Re-enactors stage Battle of Perryville on 150th anniversary

bestep@herald-leader.comOctober 6, 2012 

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    Events marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville continue Sunday. Gates open at 7:30 a.m., with the final re-enactment scheduled for 1 p.m. Go to http://1.usa.gov/OKizWO

PERRYVILLE — As a column of blue-clad men formed early Saturday to re-enact the first clash in the bloodiest fight of the Civil War in Kentucky, Boy Scout leader Vince Helm of Lexington urged his Scouts to soak up the sights and sounds, to imagine what it would have been like to march into battle, to think about whether they would have been nervous.

"Try to be in the moment," Helm said.

That was exactly the point as re-enactors dressed in period clothing portrayed the Battle of Perryville on Saturday on the ground where it was fought on Oct. 8, 1862.

Nearly 2,000 re-enactors registered to take part, said Gil Lawson, spokesman for the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

The event drew more re-enactors than most years at Perryville because it was it was on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle.

About 5,000 tickets were sold for Saturday's events, and 1,000 Boy Scouts camped at the field Friday night, Lawson said.

Hundreds of spectators watched in the early-morning chill as the boom of artillery and the crack of rifle fire echoed through what one Confederate officer called the "Valley of Death."

"I figured the 150th was the premier event. Why not catch it at its best?" said Craig Hoffman, a retired soldier, who came from Hardin County with his wife, Janice.

They seemed impressed. When the cannon boomed, he said, "Wow."

"It's pretty real to life," his wife said.

That's what re-enactors strive for, several said: an accurate imitation of the history and events they portray.

They do extensive research not only on Civil War history, uniforms and Union and Confederate units and tactics, but on life in the 1860s.

"People on our side of the hobby usually consider ourselves living historians," said Sam Brown of Knoxville, who on Saturday morning portrayed a member of the 24th Illinois volunteer infantry.

A full outfit for a specific impression can cost $1,500, Brown said.

There are differences in how historically accurate re-enactors want to be. Some would damage their clothing to accurately portray a battle-weary soldier at the end of the war, Brown said.

People get involved out of a love of history, or because they had ancestors in the war.

"The whole point of doing this is to tell the public their story," Jeff Grezelak of Orlando, Fla., a 38-year veteran of re-enacting, said of the soldiers who fought the war.

Micah Trent of Sonora, the federal chief of staff for the event, said Perryville is one of the most pristine Civil War battlefields in the country, with little development encroaching the field.

"We want the public to know that what they're stepping on here is sacred ground," he said.

In addition to portrayals of the battle, camp life, and demonstrations of drilling and horse-drawn artillery, there were living-history displays of medicine, cooking, quilting, the use of oxen and other aspects of the 1860s.

Lorna Paul of Detroit and Chris Lueken of Louisville sat near a fire Saturday, acting the part of townspeople. They were in a tent set up to portray a small house, complete with period furniture.

"We're all role-playing, but you feel like you're there," said Lueken, who has an ancestor, Theodore Huesman, who fought for the Union at Perryville in 1862.

Paul said she keeps a 5-foot by 8-foot trailer packed with her tent and period pieces to go to re-enactments.

"I've got the opportunity to go out and live it again," said Paul, whose husband, Russ, portrays a soldier in the 4th Michigan. "It brings it to life for other people."

The original Battle of Perryville took place as part of a Confederate invasion of Kentucky aimed at taking control of the state and getting new recruits, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.

The Rebel forces won battles at Richmond and Munfordville in the campaign and took control of Lexington and Frankfort, but the campaign ended with the bloody clash in the hills outside Perryville.

More than 7,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle, according to some sources.

The battle was a tactical victory — but a strategic defeat — for the South.

Faced with a larger Union force, supply problems and fewer Kentucky recruits than expected, Confederate commander Braxton Bragg withdrew into Tennessee rather than risk an army that was needed to defend the western Confederacy, according to the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War.

It was the last full Southern invasion of Kentucky in the war.

"It pretty much shot any hopes and dreams they had" of taking Kentucky, Trent said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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