The rolling terrain near Perryville, KY., played host to a critical October 1862 battle
When U.S. Army veteran Chuck Lott examines a Civil War battlefield, he sees something much different than most of the rest of us.
“Every stretch of ground,” the 72-year-old says, scanning Kentucky ridges cloaked in green and brown on a deep-blue sky day at the Perryville battlefield, “is a chance to die. I’m thinking, ‘That’s good for concealment, that’s good for cover.’”
This “battlefield vision,” as I like to call it, is a product of experience and perhaps family genes. Lott witnessed the carnage of war in Vietnam, where he served as a medic. And his family is steeped in service in the American military: His father was a Marine during World War II, surviving the bloodbath at Okinawa in the conflict’s waning weeks. An uncle stormed Anzio in 1944; another fought in the Korean War. Six of his great-great grandfathers served in Michigan regiments during the Civil War.
Soon after Lott and his wife moved to the Bluegrass State in 2005, he immersed himself in the history of the Perryville battle, visiting the field on his days off from his job as a hospital technologist. “Widowed the wife,” says the now-retired Lott, cracking a slight smile. He eventually became a Perryville battlefield interpretive specialist. Now treasurer of the “Friends of Perryville Battlefield,” Lott has given roughly 300 tours and U.S. Army staff rides on this hallowed ground in rural central Kentucky. On a frosty fall morning, my friend Jack Richards and I eagerly join him in a four-wheel drive Gator for a five-hour jaunt on the field.
“There are about 58,000 stories out here,” says our gravelly voiced guide, clad in a camo jacket and white hoodie, “and we only know about 2,000 of them.”
Nearly as it appeared in 1862, Perryville is a battlefield wanderer’s paradise of heart-racing ridges and scenery even an impressionist painter could appreciate. Only five battlefield monuments and markers and 47 modern interpretive tablets stand in the nearly 1,200-acre state park. But the battle that largely snuffed out Confederate hopes in Kentucky is hardly top of mind with Civil War historians or travelers. It was hardly top of mind with the public in 1862 either, coming three weeks after the much-bloodier Battle of Antietam in the Eastern Theater.
The Battle of Perryville was a strange but vicious fight on October 8, 1862, resulting in an astonishing 7,600 casualties in five hours. A fresh breeze was blowing out of the southwest. Temperature: About 85 degrees. Terrain: “Boldly undulating,” according to Confederate Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee. But I think Lott’s description captures this place perfectly: “Shaped like a giant egg crate.”
All those factors conspired to cause a phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow.” Army of the Ohio commander Don Carlos Buell didn’t hear the roar of artillery and gunfire from his headquarters three miles from the battle’s epicenter and thus probably didn’t deploy the full weight of his forces against the outmanned Army of Mississippi, commanded by ill-tempered Braxton Bragg. Meanwhile, a Confederate adjutant 45 miles away distinctly heard the cacophony of battle.
Perhaps Buell, who was despised by many on his staff, simply should have stayed home. In a letter to his wife shortly before the battle, a Federal officer wrote of his disappointment that the general had not broken his neck in a recent fall from a horse.
And so, roughly 13,000 Federals squared off against about 16,000 Confederates, who soon after sweeping the Federals from one ridge found they had a defensive position on another. “Almost like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole,” Lott says.
“What a pisser,” Richards says of the Confederates’ fight plight.
Atop Parsons’ Ridge, one of those “Whac-A-Mole” hills, we gaze toward a fence line, the Confederate position, about 100 yards away. To our left is battlefield land saved by the American Battlefield Trust; nearly 400 yards behind us, another one of those challenging ridges; above us, a soaring eagle, one of two that Lott says nests somewhere on the battlefield.
Steps away, a historical marker tells us this was the place that Union Brig. Gen. James Jackson, “the highest type
of Kentucky gentleman,” was killed.
The 39-year-old’s New York Times obit wasn’t as kind: “In manner he was brusque and overbearing, and as a consequence was a party to numerous quarrels, which sometimes resulted in duels.”
But I am more interested in what Lott says happened here to grunts in the 123rd Illinois. “Fresh fish,” he calls the regiment, which was mustered into service only a month earlier.
As Confederates swept toward the crest of Parsons’ Ridge, the Illinois boys were insanely ordered to make a bayonet charge. Among them was Private Alfred Hall, the 24-year-old son of Abraham Lincoln’s stepsister, Matilda. As an overwhelming enemy force advanced, Hall and his comrades did what most sensible soldiers would: They shifted into reverse, leaving dozens of their dead and wounded in their wake. “He was a pretty good sprinter,” Lott says of Hall, who retreated several hundred yards.
