Book review: The Civil War At Perryville
Ric Manning's photos from Perryville's 150th anniversary 2012
Kentucky's turn in the Civil War spotlight in 1862 may have been brief, but it was far from uneventful. In the weeks between late August, when Confederate forces invaded from Tennessee, and Oct. 8, when both sides fought to a draw in the fields near Perryville, the outcome of the war and possibly the future of the nation hung in the balance.
Kentucky was a slave state that did not leave the Union and tried to stay neutral. But that was a daunting challenge with Federal troops controlling Kentucky's rivers and cities, including Louisville, and Confederate armies occupying the Bluegrass from Bardstown to Richmond.
Both sides desperately wanted Kentucky's allegiance. For the military, it offered critical access to the roads, rivers and horses needed to invade or defend the South.
Politically, it was the key to holding or losing other border states.
Lincoln emphasized the importance of the state in 1861, when he told a U.S. senator that “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
Two first-time authors have provided a fresh look at the fight for Kentucky by taking different roads to Perryville.
Christopher L. Kolakowski is a former director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association who now works as a historian at Fort Knox. He sets the stage for the battle at Perryville by recounting how Confederate troops destroyed Union defenses at Richmond, forced the Federals out of garrisons at Munfordville and Cumberland Gap, and were warmly welcomed into Lexington and Frankfort.
By September, John Hunt Morgan was roaming freely across Central Kentucky, and even Louisville and Cincinnati were feeling threatened.
The Civil War at Perryville
By Christopher L. Kolakowski
History Press, 190 pp., $21.99
A Dark and Bloody Ground
By Michael Willever with Michael R. Phelps
New Century, 334 pp., $19.95
Kolakowski describes the high-water point for the Confederacy that came on Oct. 4 in Frankfort, when Gen. Braxton Bragg arranged a ceremony to install Richard Hawes as the new governor.
Bragg gave a long speech, Hawes promised to throw out the Union army and everyone had a nice lunch. But Federal troops marching out from Louisville ruined the party. When the guests heard artillery fire to the west, Bragg mounted up and told everyone to “skedaddle.”
Kolakowski also describes a dispute in which one Union general fatally shoots another at the Galt House.
It's scenes like these that help make Kolakowski's book more engaging than the dry recitation of official records and field reports found in many books about Civil War battles. Even when he gets to the parched meadows and cornfields of Perryville, he retains the light touch of a good storyteller.
Michael Willever tries to do for Perryville what Michael Shaara did for Gettysburg in The Killer Angels, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel.
Adding fictional dialogue to factual situations, Willever describes the events that preceded the battle through the eyes of leading participants.
We get to know Union Gens. George Thomas and Phillip Sheridan, Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk and J. Stoddard Johnston, a colonel on Bragg's staff who had a home in Georgetown and would later be a Louisville newspaper editor and Kentucky secretary of state.
Willever's dialogue doesn't have the cadence of Shaara's. But by putting words in the mouths of soldiers and citizens, he puts flesh on their long-dead bones.
He ends his book with Bragg camped near Harrodsburg on the day before the battle, convinced that the larger part of the Union army was miles away, marching on Frankfort, when it was in fact almost at his doorstep.
Willever, who was at the Perryville re-enactment earlier this month, said he will cover the battle in a companion book he's working on now. If you want to know who won, you'll have to wait — or read Kolakowski's book.