It was perhaps inevitable that Stuart Sanders of Danville would write a book about the Civil War. He grew up in Lexington, Va., where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is buried. Sanders is distantly related to Mary Todd Lincoln, the Lexington, Ky.-born wife of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. Sanders' great-great-grandfather was a Union surgeon at the Battle of Perryville on Oct. 8, 1862. Another distant relative fought with the Confederates at Perryville. And Sanders is former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association.
Sanders, a 1995 graduate of Centre College, has written numerous articles about the Civil War and has contributed to books about the conflict. Now, as Perryville prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle, he has written his own book, Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky's Largest Civil War Battle (The History Press, $19.99). It tells how Perryville residents and citizens of nearby communities dealt with wounded and sick soldiers who filled homes, churches, schools, barns and sheds. "Many residents never recovered — economically or psychologically — from the aftermath," Sanders writes.
The Herald-Leader sat down with Sanders at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort to talk about the book. An edited version of the interview follows.
Question: The nightmarish scenes you depict in the book might be some of the most horrific non-fiction I've read since the opening chapter of The Hot Zone. For example, you write about the four soldiers who were killed simultaneously by one cannonball, and hogs eating bodies on the field after the battle. Were you aware of these terrors when you were director of the battlefield association, or did your research uncover new facts?
Answer: In terms of horrors of the battle, I think we knew that. When I was there (in Perryville), my office was down on Merchant's Row, the town's primary commercial district, and all those buildings were likely hospitals. So I had a daily connection to the aftermath of the fight, and it's something I became interested in quickly. So just going through soldiers' letters and diaries while I was there doing research for interpretive trails and things like that, the horrors of the aftermath of the battle jumped out pretty quickly.
The Confederate dead lay on the field unburied for days and days after the battle. Just having 80,000 troops in this area wiped the region completely clean of food and forage. Those themes came through in the aftermath. But no one had pulled it together in a comprehensive form.
One interesting gem I did dig up that no one has talked about before is how huge the footprint of the aftermath actually was. People have talked about how Danville, Harrodsburg and Perryville were affected, but in here I talk about how there are hospitals as far away as New Albany, Ind., (that treated soldiers wounded at Perryville). And because of Perryville's location in a border state, that allowed northern civilians to travel to the battlefield to reclaim the bodies of their family members who had been slain, or to grab wounded relatives and try to haul them away from the battlefield and the squalid hospitals, to give them a better chance to survive.
Q: Yours is the only account I know of that concentrates on how a Civil War battle affected civilians. Are there others?
A: There have been several books that have gone into the aftermath of the fight after Gettysburg. And if you go to battlefields or read Civil War history, usually historians will at some point in the book talk about how the battle affected the community. But few have looked into specific battles in depth to see how a battle affected a whole region. For the western theater of the war, west of the Allegheny Mountains, this covers a little bit of new ground, I like to think.
Q: If there's one thing that hit home in reading this book is the sense of shared sacrifice among soldiers and civilians. Today, unless you have a loved one in Afghanistan, it's too easy to ignore. But for the people of Perryville, Danville and Harrodsburg, it was hard to look away from the horrors of war when it's on your doorstep. Did the contrast between that war and war today strike you the same way?
A: I hadn't really thought about that, to be honest. It has more to do with, as you mention, the proximity of war to civilians. When it's a war across the ocean, we're not necessarily seeing the aftermath of what happens, unless you do have a loved one killed overseas. But for residents who had their homes and churches and courthouses and barns commandeered as hospitals, there was just no way of escaping the aftermath.
And in Danville, for example, you had 3,500 sick Union soldiers left in Danville, which in 1862 had a population of a little bit over 4,000. In Harrodsburg you had 1,700 wounded Confederates left in a town that had 1,700 residents. So the population of these towns were literally doubling. Residents couldn't handle it in 1862, and 150 years later, the community couldn't handle it now if the numbers were proportionately similar. You can see why every building had to be used, how there was no medicine in town.
Another thing that compounded the suffering of the soldiers and also made it more difficult on the civilians, was the terrible drought in Kentucky. It hadn't rained for weeks, and most creeks and streams were completely dry. After the battle, one surgeon remarked that he couldn't find enough water to wash the blood from his hands for two days. So these surgeons worked on one patient after the other with their hands caked in dried blood. So because of that, it just increased the mortality rate among the wounded.
And with that drought, soldiers were forced to drink out of stagnant pools of water, and ultimately illnesses were passed on to the civilian population as well. For example, Centre College's president died in May of 1863 after helping sick Union soldiers. He probably died of typhoid, and his funeral was the largest Danville had ever seen.
Q: There's a brief mention in the book of a Confederate woman disguised as a man — sort of a Civil War Mulan character — who fought with her husband at Perryville. Are you aware of any other instances in the Civil War of women disguising themselves as men so they could fight?
A: There have been a few books published on the subject. It's something I've never done a lot of research on personally, other than that one episode. It wasn't widespread by any means.
One thing that struck me was the number of wives of soldiers who actually accompanied the army. I mention a few of those in there, and the fact that these women would march hundreds of miles and put themselves in danger with their husbands, and they would have a very harrowing time at these field hospitals either helping to bring wounded off the battlefield, which must have been horrific, or helping in the field hospitals after the fight. There were a lot of family members that actually traveled with these armies. Their experiences are really forgotten in the realm of Civil War history.
And you have women like Harriet Karrick, who leaves town and comes back and finds that every piece of clothing she left behind has been shredded for bandages.
It was a mess for everybody. I felt sorry for everybody. You feel sorry for the soldiers who were stuck in it. You feel sorry for the civilians whose lives were overturned when their homes were forced to become field hospitals and their winter stores were taken away by the troops and eaten. There were instances where complete outbuildings were pulled down and burned for firewood. You feel sorry for the civilians in neighboring towns who got diseases and died. Those are really the forgotten casualties. The casualties didn't end on the battlefield but extended far beyond — not only soldiers dying of wounds but civilians who suffered psychological trauma as a result of the battle.