For park manager, Battle of Perryville never ends

OUR UNCOMMONWEALTH What makes Kentucky unique, intriguing and fun

ctruman@herald-leader.comMay 26, 2014 

PERRYVILLE — For Kurt Holman, the Civil War Battle of Perryville is fought every day.

Since 1989, Holman has been the park manager at the site, where the biggest Civil War battle in Kentucky was fought.

The battle, fought on October 8, 1862, was considered a tactical victory for the Confederates but a strategic victory for the Union, since the Confederates then retreated back into Tennessee.

In his tiny book-stuffed office, Holman is working on a graphic representation of the battle's progress.

But that's not all he does.

He instructs area students on how to muster up like real Civil War soldiers; his favorite line is instructing teachers to give students their muskets — the fake muskets they will carry while marching. He paints cannons that are being restored for display.

He oversees the small museum in which Perryville battle artifacts are showcased, and can describe everything right down to the worn shoes — or in some cases, the bare feet — of the soldiers in battle.

The Holman family dog, a small black critter called Bolt, blithely runs the premises.

The Union and Confederate armies were thirsty the day of the battle. The summer drought had worn on, both armies were in search of water, and some soldiers were reported to be filling their canteens with water of questionable purity that was meant for horses, according to Stuart Sanders' new book on the battle, Maney's Confederate Brigade at the Battle of Perryvlle (History Press, $19.99).

This was primitive war, which the Perryville battlefield visitor can see at the battlefield's museum: Soldiers were dressed in rudimentary uniforms, lived in rudimentary tents and spent long stretches between battles amusing themselves with playing cards. Food was not always plentiful, disease was always present or looming, and the wounded were cared for in conditions that would today seem below even the most basic standards.

The residents of Perryville had left ahead of the battle and returned to find their properties ransacked and their food gone, Holman said. During the Civil War, there was no federal agency dealing with such losses, and residents had a difficult time proving their losses, since they had no first-person knowledge of which army had been responsible.

When compared to casualties in modern warfare, the Civil War is astonishing.

At the Battle of Perryville, there were 4,220 Union and 3,401 Confederate casualties — 1,422 killed and 5,534 wounded. Add in those who died later of wounds suffered at Perryville, and the number of deaths comes to 2,377.

Holman also thinks about the questions that haunt those who deal with the horrors of the Civil War: How must these hills and gentle rises, where you can see so much of the rolling unblemished countryside, have looked littered with dead soldiers and 150 or more dead horses?

The soldiers were buried, although that was a long and arduous process because there were so many, and the stench of rotting bodies was overwhelming. The bodies of Union soldiers, at least those interred in marked graves, were later moved. The dead horses were likely burned.

Holman fields requests from families and Civil War enthusiasts about those who fought in the battle, be they Confederate or Union. Memorials for both armies were erected at the Perryville battlefield, which was established as a public site in 1954, 90 years after the battle.

A bit of military trivia: The father of General Douglas MacArthur saw his first battle experience at Perryville. Arthur MacArthur was a soldier in the 24th Wisconsin and would later win the Medal of Honor for fighting at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

His son earned the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II.

It's the family connections that keep traffic at the site brisk, along with visits from Civil War scholars and enthusiasts.

"Everybody calls and wants to know where Grandpa's buried," Holman said.

The information was stored on a Windows XP operating system, which in the digital world is the equivalent of saying it was on the Rosetta Stone.

Recently the site received a boost courtesy of Centre College: student labor was provided to put the names of Perryville soldiers into an easily accessible modern database available on the organization's website at Perryvillebattlefield.org

While it's helpful to have the database updated and searchable, the site's greatest resource may be Holman, who has spent much of his life rethinking the battle every day.

"I'm trying to save this data," Holman said. "It is my life's work."

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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