PERRYVILLE — The big show is planned for 2012, but a blast of fall weather and lower than usual turnout didn’t stop re-enactors from hunkering down on the grounds of Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site for the final commemoration before next year’s 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle.
Park Manager Kurt Holman said there wasn’t a large effort to recruit re-enactors as the park gears up for the hundreds expected at next year’s sesquicentennial. He said organizers were doubtful whether the penultimate event would draw enough people to stage a re-enactment, but enough re-enforcements arrived by Friday to go ahead with the battle.
Unlike the unseasonably warm and blustery conditions when soldiers waged battle on Oct. 8, 1862, Saturday’s teeth-chattering temperatures meant groups like the one representing the 6th Kentucky Infantry and Cavalries, companies mustered from surrounding counties during the Civil War, made good use of their campfires.
“(Fire) was quite necessary on a night like that,” said 6th Infantry commander Brian Chastain of Cincinnati. “Today people don’t have to think about things like that. We are only out here for a couple days, but we talk about the weather and the conditions many of these men endured. We just don’t know how they did it.”
Many like Chastain, who had two relatives at Perryville, are still drawn to Perryville because it represents an opportunity to walk grounds that have changed so little since their ancestors fought there.
“Most of us who get into this have traced our family back,” said Randal House of Harrodsburg, who has been coming to the Perryville re-enactment for 21 years. “That’s part of the appeal of doing this. With border states like Kentucky and others you have a lot of families who fought on both sides.”
House’s own ancestors were split by the war, with his great-great-grandfather Benjamin House and his brother John joining up with the Union and another brother, Sam, fighting for the confederacy.
The House family also has a long history of participating in the re-enactment and working to maintain the battlefield. Randal’s daughter Joni House is the preservation coordinator at the battlefield and her son Jacob Salley, 20, has been participating in the commemoration of the battle from an early age.
Jacob, a Boyle County High School graduate and student at Eastern Kentucky University, is one of a handful of younger people, a group Holman said is relatively scarce, who other re-enactors are counting on to continue their traditions.
“What really draws me to it is the gentlemen who fought and died here,” said Salley, who was portraying a 16-year-old, also named Jacob, conscripted from his bed in a nearby farmhouse in the middle of the night and handed a rifle. “A lot of them are being forgotten and its our job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Holman said many younger re-enactors are less inclined to participate in events similar to the one at Perryville, and more small reenactments — there were 18 in the weeks before and after last year’s battle commemoration — have sapped some of the numbers that used to show up annually. In order to face the challenges of staging a re-enactment, Holman pointed to many of the other things that now surround the event, including additional vendors, talks with historians and lectures and tours related to the paranormal.
The state is also gearing up for next year’s anniversary. Saturday afternoon Marcheta Sparrow, secretary of the state tourism, arts and heritage cabinet, announced Perryville Battlefield as one of 54 locations across the state highlighted as part of the Kentucky Civil War Heritage Trail.