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Perryville Partnerships

Stuart W. Sanders

November 2003

On October 8, 1862, Kentucky's largest Civil War battle raged outside of Perryville. The next day, 12-year-old William McChord toured the battleground. Reaching a bullet-marked farmhouse that had been caught in the crossfire, McChord noted:"Here we saw the first evidence of real war. The house, tents and yard were full of wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. I can never forget the groans, wails and moans of these hundreds of men as they lay side by side, some in the agony of death, some undergoing operations on the surgeon's table in one corner of the yard. Near the table was a pile of legs and arms; some with shoes on, others with socks, four or five feet high."約

The Battle of Perryville determined the fate of Kentucky. More than 80,000 Union and Confederate troops blundered into one another at Perryville, a small riverside village of 300 inhabitants, and fought for nearly five hours. More than 7,500 men were killed or wounded, and the Confederates' failure to attain a decisive victory kept Kentucky in Union hands for the remainder of the war.

Veterans who fought at Perryville long remembered the battle's intensity. The oft-quoted Sam Watkins, who fought in every major fight in the Western Theater, remarked, "I was in every battle, skirmish and march that was made by the First Tennessee Regiment during the war, and I do not remember of a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that of Perryville."約

Union Major General Alexander McCook reported that Perryville was "the bloodiest battle of modern times for the number of troops engaged on our side."約

In order to commemorate the sacrifices made by the soldiers who endured this horrific fighting, the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association (PBPA) was formed to preserve and interpret this important site. Success in forging partnerships with federal, state, and local agencies ensures that this hallowed ground is preserved for future generations.

Initial efforts focused on battlefield improvements (installing split-rail fencing and reproduction cannon), but active preservation efforts were pushed to the forefront in 1993, when the Congressionally-appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission (CWSAC) named Perryville a Class A, Priority I battlefield.

In addition to noting the site's historic significance, this ranking determined that Perryville was a priority for immediate preservation. Because the battlefield is nearly devoid of modern intrusions, the CWSAC honored the site by using a photograph of Perryville as the cover of their Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields.

More good news came that year when the Association secured a $2.5 million federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) award for battlefield land acquisition. At the time, this funding represented the largest transportation enhancement allocation awarded to a battlefield preservation organization, and this record likely stands today.

Involved with securing this funding were the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Kentucky Department of Parks, the Boyle County Fiscal Court, several state and local entities, and many private citizens who showed their support and interest in this battleground.

The ISTEA funding (now TEA-21) has provided the backbone for preservation efforts. When the Association began using these funds for land acquisition, only 98 acres of the Perryville battlefield had been preserved, despite the fact that the fighting had raged across thousands of acres. Now, thanks to our many partners, the PBPA has managed to increase the amount of protected battlefield land to nearly 600 acres.

Protecting important structures associated with the unique history of Perryville has been another focus of the organization. Recognizing that heritage tourism is a key component for regional economic development, the Association has acquired a 19th century mill and miller's house (located on the edge of town) that will eventually become the area's primary battlefield museum. Modern structures located on the battlefield, including a 1960s museum and gift shop, will be razed to revert the land to its 19th century appearance.

Several years ago, the Boyle County Fiscal Court (the county's governing body) deeded the Crawford House and Crawford Spring property to the PBPA. The house served as Confederate General Braxton Bragg's headquarters, while the spring was one of the few viable water sources available during the drought-stricken autumn of 1862.

While the house will eventually be restored for public visitation, interpretive signs that discuss the role of the house and spring during the battle have already been installed on site. These signs are part of a PBPA-sponsored battle-field interpretive trail that includes 30 signs and five miles of mown paths. This system interprets much of the newly acquired land for the first time.

The Association recently purchased the Dye House and farm (50 acres), which was Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner's headquarters, a staging ground for Southern troops, and a field hospital. The home, which still has bloodstains on the second floor, has been deeded to the Kentucky Dept. of Parks, which manages the battlefield.

Many layers of interpretation are involved in telling the story of Perryville. In addition to the 19th-century military history of the battlefield, the Association has also worked to highlight the town's civilian history. These efforts focus on the preservation of Merchants' Row, the town's 19th-century commercial district. Remarkably, the PBPA has acquired nine of the Merchants' Row structures (most of which were field hospitals after the battle), and, once restoration is complete, several will become museums.

These buildings include a 19th-century general store, a doctor's office, a drugstore, and a stately 19th-century home. One house on the Row, struck by artillery fire during the battle, will become an orientation center for the historic district. Another property in town includes a cave and spring that was this area's first Pioneer settlement.

Founded in the 1770s as Harberson's Station, settlers were living in the cave as late as 1787. Archaeological work on site has produced 18th-century military buttons and stone tools. Therefore, in addition to the 19th-century military and civilian story, the Association will also interpret Kentucky's 18th-century frontier history.

Our interpretive efforts are multi-layered and focus on many aspects of Perryville's past. We have worked to make our interpretation broader than the 19th-century civilian and military story. With funding from the Kentucky African-American Heritage Commission, PBPA staff completed a study of Sleettown, a turn-of-the-century African-American community founded on the battlefield. Settled by freed slaves, Sleettown prospered as an integrated community at a time when Kentucky was racially segregated. While only one Sleettown structure stands today (on private property), the PBPA interprets the site through a brochure and signage.

Last October, the battlefield staged its largest interpretive event when Perryville hosted the 2002 National Civil War reenactment. Sponsored by the North-South Alliance, the Kentucky Department of Parks, the Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the PBPA, this occasion drew more than 4,500 reenactors and 40,000 spectators. The reenactment was a great success, and reenactor registrations went toward PBPA preservation efforts.

Ann R. Latta, Secretary of the Kentucky Tourism Development Cabinet, noted that Perryville's national reenactment was "a tribute to the hard work and dedication of those who have successfully preserved this battle site and to those who have advanced the reenactment to a level of national prominence."約

Noted Civil War historian Ed Bearss recently wrote that the Perryville battlefield "is today as handsome and as unspoiled as it was 140 years ago, unlike many Civil War battlefields. Because of the pastoral nature of these landscapes, a soldier of the 1860s would not find, as has happened too often, the hard hand of [modern development] laid on these rural landscapes."約

Because the battlefield is so pristine as well as so significant, the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association, working with many partners on the federal, state, and local levels, has had success preserving this site. Nevertheless, our work is far from complete. To help with this multi-faceted project, please see www.perryville.net.


Stuart W. Sanders is director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association. The author of Kentucky's Civil War Heritage Trail (published by the Kentucky Department of Travel Develop-ment), Sanders has written for America's Civil War, Civil War


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