Near the bottom of the reverse slope of Parsons’ Ridge, we rumble past a lengthy double fence Lott constructed in about a week. “A hate fence,” he calls the war-time original that separated the property of two feuding farmers. Yards away, we stand by the site of a cornfield where the rookie 21st Wisconsin lay awaiting its baptism of fire. Even today, I can sense the green regiment’s fear.
As scores of Confederates streamed over Parsons’ Ridge, the Midwesterners’ commander, Colonel Benjamin Sweet, still recovering from malaria, arrived on the field in an ambulance and mounted his horse. The 30-year-old officer was severely wounded in the right arm, an injury that never healed, and later in the neck. (He later became commander of the Camp Douglas POW camp.)
Our Gator chugs up Starkweather’s Hill, named after 1st Wisconsin Colonel John S. Starkweather, whose troops defended the ridge. Lott shows where Samuel Watkins, who wrote the classic Civil War memoir Company Aytch, and his 1st Tennessee comrades aimed to outflank the Federals on a steep side of the hill, below Union cannons.
Then Lott drives us to one of the more beautiful spots on this battlefield: another of those damn “Whac-A-Mole” hills. At the high-water mark for Bragg’s army, a small section of stone wall remains on ground behind which the Federals deployed. Below us, Georgians swept through the ravine – Lott says Georgia-manufactured bullets were found there before it became part of the state park. This area also was site of heroic efforts only fully appreciated by examining the ground yourself.
Lott points to the steep incline where Union soldiers somehow dragged two cannons to safety while under fire. Nearby, John S. Durham, a 19-year-old 1st Wisconsin sergeant, grabbed the regimental colors from a dying color sergeant “amid a shower of shot, shell, and bullets” and advanced with the flag midway between the armies. Durham, who ran away from home at age 7 and was adopted by a showman, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor at Perryville in 1896.
“Your conduct in the battle,” Starkweather wrote Durham decades after the fight, “was the most conspicuous act of bravery on the part of a soldier that I have ever witnessed.”
Heroism, of course, wasn’t confined to soldiers in blue. In one of the most audacious acts of the largest battle ever fought in Kentucky, 900 Mississippians in Colonel Thomas Jones’ brigade charged through a valley against 3,000 Federals supplemented with six cannons. “Like storming a castle wall,” says Lott. When I walked Jones’ Ridge weeks earlier, my heart raced.
More than a decade ago, Lott and battlefield wanderers on hay wagons pulled by tractors examined this valley with Ed Bearss, the renowned Civil War historian, then in his early 80s.
“Get off your wagons, guys, you better start walking,” said Bearss, in his distinctive, booming voice. Lott walked with Bearss, a World War II Marine who died last summer, on a steep stretch.
“I did not plan to shift into a lower gear,” Bearss growled, “but I think I just did.”
Every Civil War battlefield has a story about families ravaged by warfare. At Perryville, poor Henry Pierce Bottom’s family was especially hard hit. “Squire” raised cows, sheep and pigs and grew corn on more than 600 rolling acres near Doctor’s Creek. His crops were destroyed, a barn was set afire by Confederate artillery, and his farmhouse-turned-makeshift military hospital was wrecked.
Bottom’s psyche was damaged, too. Asked during his war claim testimony after the war if “Squire” recovered from his losses, a Perryville doctor replied, “No sir, he never did. He was broken in spirit from that time on until he died.” Bottom sought more than $4,000 in compensation from the government, but never received a penny during his lifetime.
Lott unlocks the door to the privately owned Bottom House and escorts us through a marvelously restored Civil War time capsule. Covered by small pieces of Plexiglas, bullet holes pepper the interior. On the second floor, Lott reaches under a bed and pulls out a remarkable relic: an original door used as an operating table during and after the battle. Luminol sprayed on it revealed the presence of blood.
On the opposite side of Doctor’s Creek, we didn’t need Lott’s gift for spotting good cover and concealment to know a massive, almost 200-year-old oak would be excellent for a game of cat and mouse. The imposing monster is the last witness tree on the battlefield.
It’s just another reason to appreciate this underrated battlefield. ✯
John Banks, who lives in Nashville, is author of a popular Civil War blog (john-banks.blogspot.com).