Monday, March 15, 2010

On the Fields of Perryville

We returned from our fantastic history road trip during spring break on Friday. I hope to share photos and video from many of the historic sites we Penn State students visited over the week. After a full day of driving from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, our first stop was Perryville Battlefield State Park, located in the rolling hillsides of rural Kentucky. Other than three or four other people we encountered during our visit, we had the battlefield entirely to ourselves. It was a pleasant change of pace when pondering the frequent congestion of battlefields like Gettysburg. This will be the first of at least a dozen posts on our trip.

Perryville was the largest Civil War battle to take place in Kentucky. By early fall of 1862, the ever-troubled Confederate commander Braxton Bragg and his southern forces entered Kentucky to both lure Federals away from the Nashville, TN area in addition to foraging and recruiting. By late September and early October, the pursuing Union Army of the Ohio under General Don Carlos Buell forced the Confederates through the town of Bardstown and eastward toward Perryville, KY.

The path to Perryville. Map by Steve Stanley and the Civil War Preservation Trust. Click to Enlarge.

According to a brochure at the park, the 16,000 Confederates planned to launch an offensive against the pursuing Federals, not knowing that northern forces numbered in excess of 58,000 men. Some 20,000 of these would be deployed in the sloping terrain west of the town of Perryville. Around 2 p.m. on October 8, Bragg's men charged into the Union defenses in a battle that would continue past 7 p.m. Both flanks of the northern positions were compromised but were preserved at the last moment thanks to reserve troops. In the end, nearly 8,000 men became casualties. The Commonwealth of Kentucky was lost for the Confederacy.

On the fortieth anniversary of the battle in 1902, a Confederate monument was dedicated in the Confederate cemetery begun by Henry P. Bottom at the center of the field, and a smaller Federal memorial was erected nearby in 1931. The Perryville State Battlefield site was established in 1954 by the Kentucky State Conservation Commission, and a museum and visitor's center were opened near the monuments on the battle's one hundredth anniversary in 1962.

A close-up view of the Confederate monument dedicated in 1902. The Confederates lost 532 men plus another 437 missing. Because their outnumbered force had to withdraw quickly from the field, their dead remained on the field and became victim to hogs and buzzards. One unknown Union soldier commented that:
"All around us was evidence of the death and struggle of the day before. Bodies of men were scattered about. In the field and by the roadside every house and barn was filled with the maimed and dying...Many of them were in the most horrible condition that the mind can conceive. Some were shot through the head, body, or limbs. Others mangled by fragments of shell and all suffering the greatest torments."
There were very few tombstones in this small cemetery, but I assume there are more buried in there. There are no Union burials on the field that we know of. One of the few graves here was that of Sergeant Harris Bradford Cope of the 16th Tennessee Infantry. Unfortunately, I could find no biographical information on the man besides what is on his tombstone. 33 years of age, older than most soldiers, but still too young.

Our first stop was Starkweather's Hill, where Union Colonel John Starweather helped prevent the capture of the Union wagon trains.
Col. John Starkweather

Library of Congress Image.

Samuel R. Watkins of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry, who wrote the classic memoir Company Aytch: Or, a Side Show of the Big Show, was a survivor of Perryville. The entire text of his book may be found at Project Gutenberg.

This marker describes the intense fighting on this portion of the hill.
Another view from Starkweather's Hill. This Napoleon cannon is painted gold to look bronze.

In this video, the esteemed Dr. Steve Andrews musters his best southern accent to tell us of Perryville in the context of "the Civil War in a nutshell."

View looking east.

The Union forces were largely composed of soldiers from the Midwest including Illinois and Michigan.

In the far distance of this photo is the H.P. Bottoms House, which was standing at the time of the battle. Members of the the 3rd Ohio Infantry anchored near here against a much larger Confederate force. Led by General Bushrod Johnson, the southerners charged the hill part way before seeking shelter behind a nearby stonewall. Holding against Confederate artillery, the Ohioans withstood another attack led by General Patrick Cleburne. A third assault commanded by General Dan Adams finally pushed the Union line back to a secondary position.

The Bottom House, from a picture taken in 1885. A nearby barn housing wounded Federals caught fire and many of the injured, unable to escape, perished in the flames.

According to Battles and Leaders and Wikipedia, "Perryville's homes and farms were left in shambles by the battle. Henry P. Bottom, a prominent secessionist on whose farm a significant portion of the battle was fought, suffered losses of pork, corn, hay, and wood to Union soldiers who remained in the area for weeks after the fighting. The main force of the Union army had buried most of their dead in long trenches before pursuing Bragg, but most of the Confederate dead were still unburied a week after the battle. Union soldiers finally forced local residents to help them lay the dead in shallow trenches carved in the dry soil. Two months later, 347 were re-buried in a mass grave on Bottom's land. A total of 435 Confederates were buried on Squire Bottom's land-this land was chosen because their dead lay thickest on the eastern slope. Although Bottom claimed that about 100 were identified the only rements of the cemetery was a corner of a stone wall and one headstone-of Samuel H. Ransom of the 1st Tennessee Infantry CSA.

At the end of the war in 1865, Union soldiers reburied the remains of 969 Federal dead in a national cemetery at Perryville with a stone wall, two gates and plans for a monument. The monument was never erected, however, and in 1867 the new cemetery was closed and the Federal dead transferred to Camp Nelson in Kentucky, leaving no identified Federal dead on the field at Perryville."

Captain Peter Simonson of the Light Indiana Artillery soon became embroiled in a desperate artillery duel with opposing Confederate gunners. For more than an hour, the batteries fired back and forth. Because the Union guns had greater range, these gunners had the upper hand. Eventually, many of the rebel guns withdrew and the Federals believed they were in retreat. However, the fields to the marker's front quickly became filled with advancing Confederates. The Northerners had precious few amounts of long-range shells remaining following the duel. It would cost them.

A view looking east from the position of Simonson's Battery. Cleburne's and Brown's Confederates pushed over the hills to our front. Near the far distant treeline was the site of "Sleettown," a post-Civil War African American community composed of ex-slaves.

A south easterly view from Simonson's Battery site. The Bottoms House is at the bottom of the hill just off to the right of the photo's view.

Unfortunately, the visitor center was closed. However, we were able to enjoy the center's Kentucky Native Plants Garden. (Okay, okay. Winter just ended. I know.) The interior of the center was completely renovated in 2009, with brand new exhibits. Luckily, there is an online photo gallery of this new museum.

Although we did not have the time to explore the entire battlefield, we now know more about the battle than prior to our visit. You may visit the park's website here. Two other noteworthy sites are The Battle of Perryville and Perryville Battlefield. Enjoy!

Stay tuned for part two of our spring break history palooza...

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