those who waged the battle, but the way the fighting and its aftermath impacted lives in the area for generations.
Perryville typically is not mentioned in the same breath as other battles with anniversaries this year, such as Shiloh, Tenn., or what likely will be the biggest of them all next year in Gettysburg, Pa. However, the strategic importance and stories of valor and hardship are expected to draw thousands of re-enactors and spectators Oct. 5-7 to Perryville Battlefield.
The battle is considered the pivotal conflict in determining the Union’s sway over Kentucky for the rest of the Civil War. A greatly outnumbered Confederate Army won a victory over the Union forces in the Perryville pastureland on Oct. 8, 1862, but the sheer size of the federal contingent would soon drive the Army of Mississippi south.
There were more than 7,600 combined casualties in less than six hours of fighting.
Joan House, Perryville Battlefield preservation coordinator, said this year’s re-enactment is expected to draw as many as 2,500 participants. The participants will stage the Charge of Donelson’s Brigade on Saturday morning; the fight up the “Valley of Death” on Saturday afternoon; and on Sunday morning will re-enact Confederate Gen. George Maney’s attack against the Union brigades of Gen. William R. Terrill and Col. John Starkweather, which includes the “Fight for the Cornfield.”
House hopes new people will be drawn to re-enacting as they were for the 125th anniversary of the Civil War, memorialized by works like Ken Burns’ epochal PBS series. However, with the number of people who are willing to recreate battles in a public setting on the wane, she is realistic about the opportunity this year’s staging represents for history buffs.
“There is a real shift in the way re-enactors, especially younger people, are thinking,” House said. “People want to experience what it was like for themselves but are not as interested in it as a public exhibition. If you have not seen a big Civil War re-enactment, you should get to one during the 150-year anniversary cycle.This could be one your last chances to see something on this scale.”
One of the main draws of Perryville for re-enactors always has been authenticity. Unlike so many other tracts where blood was shed during the war, virtually all of the Boyle County farmland that makes up the park remains unchanged since the time of the battle.
While the landscape was not altered dramatically by the fighting, House said the fabric of surrounding towns was never the same. This year’s commemoration will shift some focus to the way the battle defined the lives of local residents. A museum exhibit titled “The Hard Hand of War” is planned.
“We want to tell the story of the battle, but it is a bigger story than many people realize,” House said. “These massive armies of 40,000 men come in and take everything you have, and when they leave, there are thousands of dead and wounded. You’ve got a huge area around ground zero where people felt the effects.”
There is an element of entertainment that comes with a re-enactment, but House said the exhibit is part of an overall emphasis on the sacrifices made by both soldiers and ordinary people.
The exhibit will tell the stories of people such as “Squire” H.P. Bottom, whose farm became the battleground. Bottom’s barn and much of his crop were destroyed in the fighting, and he was never a self-sufficient farmer again.
“(Bottom) woke up a fairly well-to-do man, and by the afternoon he had basically nothing,” House said.
The exhibit includes the belongings of Union surgeon Robert R. McMeens, who served with the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. McMeens’ family member implored him to leave Perryville because of his own worsening illness, but he continued to perform operations on the wounded until just a few hours before he succumbed.
In addition to the re-enactment and the history exhibit, there will be guided tours and presentations by authors and historians throughout the weekend. The keynote speaker will be Stuart Sanders, who recently published the book “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle,” which chronicles how the battle affected the surrounding towns.
Guided paranormal investigation tours by Spirit Hunters of Central Kentucky will be given Friday and Saturday nights. Admission to the ghost tours is separate, but House said patrons can gain admission to all other events at the park with a single ticket.
“It’s not over when the battle re-enactment is over,” House said.
Food will be available, and House said people are encouraged to spend the entire day Saturday and most of the day Sunday at the site. She urges people to come early, wear sturdy walking shoes and be patient about getting into and out of the park.
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