Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: Perryville Under Fire

Last week, just before my trip to Chickamauga, I received from Amazon the latest title to cover the Battle of Perryville, Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky's Largest Civil War Battle.  Written by former Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association director Stuart Sanders, it is a one hundred and sixty page softcover book that deals with the effects of the fight of Perryville on that small town as well as the numerous surrounding communities that were touched in the fall of 1862.  Perryville, an intense battle that lasted five hours, left hundreds of dead and wounded upon the battleground, the wounded who had to be gathered and moved to one of dozens of temporary hospitals, and the dead who had to be identified and buried.

The eleven chapters deal mostly with these two themes, the wounded and the dead, and how dealing with both stretched the resources of Perryville, already dealing with a summer long drought and the drain of supplies that both armies required, to its breaking point.  Nearly every home, church, school, barn, shed, and other type of structure were used as makeshift hospitals, noted as such by the piles of amputated limbs found outside of doors and windows.  The numerous first person accounts describing these scenes of abject horror are not for the easily distraught, as many of the descriptions are vivid and gut-wrenching.  But it is in the first person accounts that Mr. Sanders has given us the means to see the true damage that a battle brings, for days, weeks, and months, on the area in which the battle was fought.  Without water, without enough medical supplies, without clean conditions, the men stood little chance of survival if they had been wounded severely.  Diseases were rampant, and the soldiers were not the only ones to suffer and die as many of the local citizens who helped nurse the wounded also took ill and passed away.

Sanders has done an efficient job of getting the reader to be influenced by not the glory of battle and dying for a cause, but understanding the horror that comes from being wounded by a minie ball or a shell fragment and how some of the wounded were left for days without care or shelter.  He also lets us understand the disgraceful way that the dead were the fodder for local hogs and crows, and how that some men were buried in graves so shallow that when it would rain that an arm or a leg might pop out of the ground.  Not a glorious end.

As you might be able to gather, this is not a book for the timid.  There are enough descriptions that bring vivid images to life.  However, it is a book to understand what an area goes through after a battle during the Civil War.  I recommend this book for several reasons as one can never have too many books about this pivital battle, but caution the reader to be prepared for some shocking passages. 

This book can be found at numerous book sellers.  I bought mine from Amazon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Study Group Weekend at Chickamauga NMP

I spent the last few days in the company of the Chickamauga study group, an informal bunch of folks who are interested in learning more about the Battle of Chickamauga.  Led by park historian James Ogden and Chickamauga expert David Powell (who hosts the well-done Chickamauga Blog), about twenty-five Chickamauga buffs went on a two day tour that focused on specific elements of this large and at times confusing battle.  The group has been studying the finer points of Chickamauga for nearly ten years, and this was my first sojourn with them. 

I left for the Chattanooga area early Thursday morning, arriving at the park around 11:30 a.m.  After a quick trip to the restroom, I changed into my boots and proceeded to hike a little over nine and a half miles on the northern third of the battlefield.  Unlike Gettysburg, where the majority of monuments and markers can be seen and read from one's car, I would say that nearly half (if not more) of the monuments and interpretive tablets are seen on foot.  Boasting over fifty miles of trails on mostly flat terrain, getting a feel for the battle is best done sans automobile.  I was able to get an idea of the closeness of the woods, the varying elevations, however slight, and see some monuments that I otherwise would not have been able to had I simply followed the auto tour.

Thursday night I met up with Ken Ramsey, Don Barnes, Lee White, and Dave Powell at a local restaurant.  Talk of course was centered on the Civil War, and Ken's upcoming trip to Little Big Horn later this year. 

On Friday I awoke at 5:00 a.m. and headed to the park for a jog.  I did a three mile loop in the dark that was more than a little eerie.  After cleaning up back at the hotel I drove around the park a bit and then met the rest of the study group at the park's visitor center.  We gathered around the large map that dominates the center's main hall and talked about the plan for the bus tour, which encompasses all the first day of the study group.  After dealing with a car issue (maybe I picked up a ghost on my run, but my headlights would not turn off), we boarded the bus and headed towards Rossville Gap, which is found within the heights of Missionary Ridge.  Dismounting at the John Bear Ross home, Ogden and Powell focused on the movements of Crittenden's Corps during the days proceeding the battle, which was the theme of the morning tour.  We followed Crittenden's troops to Ringgold via McAfee's Spring along the old Federal Road, moved towards Lee and Gordan's Mill, and then to lunch at a nearby restaurant.

The afternoon tour focused on the retreat of the Federals through McFarland's Gap to Rossville Gap, driving along part of Missionary Ridge (which would have followed Forrest's route).  After a long day of bus touring, Friday night saw the gang at O'Charley's for some great discussion, good food, but alas poor service.

Saturday morning we met again at the map in the visitor's center.  The morning walking tour was focused upon Van Cleve's Division.  We gathered in cars and parked long the Lafayette Road, crossing east into the woods.  We moved about a bit, stopping to talk about salient points, then moving a few hundred yards to talk again.  We marched west to cross the Lafayette Road and into Brotherton Field to finish up our talk on Van Cleve's brigades. 

After lunch we gathered to carpool for the afternoon tour, which was themed on Wood's Division.  This part of the tour was probably the most interesting for me as Wood has long been vilified for his movement out of the main Federal line on the second day of battle.  However, convincing arguments given by our tour leaders would lead one to believe that Wood was correct in following his orders, especially after conferring with McCook (Alexander, of Perryville note) and then Thomas.  The highlight of this tour was the discussion of the tactics used by Harker's Brigade to rout the Texas Brigade as the latter was moving towards the Snodgrass Hill position.  The "advance by fire" tactic was little known or used during the Civil War, but the ability to provide a constant fire was more than Hood's old brigade could handle.

We closed by climbing onto the eastern spur of Snodgrass Hill.  Most headed back to their cars, while I and a good chap from Missouri named Andy strolled back to the visitor's center on foot.  Dinner found myself, Ken, and Don at a local Mexican restaurant, after which I retired to my room for a deserved rest.  The drive home to Cincinnati on Sunday was highlighted by Civil War CDs I had picked up at the park, while I thought of next year's trip to Chickamauga.

Overall, the study group weekend was a great time.  While the walking portion was a bit harder on the body (much more standing than walking), it was great to get onto the field with the experts and see the ground as the soldiers did.  I definitely plan on making this a regular event on my calendar.

What is the point of this non-Perryville post?  I spent much time over the weekend thinking about how an event like this could be done at Perryville.  The battle, while being much smaller in both terms of troops involved and ground the battle covered, still has many facets that could be broken down by a study group and could have specific themes each year.  Having a bus tour for external sites would also be an added feature, but I think perhaps having a bus tour for a half day each year would be sufficient.  Imagine focusing on a division or even a brigade and following its path at Perryville, led by notables such as park manager Kurt Holman (don't tell Kurt about this idea...I have yet to discuss it with him!).  This would bring together folks who want more than my generic tour offers, bring more focus to Perryville as one of the pivotal battles of the war, and encourage a new generation of researchers to delve into Perryville's story.

Ironically, a few weeks ago I started gathering information on the lodging and dining possibilities in the area for such a tour.  My intent wasn't necessarily geared along study group lines, but I was planning on focusing on certain aspects of the battle each day.  Stay tuned on more details as we try to put together a similar program at Perryville!