It was a great day to be a Civil War correspondent, especially since the soldiers were shooting blanks and I was carrying digital cameras that Mathew Brady could only dream about.
More than 2,000 Yankees and Rebels battled across a hilly field Saturday during the annual re-enactment at Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site in Boyle County. For more than an hour, spectators were thrilled by military maneuvers and the smoke and concussion of rifle and cannon fire, which set off alarms in their parked cars.
The re-enactment continues Sunday with another authentic portrayal of part of Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle, where 36,000 soldiers clashed on Oct. 8, 1862. There were 890 Union and 532 Confederate soldiers killed, and thousands wounded. Although they won a tactical victory, the Confederates were forced afterward to retreat from Kentucky.
Sunday will mark the first time re-enactors recreate the battle for H.P. Bottom Farm on 70 acres the Civil War Trust recently acquired and added to the battlefield preserve, which totals 1,027 acres. The state park covers about 750 of those acres.
The battle begins at 2 p.m., although there are tours and events during the morning, and re-enactors’ camps are open to visitors. Tickets are for $20 adults, $15 for children 6-12 and seniors 62 and older and $10 for veterans and military members.
I was a Civil War buff as a boy, but I mostly got over it. Perryville this weekend is packed with people from all over the country who never got over it. They are camping in white canvas tents, cooking on open fires and wearing authentic uniforms and clothing. Pay no attention to the iPhones they pull out of their pockets to take pictures and video of each other.
Pat Stoker of Tolar, Texas, has been re-enacting with a Union regiment since 2009.
“What about this is not fun?” he replied when I asked why he does it. “It’s something geeky. It’s a brotherhood. You get to fire weapons.”
Uniforms and accoutrements are for sale in the sutlers’ camp, where vendors such as Ben and Beth Tart of Newton Grove, N.C., sell authentically woven and patterned cloth ($14 to $32 a yard) dyed with vegetables as they would have been in the 1860s.
Ben Tart said they attend a few major re-enactments each year, but most of their business is online. They get orders from Civil War re-enactors from as far away as France, Sweden and Russia. “They’re fascinated with our war,” he said.
Perryville’s re-enactments are choreographed by Kurt Holman, the state park’s manager and historian. He is a stickler for authenticity, including what kinds of flags each army is allowed to carry.
Holman, who has managed the park since 1989, said he first came there as a re-enactment spectator in 1981 and bought a uniform on the spot so he could participate.
Perryville re-enactments have always been popular because it is one of the few places re-enactors are allowed to fight on the actual battlefield. Federally owned battlefields prohibit it.
George Woodall, a high school history teacher from Blue Ridge, Ga., has been a re-enactor for 35 years and a Civil War buff since he was a boy living on the Manassas battlefield in Virginia.
“The school bus drove by the cannons every day,” he said. “We dug up bullets in the garden.”
Woodall and his son, Sam, were portraying Confederate soldiers, but they have both uniforms. They choose which side to be on depending on what battle they attend.
Some re-enactors portray civilians, including many big-skirted women who were there with soldier husbands. Cherrie Mann of Springfield, Mo., left her husband at home.
“I’ve always been a Southern belle at heart,” said Mann, who has been going to Civil War re-enactments for nearly 30 years. Three years ago, she recruited her friend, Janet Sing, who came to Perryville dressed in black as a Confederate widow.
“Getting to dress up is fun,” Sing said. “I’ve always loved the clothes and the history.”
Civil War re-enactments began in the late 1800s when Union and Confederate veterans got together for reunions. Re-enacting became a phenomenon in the early 1960s during the Civil War Centennial, but its popularity has waned in recent years, despite the war’s recent 150th anniversary.
“There are fewer and fewer guys coming out,” said Holman, noting that Perryville’s largest re-enactment, in 2002, had about 8,000 participants. “Kids are playing with their Xboxes now, I guess.”
Not all of them. In addition to the Woodallls, I talked with other father-and-son groups, including Confederate re-enactor Jeff Allen of Texarkana, Texas, and his 20-year-old twins, Micah and Cameron, whose pet white rooster, King Cotton, rides in his haversack.
“I was afraid the numbers would dwindle, but I see a lot of guys here their age,” Jeff Allen said. “We’re honoring our heritage and learning about something that still affects our lives, whether or not we like to admit it.”