Following the 1862 battle at Perryville, the angry Unionists who held the Kentucky town declined to bury their slain foes. When the stench and sight of wild hogs gorging themselves on corpses finally proved unbearable, the task of laying the dead to rest fell upon one Henry P. Bottom, the secessionist upon whose once-prosperous farm the clash had taken place. With the help of neighbors Bottom and his slaves combed the land, collecting hundreds of bodies that were eventually placed in a mass grave on the farm’s northern end. Thanks to Federal confiscation of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods, the destruction of his barn during the fighting, and the nightmarish experience of gathering mangled remains, Bottom would live out his days a scarred man. He had to buy food for the first time in his life, and would never restore his farm to self-sufficiency.
Forty years later, a memorial spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy was set up over the mass grave Bottom and his people had built. Locals, survivors from Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi, and even Union veterans from the 10th Ohio Regiment assembled to see unveiled the figure of a Confederate infantryman standing attentively with his rifle atop a squared column, upon which was inscribed verse by Confederate Kentuckian Theodore O’Hara.
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on Life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents to spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
Also upon the rectangular pillar were etched the names of those few slain soldiers Bottom had been able to identify. It is worth noting that the memorial was not placed in the park, which did not then exist; rather, the park grew up around the memorial.
On this anniversary of the battle spectators have gathered yet again, with some standing within the precincts of the cemetery and others leaning upon the low wall surrounding it. Two ladies dressed in mourning carry baskets of rose petals, crisscrossing the grounds to make a circuit around the memorial, scattering petals behind them. Then Sam Flora from the Sons of Confederate Veterans steps up to read Scripture and consider the march toward Jericho, during which the Israelites were commanded by God to gather stones from the Jordan’s dry riverbed, to serve “for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever” (Joshua 4:7).
Stone is not the sole medium of memory, of course. Just a few decades following the war, veterans from either side began to gather at battle sites for reunions and even re-enactments—a practice perpetuated to this day by a subculture composed of men and women devoted to American heritage, Northern as well as Southern. Today’s re-enactment is scheduled for the afternoon, so there is time to wander the camps, inspect the tents and horses and stewpots bubbling over campfires, and get a good look at bayonet-fitted rifles stacked together in neat tepees, pointing skyward.
I listen in as one tall youth from Jessamine County relates his family story. He is sole heir to a couple thousand acres bestowed upon one of his ancestors as payment for services rendered during the War for Independence. He is also heir to the weapon he will be wielding—no mere stage prop, it is an ornately scrolled shotgun that has been in his family for three generations. An older bystander observes that the young fellow’s sense of history is unusual for his generation. The re-enactor shrugs. His father is a retired history teacher, and his mother is active in the local historical society, so the past has always been present.
“It seems to me your parents did a fine job raising you,” the older man observes. “I can only fault them for one thing . . . only one child!”
The re-enactor grins. “Well, my mother went through an awful lot just putting up with me!”
At the Perryville museum I examine maps of the battlefield, faded uniforms, the tools of an army surgeon, and an Adams & Deane English revolver presented to cavalryman John Hunt Morgan by Lexington mayor F.K. Hunt in 1851. The romantic ideal of the Kentucky cavalier outlasted the war, notes a nearby placard, and eventually became part of Kentucky’s historic identity. Another display recounts the story of Simon Bolivar Buckner, who served as a Confederate officer during the War, and as Kentucky’s governor afterward. (World War II history buffs are more likely to be familiar with Buckner’s son, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.: the U.S. Army general killed in action while leading the invasion of Okinawa.)
Once the re-enactment starts, a fence lined by trees separates visitors in modern casual wear from the hundred or so re-enactors deployed to various parts of the battlefield. Pistols in hand, two horsemen circle around from behind the kneeling infantry, riding intently forward at a Yankee platoon on the far end of the field. The horsemen pull their mounts up short, aim their sidearms, and let off a volley into the blue ranks before galloping back to their own line at full speed. From the near corner of the field a cannon booms, a ring of smoke sails up into the sky, and a whole row of Confederates drops dead. From a hilltop, off in the distance to the east, a second artillery piece cracks back in answer to the first. Under the direction of their sergeant the surviving Southern infantrymen rise up and march.
There is a moment of quiet, only to be broken by a collective cry from the advancing infantry. It begins gradually, and sounds like what you might get if you crossed an Indian war whoop with the sound of an old-time country preacher tearing it up at a revival. Some spectators are impressed by this attempt to revive the rebel yell; others less so. “You can yell all you want,” grumbles a Union sympathizer somewhere in the crowd. A drone floats silently overhead, like an observation balloon, while the maneuvering and shooting continue.
