Department of Tourism
Third National Reenactment of Battle of Perryville Expected to Draw 25,000 Spectators
The explosion of a cannon sends birds soaring skyward, their fear-laced shrieks competing with the death moans of mortally wounded soldiers, many of them barely past adolescence. The two columns advance toward each other across the rural landscape - their tattered gray and blood-soaked blue uniforms sad symbols of their animosity.
Muskets and bayonets are leveled; shots ring out; and the killing fields surrounding Perryville are littered with corpses.
October 1862 at the height of the Civil War in Kentucky? No, October 2002 and the second national re-enactment of the commonwealth's most significant skirmish between Union and Confederate troops.
It will all happen again this October 7-8 (the actual dates of the battle) when 5,000 re-enactors from 38 states and five countries, along with 25,000 spectators gather on the hilly slopes of the battlefield, now a state historic site. The re-enactors will time travel back to the early days of the War Between the States, and assume the identities of the Armies of the Ohio and Mississippi, under the leadership of Generals Don Carlos Buell and Braxton Bragg respectively.
They will re-enact two key segments of the battle, where 40,000 men fought and 7,500 were killed or wounded, one of the worst per hour casualty numbers of the Civil War, and where, during five hours of fierce fighting, the fate of Kentucky - and some argue, the entire nation - hung in the balance.
Today, looking at the green hills and valleys slumbering under a summer sun, it is hard to imagine the ferocity of those five hours in the autumn of 1862, "but the enormity of this battle cannot be over-stated," says Chris Kolakowski, executive director of the Perryville Enhancement Project, which is charged with preserving the battlefield and town.
Why is the relatively obscure (except for historians and Civil War scholars) Battle of Perryville considered by many to be the watershed battle of the Civil War, rather than better known battles such as Antietam, Bull Run or Gettysburg? The reasons are complex in nature.
While 1862 was not a good year for the Confederate Army in general (major defeats at the Battles of Shiloh and Antietam had resulted in loss of both men and morale), in Kentucky, the outlook was a bit more hopeful. Most of the area east of what is today Interstate 65 was under Confederate control; Bragg had come up from Chattanooga through western Kentucky, taking towns along the way; the Third Confederate Army under Humphrey Marshall had forced the Union Army to abandon its garrison at Cumberland Gap in the southeastern part of the state, and Bragg was spearheading efforts to turn Frankfort into a Confederate seat of government.
"Keeping all of this in mind, the stakes leading up to the Battle of Perryville could not have been higher," says Kolakowski.
Just what were these stakes? A Confederate victory would have severed the Union supply lines along the Ohio River, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the Army of the Republic to supply its troops in the deep South. If the Rebels took Kentucky, it would have meant thousands of fresh recruits for the Confederate army, not to mention a steady supply of horses from central Kentucky.
The battle did indeed live up to advance expectations. After fierce fighting, with both sides gaining ground and then losing it, the Confederates won a tactical victory, with Sam Watkins and his 1st Tennessee battalion saving the day. But if the Rebel Army won a tactical victory, it suffered a strategic defeat. The relentless pressure from the Union soldiers forced Bragg to withdraw from the state, ending hopes of a Confederate Kentucky. Never again would the Confederate Army, other than through sporadic cavalry raids, have a presence in Kentucky.
So, while Kolakowski maintains that the Battle of Perryville was a battle for Kentucky, some go even farther, labeling it a battle for the entire nation. When the re-enactors gather in October for the 144th anniversary of the battle, they might consider the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. James M. McPherson, who believed that had the Confederate Army won a decisive victory at Perryville, the entire course of the war might have been altered.
He wrote: "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Confederacy would have won the war if it could have gained Kentucky, and conversely, that the Union's success in retaining Kentucky as a base for invasions of the Confederate heartland brought eventual Union victory."
The Third Annual Central Kentucky Civil War Heritage Trail will be held from July 15-23. A cooperative effort to showcase the state's diverse Civil War heritage, trail sites include battlefields, forts and camps. Each of the participating venues has interactive events that will be open to the public. For more information, call (859) 332-8631 or go to www.kycivilwar.org.
The Third National Re-Enactment of the Battle of Perryville will be held October 7-8 at the Perryville Battle State Historic Site. In addition to the re-enactments, there will be military demonstrations, period music and entertainment, a ghost walk and authentic encampments. For more information, call (859) 332-8631 or go to www.perryvillereenactment.org.