Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trip to Perryville

I just took a 2 day trip through a few museum and historic sites in central and western Kentucky, and must say I had a blast. It was terrific, and hopefully will give me material for a few entries here.

I wish to begin with what my main motivation for the trip was - a visit to the Perryville Battlefield, site of the October 8, 1862 battle between Don Carlos Buell's Union troops and Braxton Bragg's Confederates.

Once I finally found my way there (thanks a lot, Garmin - not! :) ), I just loved it. I initially went into the museum which has been redone since my last visit and found it to be wonderful. They have a 28 minutes video about the battle, and many other displays about the fight and the people who fought in it. It is not a huge museum, but it has plenty of displays and artifacts and is certainly a must-see for anyone who wants to visit the battlefield.

I then walked the field, using a tour guide/flier I had gotten in the museum (free.) I took the "short trail" which is only 1.3 miles long, but thought I might finish it and then try a longer version. I did finish this "short loop" (with one brief detour off it to a stop from one of the longer tours) but this walk proved that distance is not everything. This town and battlefield really ought to be renamed "Perry-hill."

It is a difficult walk, up and down hills and ridges. I did have a backpack with some bottled water and a couple snacks, and carried my camera, but that weight was nothing compared to what the soldiers would have carried. Plus, my shorts, t-shirt and gym shoes were much more comfortable than anything the soldiers carried, yet I was very tired after just walking this tour. For the fully-uniformed and equipped soldiers who charged up these hills, with bullets and artillery shells filling the air, I earned an even bigger respect. This was not easy ground to cover, especially on a warm day (mid 80s - probably similar, maybe a bit cooler, than what it was during the battle.)

The field in the state historic site, which covers most of the afternoon's fighting along Parson's Ridge (or Open Knob) and Starkweather's Hill, is simply beautiful. Several times the descriptive signs noted that the Confederates fought hard to attack a hill and the Union, usually after a hard defense, fell back. When the Confederate to to the crest of one hill, all they saw was the Union troops on the crest of yet another ridge. That must have been not only physically tiring, but mentally exhausting, perhaps dis-spiriting, to the attackers.

Besides the constant "rolling hills" (if you have read that phrase and don't quite understand it, please visit Perryville and you will) what has struck me most about the battle was the bungling of the commanders on each side, especially Buell. He had been injured a few days prior, so may not have been in the proper mindset of an army leader, plus an "acoustic shadow" supposedly prevented him from hearing the battle, meaning that many of his men did not get used. The Union outnumbered the Confederates about 55,000 to 17,000, but Buell did not realize that a serious battle was taking place. Supposedly even that night, after discussing the day with Generals Alexander McCook, Lovell Rousseau and Philp Sheridan, he still did not comprehend that a major fight had just occurred.

Bragg, meanwhile, experienced the opposite problem of over-confidence. He did not realize that all of Buell's forces were in the area, so he thought his troops could whip the Yankees. How much of this lack of knowledge was his fault and how much blame belonged to his cavalry is a fair question to ponder about this issue, but still, even before this battle, Bragg had taken time to install a Confederate Governor in Kentucky's capital of Frankfort instead of pushing his army on more aggressively. This only helped the Union forces get into position to fight and defend the Bluegrass state.

On the other hand, another description I saw called this battle the ultimate "soldier's fight" which was decided by the men on the lines, giving their all, fighting hard all over the field, not leaving it up to their leaders or to any grand strategies or tactics. Even with that perspective, I have to wonder how each leader allowed his army to get into such positions - Buell where his overwhelming numbers were not used and Bragg to where he faced such an enemy. This Kentucky campaign and the ending at Perryville provided laurels for neither leader.

I'll admit that even after this trip I'm no expert on the battle, but the above comments indicate what my current understanding of the battle is. Perhaps I'm too harsh on one or the other of the two commanders, but this sure strikes me as an unimpressive performance on their part. Buell, in fact, was replaced by William Rosecrans shortly after the battle, and Bragg's reputation after the retreat to Tennessee was severely, perhaps permanently, damaged as well.

As for the men in the field, my views are completely opposite to what I feel about their leaders. To fight on such hilly terrain, in such hot, dry weather, and to keep going on until daylight ended (the number of hills and ridges allowed the Union forces to keep falling back until it was too late for the Confederates to continue as General Leonidas Polk stopped his men from further attacks.

As for my tour of the battlefield, after I was done with the walking portion, I took the driving tour, which I had never done before. Using the access road in the park, I saw several points of interest that the "short loop" did not include, and then road into town, across the Chaplin River with its water that was so rare and precious 148 year ago, and saw Merchants Row for the first time. I drove near the site of Buell's headquarters (no longer standing) and then found Bragg's headquarters as well. Bragg's was tough to find as the sign that the driving tour instructs you to look for is hidden by a tree, and the house itself is hard to see due to the trees in front of it. Please see the below picture.

One complaint I have about the park is that I wish they had cleaned the signs, and even the cannons, throughout the tour. It's a rural area, with lots of birds, and the tour reinforced this. Several of the signs were difficult to read, partially due to exposure, but bird droppings also covered some of the text at times. That's not the kind of stuff you just wipe off with your hands. I understand they cannot be perfectly clean all of the time, but it looked to me like that had not been cleaned at all recently.

The same goes for the cannons. Although no text was being obscured, seeing some of the cannons with a bunch of bird waste on them was a bit disheartening. It just does not look good.

I understand it's a difficult job to take care of so many acres, so I won't harp on those small gripes, as that did not affect the enjoyment of my trip and overall experience. It is a beautiful place and really created a feeling in me of what type of challenges these tens of thousands of young men faced and the sacrifices and efforts they made to support their causes.

I did take a bunch of pictures, and hopefully labeled them correctly. I will have them posted online soon.

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