Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service, once said that visiting the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site was like “walking in the footsteps of history.”
Bearss, and the thousands of other visitors who make the trek to Perryville each year, understand that this battlefield is an important place to learn valuable lessons.
Since 1993, efforts to preserve Perryville have been remarkably successful. Using public-private partnerships and an array of state, federal, and private funds, the amount of preserved battlefield land there has grown from 98 to more than 1,000 acres. This means that a majority of the core battlefield land has now been preserved for future generations.
Today, Perryville is one of the best-preserved battlefields in the nation, which is something for all Kentuckians to be proud of. But, the site’s importance extends beyond simply saving greenspace for the sake of the past. Instead, the battlefield is an important educational resource that will serve generations of future Kentuckians.
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First, the battlefield is a crucible where one can understand leadership. The stories there can teach us how to respond to complex challenges that we face as individuals and communities. By learning how soldiers, civilians, and surrounding towns dealt with the life-altering presence of tens of thousands of soldiers, the state’s largest battle, and illnesses that spread during the battle’s aftermath, modern Kentuckians can glean better solutions for the challenges that face us today.
The site is also vitally important to the commonwealth’s identity.
On those fields in October 1862, Union and Confederate troops determined the fate of Kentucky. Would the Confederates gain control of the Bluegrass State or would Union soldiers push them southward? The political ramifications were also great; fought less than a month after President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, a Confederate victory at Perryville had long-lasting consequences. But, the rebels were ultimately driven from Kentucky and the Commonwealth remained in Union hands for the rest of the Civil War.
A preserved battlefield also makes Boyle County a vital place to live and work.
In addition to being an important historical resource, the preserved greenspace offers recreational opportunities for local residents and becomes a focal point for the community. And, through heritage tourism, the site also plays an important role in economic development. As Perryville hosts a national reenactment this Saturday and Sunday — with thousands of participants and visitors — the economic impact will be even greater.
Ultimately, the Perryville battlefield is an important legacy for Kentucky. By understanding what happened there in October 1862 and beyond, we better appreciate our state and what it means to be a Kentuckian. While one could try to learn that from a book or website, having the authentic experience of walking the preserved battlefield land is more meaningful and allows for a deeper understanding of the action, its consequences, and its legacy.
So walk in those footsteps of history and reflect upon how Perryville — or any historic site — has shaped our great state. These authentic places make Kentucky unique and can help us gain an appreciation for the past and a vision for our future.
Stuart W. Sanders is outreach services manager for the Kentucky Historical Society. Former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association, he is author of two books about the Battle of Perryville.