A Sad Commentary Upon Glorious War: The Horrors of Perryville

In the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, Union troops took possession of the field on October 9, 1862 and quickly set to work burying the hundreds of dead, Rebel and Federal, that lay strewn across the landscape. For the 105th Ohio, this was a particularly gruesome task as Perryville was its first fight, and the regiment had lost roughly a third of the 600 men who went into action.

Two determined-looking Ohio privates sit poised with gauntlets and heavy muskets. Note the OVM (Ohio Volunteer Militia) belt buckles and differences in coats- one is wearing a four button sack coat, the other a nine button frock coat. The muskets are similar-looking but not the same. 

Second Lieutenant John Calvin Hartzell of Co. H, 105th Ohio, “less than 60 days from the plow tail,” was among those on burial detail from the regiment tasked with returning to “Devil’s Lane” where so many of the men of the 105th had been cut down. Carrying shovels and stretchers, the sullen Ohioans saw a sight that made even the staunchest man blanch. “Ambulances were everywhere gathering up their ghastly, groaning freight, twisting, turning, and backing to avoid running over the dead wholly in all sorts of shapes and places, often in groups of half a dozen, all blackened and swollen,” Hartzell related. The burial party arrived at a lane and commenced digging a trench. “While some dug, others bore the bodies and laid them on the margin. It was almost impossible to go to the proper depth, the ground being so dry and hard, so we concluded on two feet. It was very hard to identify our own men, though we did the best we could, and as we laid the bodies in the trench, spread the limbs of each wide apart, resting the head of each other on another, covering the whole with blankets, and then earth. It was a sad business.”


Identifying the dead proved an awful and sobering experience, and for Second Lieutenant John A. Osborne of Co. E of the 105th, one of personal tragedy. “We buried 42 men, many of whom I had known,” he wrote after the battle. “I approached one who had been struck in the face by a shell, blowing away his head and right hand. His left arm was mostly blown away and the hand just hanging by one or two tendons. I examined his pockets in order to recognize him and there found some letters whose address told the terrible truth. It was my own brother! David was in my company and had been missing since the fight. Here he lay without any mistake. A terrible sensation passed over me. I clipped a lock of his hair as a parting token then with my own hands helped to dig his grave. I wrapped him in a blanket, carved his name upon an oak board, and holding it up as a tombstone, I saw him buried with a host of the dead.”

Three officers from the 105th Ohio in July 1863
Left to right: 1st Lt Albion Tourgee (Co. G), Captain William Wallace (Co. I)
2nd Lt Reuben G. Morgaridge (Co. G)

Burying the dead was no easier task for veteran troops. Captain Henry C. Greiner of Co. A of the 31st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment but lightly engaged in the battle, was assigned burial duty and Greiner was chosen to lead the detail. "On descending a little hill, we found two soldiers digging a grave under the shade of a tree. I halted the command at this spot and they ceased their labors to answer our oft-repeated questions as to McCook’s headquarters. They could tell us nothing definite, stating that they belonged to one of Sheridan’s new regiments. They were using the pick and shovel to bury their dead brother pointing to a small soldier who lay near another few feet away. By this time the soldiers’ feeling so overcame them that they ceased speaking of him. I stepped over to look at him. There was almost a smile on his young face. He could not have suffered for he was shot through the heart.

After one of the brothers had somewhat mastered his emotions, he said, “It is the thought of our mother, when she hears of his death, that is so painful to us,” he said. “She never consented to his going as he is only 17 and was never very healthy. I suppose for that reason he was always her favorite. We know when she receives this sad message it will almost kill her. Her letters were all about Willie. Here is one he received before we left Louisville. We took it out of his blouse near the spot where he was shot; it had bloodstains on it.”

I read it several times before returning it. The substance was so characteristic of a mother that I well remember it. Most of all, she dreaded for him the fatigue of rapid marching incident to battle with his heavy gun and the other load a soldier must carry and requested that he ask his brothers to carry it for him when the day was hot or the march long. “Perhaps after the first battle, I may not have these terrible feelings, but until it is over, and I have heard of your safety, I shall have thoughts and suspense that none but a mother can feel.”

In a scene all too common after a Civil War battle, the gathered Confederate dead from Antietam await burial. Perryville no doubt saw sights similar to this.

