Civil War: Battlefields Endangered

Apr 4, 2011

In 1862, deadly battles were fought across Kentucky…at Perryville, Richmond, and Munfordville.  In the 150 years since those battles, Kentuckians have worked to preserve those historic sites. 

Even early in the Civil War, Kentuckians preserved portions of their battlefields….setting aside some of the land as cemeteries.  Immediately after the Battle of Perryville, farm families emerged from their shelters and went to work clearing away the waste of war.

“Everybody crawled out of their holes, including Squire Bottoms, who owned all of this property that you see all around us…pretty much as far as your eye can see.”

Park preservationist Joan House looked out over a mass grave.

“He and his pregnant daughter-in-law took all of the dead Confederates and buried them in two, big mass trenches right here in the cemetery.  There’s one right here, probably just right in front of where we are standing, and, one directly behind the monument there.  They just needed to get the dead men off the field,” said House.

With Perryville in a remote portion of central Kentucky, much of the battlefield remains intact.  The neighborhood is rural and the population is shrinking, so development is minimal.  Still, House says the park’s protectors must remain on guard.  Not long ago, a developer acquired property very near the park, on a major U-S highway.

“It would set a very bad precedent for development along that corridor which would eventually damage the battlefield.  That resulted in the Civil War Preservation Trust putting Perryville on the top-ten most endangered places in the United States,” said House.

Thanks in part to the alarm sounded by the designation, House says, the Perryville Battlefield Association found money to purchase the property and stopped the development.

Preservationists faced a similar threat to the east, in Madison County, where Union and Confederate troops fought the Battle of Richmond. It’s now a 600 acre county park, but, a few years ago, it was also considered endangered. 

“I go to Richmond everyday to my office and I noticed in the page wire fence around what’s called the Herndon Farm engineering tape, and that’s usually ominous as something gonna’ happen, like a subdivision or something like that,” said Madison County resident Bob Moody.

It was Moody who secured the Herndon Farm and preserved the first parcel of what became Battlefield Park.  In 2001, Moody bought it at auction from under a group of developers who did indeed want to create a subdivision.

“I used my credit to buy the total farm.  I bought two tracts and the historic society bought one. It was later on put in the name of the historical society,” said Moody.

Nearby development also poses a problem.  Not long ago, a new interchange opened on Interstate-75 near Richmond Battlefield Park.  The interchange increased property values, and the cost of preserving privately-owned portions of the battlefield.

On the other hand, the interchange made the battlefield more accessible to tourists, and more valuable to its community. 

A Canadian couple last month visited the Richmond Battlefield Park.  It gave Diane Larmer and her husband a chance to learn some American history.

“It was always just something that’s always interesting to us, and foreign to us.  I don’t know anything about the Civil War really, and thought, it’s always been in the back of my mind that I want to know more,” said Larmer.

On average, preservationist Joan House says every tourist who visits the 750-acre Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site spends about 75 dollars a day.  With tens of thousands of visitors each year, House finds both the economic and cultural appeal of such battlefields is growing.  Still, she says they remain vulnerable.

“None of these sites will make it. None of them will be relevant if the people stop coming or don’t support them or don’t bring their, like my Dad did, drove me to every Civil War battlefield and says ‘This is who you are, this is where you came from,” said House.

A 2008 report done by the U-S Department of the Interior says Kentucky’s made good progress preserving battlefields near Perryville, Richmond and Mill Springs.  And, a pristine site at Middle Creek holds much promise. 

However, it also says development threatens sites at Cynthiana, Rowlett’s Station, Munfordville and Camp Wildcat.  It says three locations, near Ivy Mountain, Paducah and Barbourville, deserve historic markers, but, as for preserving the landscape, the study concludes they’re too far gone.