Hundreds of blue-clad soldiers standing side by side in long lines lift their rifled muskets to their shoulders. A commander yells “Fire!” Puffs of smoke drift up from the rifle barrels. Across a pasture, scores of enemy soldiers dressed in gray and butternut fall to the ground, while their fellow soldiers return fire. Along the flanks of the infantry formations, cavalrymen ride back and forth, probing for weaknesses in the enemy formations.
Meanwhile, at the rear, cannons belch fire. The echoes can be heard for miles around this pastoral farmland.
Scenes like this one played out in 2002 during the re-enactment of the Battle of Perryville. Perryville State Historic Site has hosted an annual event for many years, but in 2002, it was designated the nation’s major battle re-enactment. Some 5,000 re-enactors descended upon Perryville that year, five times as many participants as usual. Nearly 25,000 spectators showed up for the colorful event.
It was so successful that major Civil War groups will return this year for their national re-enactment. It is scheduled for October 7-8, the actual dates of the battle.
Why Perryville? It was here that the critical battle for the heart and soul of Kentucky took place in October 1862. The setup for the clash took place when Confederate General Braxton Bragg, commanding the 16,000-man Army of the Mississippi, sought to claim Kentucky for the South. He had heard that Union General Don Carlos Buell and his 58,000-man army were marching out of Louisville. He thought Buell’s forces were headed for Frankfort, but in fact Buell’s entire army was headed to Perryville. On the evening of October 7, troops from both sides happened upon each other.
The next day, Bragg’s rebel forces staged their main assault at 2 p.m. The battle lasted into the night. It was a bloodbath, as attacks and counterattacks raged. Some 90 cannons exacted a heavy toll on the combatants. The Confederates repulsed the superior Union force, but Bragg realized he was outnumbered, and on October 8 he withdrew his force to the Cumberland Gap. It was the South’s last effort to secure Kentucky for its own.
In the aftermath, 1,422 soldiers were killed and 5,534 wounded. For months afterward, the small community of Perryville was filled with casualties from the bloody battle.
This historic event is marked each year with an annual re-enactment, this year celebrating the 144th anniversary. Over the past decade, park officials have sought to widen the appeal of the event.
“The basic philosophy is ‘something for everyone,’” says Kurt Holman, park manager. “Starting in 1994, we started adding extra programs,” Holman says. “I heard one comment that a spectator made that ‘this used to be just the battle, but now they’ve got so many other things going on.’ That really stuck in my head.”
The focal point remains the battle re-enactments themselves. There will be three over the weekend. The first will be held at sunrise on Saturday. The other two will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Each will be staged at different areas of the park.
Each battle will follow scenarios prepared for the re-enactment groups and will last about 45 minutes. While historical accuracy is important, the entertainment value isn’t forgotten. For example, cavalry riders will add color and dash to the scene, even though cavalry weren’t involved in the real battle. Also, the scenarios are staged so that visitors can get excellent views of the action, Holman says.
You don’t have to be an expert in Civil War tactics to enjoy the weekend. Many other activities are slated.
They include a display of Civil War clothing. The exhibit features period dresses, frock coats, parasols, and bonnets.
A living-history village will be another feature. Visitors will get the opportunity to watch soap making, quilting, and other activities that would have been typical in the Civil War village of Perryville. Interaction will be encouraged with the “villagers,” who will portray prominent citizens of the time.
There will be military demonstrations, authentic encampments, period music, and entertainment.
On Saturday night, the park will hold a ghost walk where visitors will be led by a tour guide past various vignettes in which live actors portray scenes from the time, such as a field hospital in operation, a soldier writing home, or several soldiers chatting beside a campfire.
Actors portraying President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis will address slavery during debates scheduled both Saturday and Sunday. Other aspects of the Civil War will be discussed during presentations by historian Dr. James Klotter and author David Dick.
The historic site’s permanent facilities also offer insight into the Civil War era. The museum holds an extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia from the battle. A new feature is a 7.2-mile interpretive trail dotted with 41 signs that provide insight into the original battle.
Perryville holds a special distinction among Civil War re-enactments held each year around the country.
“We’re one of the only places where the re-enactment is held at the actual site of the battle,” Holman says. The Antietam re-enactment, for example, is held 20 miles from where the battle took place, Holman notes.
Perryville holds a national reputation for its pristine setting, thanks in large part to the work of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association. Since its founding in 1992, the association has acquired land around the original 98-acre site of the state park. Because of the association’s efforts, there are now 517 acres under state control.
“I’m real proud of our track record,” says Chris Kolakowski, executive director of the Perryville Enhancement Project.
Proceeds from the national re-enactment support the association’s work. The 2002 event raised $50,000. With a similar amount this year, “That gives us a lot of possibilities.
That’s money we pour right back into the site,” Kolakowski says.
The tourism impact of the annual re-enactment and the expanded national event is noteworthy, too, says Mary Quinn Ramer, executive director of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“During an average year, we have about 800 to 1,000 re-enactors,” Ramer says. “We do a pretty good job of filling our rooms. But when you have an event like a national re-enactment, it’s not just Boyle County that benefits, it’s Mercer County, Jessamine County, and not just contiguous counties. It’s significant for the entire region.”
PERRYVILLE INFO ON THE WEB
The Internet provides a variety of information on the Perryville battle re-enactment.
The official re-enactment Web site is www.perryvillereenactment.org. It contains detailed information about the event.
The official Web address for the state historic site is parks.ky.gov/statehistoricsites/pb.
An extensive overview of the Battle of Perryville is available at www.battleofperryville.com
Information about tourism attractions, events, and accommodations is available at the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.Danvilleky.com or by calling (800) 755-0076.
ATTENDING THE 2006 RE-ENACTMENT OF BATTLE OF PERRYVILLE
The national Perryville battle re-enactment is scheduled for October 7-8 at Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site near Perryville in Boyle County. From Danville, take US 150 about 10 miles west to Perryville. Follow the signs to the main parking area, located about a mile from the park. Free bus shuttles will operate throughout the weekend. Tickets are $15 for one day, $20 for both days. For children ages 6-12, tickets are $5 for one day, free for the second day. Admission for children under 6 is free. Advance tickets for adults provide a $3 discount and may be purchased by calling the state historic site at (859) 332-8631. Visitors are encouraged to prepare for an outdoor event that involves quite a bit of walking.