I returned the bloody letter and looked into the grave which was almost three feet deep with an offset within a foot of the bottom where, after the body was placed, boards could be laid across to separate it from the earth. I asked the brother if he would accept our services to carry out the remainder of the sad duties and they were glad to accept. When the grave was prepared, two of my men carried the body over, gently placed him in his narrow home, procured boards to rest on the offset, and the grave was finished with a neat mound to mark the spot. The pathetic picture before us and the story of the two brothers as they spoke of their mother’s broken heart when she should hear the death of her favorite boy caused a choking sensation in the breasts of more than one of those rough spectators and tears stood in several eyes. When the last duty of laying him away in his bloody blue shroud had been discharged, we bid them good bye hearing no requiem but the sobs of the brothers and the gentle murmur of the breeze as it rustled through the leafy bower that shaded us.


Several hospitals were set up on the field afterwards to care for the wounded and these were often scenes of a different kind of horror. A civilian nurse from Cleveland commented on the experience of seeing “the wounded, to visit their bedsides in the hospital, to see them suffering with amputated limbs and disfiguring wounds, to smell, as I do, with every breath of air from the field of carnage the smell of decaying human bodies and of horses beat to death in the fierce encounter, to see the long line of graves where the dead are buried, and to meet at every step some broken-hearted parent, brother or friend, seeking the remains of one dear to them in life is a sad commentary upon glorious war.”

Nearly a month after the battle, another Ohio civilian visited the field to satisfy his boyhood curiosity of seeing a battlefield. He quickly regretted the visit. “The field is still covered with the debris of the fight,” he wrote. “Dead horses, broken artillery wagons, haversacks, cartridge boxes, hats, shoes, remnants of clothing and in every field freshly made graves are abundant. In places the clay soil assumes a darker hue, red with the blood of friend or foe. Our own dead are buried, mostly where they fell, sufficiently deep to cover them from our eye. The enemy are tumbled into shallow graves and in many cases parts of the blackened remains are visible above the earth. Riding by where the enemy fell in numbers, I saw a hand black with exposure but still as delicate as that of a lady, resting on the top of the parched earth while the body to which it belonged had a thin covering of earth over it. The walnut colored cuff of the coat still around the wrist showed that it was a secession soldier, and a physician present with us pronounced the hand that of a mere youth which had never been hardened with labor.”



“A few moments after, I saw another hand and part of the face protruding. In another field, an open one nearby, a swarm of long backed and long-snouted hogs common to this part of Kentucky, had rooted into the thinly covered graves and were making their horrid banquet upon human flesh. As we drove them away, they stood at a short distance impatiently waiting and scarce had we turned the heads of our horses from this disgusting scene before they were again at the graves, furiously tearing limb from limb and devouring the half-corrupted flesh. Nearby these graves were the bodies of horses yet these were scarce touched, the hogs preferring human flesh to that of animals. A sight more horribly disgusting human eyes never looked upon.”

“Occasionally we found a grave with a board at its head, giving the name, regiment, and company of the dead occupant, and these were generally protected by a rail fence or covered with stones with which every field abounds to protect them from the hogs, who having tasted human flesh are more ravenous than the hyena in their taste for human gore. Around the graves thus covered, myriads of flies swarmed on the tops of the graves and particularly the stones were black with them. In visiting the scene of the slaughter, men, women, and children are met and I saw a group of them with boards and with their own hands diligently engaged in scooping up the dirt to cover the exposed parts of victims and laid bare by shallow graves and the rooting of hogs. The woods are full of acorns, walnuts, buckeyes, and corn is scattered over the fields, and yet, fond as the hogs is of these, he scarce touches them, the human banquet being chosen above all vulgar and common food.”


Sources:
Switzer, Charles I., editor. Ohio Volunteer: The Childhood and Memories of Captain John Calvin Hartzell, O.V.I. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005, pg. 98
“Burying a Brother on the Field,” Cleveland Morning Leader, November 24, 1862, pg. 1
Greiner, Henry Clay. General Phil Sheridan as I knew Him: Playmate, Comrade, Friend. Chicago: J.S. Hyland and Company, 1908
“From the Perryville Hospitals,” Cleveland Morning Leader, November 8, 1862, pg. 1
“The Battlefield of Chaplin Hills,” Cleveland Morning Leader, November 14, 1862, pg. 2






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