By the numbers Perryville was a Southern victory, but it marked the end of the Confederate bid to take the Bluegrass State. As the old joke has it, Kentucky only seceded after the war ended, for it was only when they saw the victorious Union’s heavy-handedness that many formerly neutral Kentuckians decided that the better part of justice had been with Richmond. Indeed, the notion that the South may have been in the right haunted even some of the state’s former Union officers, such as the maternal grandfather of poet Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Roberts had ties to both sides, for her father, Simpson, had at 16 run off to join the Confederacy following the murder of his own father by pro-Union vigilantes. It is said that after the war Simpson could not hear Lincoln’s name without pausing to spit, and his shadow looms over one of his daughter’s poems, “The Battle of Perryville,” wherein a man relates the carnage to a child, the narrator:
I stood beside him as he told
And tried to hear the feet of men.
I hushed my breath and stilled my thought
To hear the armies march again.
Miss Roberts was hardly the only writer from these parts whose work touches upon the secessionist experiment. Featured in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is the journal of long-gone Confederate Cass Mastern, who contemplates his sins while lying with a gangrenous leg in an overcrowded field hospital. For the soldier fixing to meet his Maker, the political question of union versus states’ rights seems trivial in comparison to the fallout from an affair with his best friend’s wife, an affair that has already driven Mastern’s cuckolded friend to suicide. “I shall die,” Mastern has written in his journal,
and shall be spared the end and the last bitterness of war. I have lived to do no man good, and have seen others suffer for my sin. I do not question the Justice of God, that others have suffered for my sin, for it may be that only by the suffering of the innocent does God affirm that men are brothers, and brothers in His Holy Name. And in this room with me now, men suffer for sins not theirs, as for their own. It is a comfort to know that I suffer only for my own.
Though a liberal and not himself a believer, Warren was too Southern to take notions of sin and redemption lightly.
On that note I must say we have come a long way since Warren’s day, much less F.K. Hunt’s. The inaptly named Southern Baptist Convention now has less in common with its founders than with Lexington’s current governor, a politically correct homosexual Democrat who had John Hunt Morgan’s statue torn from the public square—though in the interests of ecumenism I should concede that many Roman spokesmen hereabouts are at least as anti-Southern as the SBC. Most Catholic officials are indifferent to the memory of actual Catholic Confederates, to say nothing of the Anglican Jeff Davis’s habit of wearing a St. Benedict medal and Carmelite scapular. Davis spent his incarceration at Fort Monroe reading Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, and his wife Varina felt so strongly about the abuse meted out to Pius IX by Italian revolutionaries that she wove a crown of thorns to honor the long-suffering pope’s fortitude. Yet 150-some years later, all the mainstream Catholic pundit wants to do is argue, preposterously, that Davis’s vaguely theistic Northern counterpart was a crypto-Thomist. Whenever we affirm Dixie as a branch of Christendom, the response comes like a broken record. Yes, they say grace and “amen,” but . . . slavery. QED.
“The Bible (independent of its authority) is (by far) man’s best guide, even in this world,” a philosopher from Kentucky’s mother-state patiently explains to ideologues who play the slavery card. “Next to it, we would place Aristotle.” A sworn enemy of “the theory of Locke, which is the opposite of Aristotle,” George Fitzhugh warned Northerner and Southerner alike that abolitionists ultimately “propose to dissolve and disintegrate society; falsely supposing that they thereby follow nature. There is not a human tie that binds man to man that they do not propose to cut ‘sheer asunder.’” Both localist and classical scholar, Fitzhugh observes that
the little States of Greece each had its dialect, and cultivated it, and took pride in it. Now, dialects are vulgar and provincial. We shall have no men like the Greeks, till the manners, dress, and dialect of gentlemen betray, like the wines of Europe, the very neighborhood whence they come.
The prophetic Virginian saw that “the worst effect of free trade” would be that it “robs men of their nationality, and impairs their patriotism by teaching them to ape foreign manners, affect foreign dress and opinions, and despise what is domestic,” that Yankee triumph would “transfer all wealth to London, New York and Paris.”
Pro-slavery or no, a single one of Fitzhugh’s works is easily worth all the publications of a dozen 21st-century mainstream conservatives—neo-or crunchy. Who believes that modern man is so enlightened that he has nothing to learn from Fitzhugh, Morgan, Mastern, or Bottom, just because they were “on the wrong side of history”? A lot of people, I guess, but nobody we need take seriously. Let liberals and their ecclesiastical cheerleaders look to their teachers, heroes, and principles, even as we look to ours.
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