Kentucky must better preserve its historic battlefields

Published 4:36 pm Monday, October 7, 2019


Guest columnist

I am very fortunate in that one of my great passions in life, acting, is my job. I was drawn to the theater as a kid and spent years on stage before launching a film career that continues today. 

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But even before acting came my deep love for history, especially military history. In the summer of 1977, when I was nine, our family piled into our Dodge station wagon with no air conditioning for a two-week trip that included Gettysburg. I was mesmerized during the two, hot days we wandered the battlefield and that experience forever changed my life. 

My wife and I were married in Lexington, her hometown, in 1994. We had just one day for a honeymoon before returning to our Broadway shows in New York, so I suggested we spend it on the Perryville Battlefield, site of the biggest, bloodiest Civil War battle in Kentucky. We’re still married, so it worked out.

The Battle of Perryville was fought on a hot, dry day in October 1862, when tens of thousands of soldiers in blue and gray converged on the small crossroads town of Perryville in Boyle County, and over five hours of ferocious fighting, more than 7,600 men were killed, wounded, or captured. The momentous struggle at Perryville and the Union’s strategic victory there would help ensure that Kentucky would remain in Northern hands throughout the rest of the war.

In the years since my wife and I first visited Perryville, the American Battlefield Trust and its partners have made more than a dozen acquisitions of key acreage at the battlefield, totaling more than 1,000 acres. During that time, the staff of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site and the Friends of Perryville have done an admirable job stewarding the battlefield into a world-class park. A pending acquisition of 128 additional acres of core battlefield land will largely complete the preservation of this important historic site.

But more needs to be done. Kentucky is home to 11 battlefields of the Civil War and seven battlefields of the American Revolution. From the frontier outposts of Logan’s Fort and Fort Boonesborough that bore witness to fierce fighting during the War for Independence to other Civil War battlefields such as Mill Springs and Munfordville, Kentucky’s battlefields are an essential part of the rich history of our state and country.

Four of these 18 battlegrounds are already severely fragmented or lost to development. Two-thirds of the acreage at the Revolutionary War battlefields is unprotected. Much of the battlefield land is threatened by growth.

Preserved battlefields honor those who gave “the last full measure” on that hallowed ground. But they do so much more. They are outdoor classrooms that teach students about our state’s history. They preserve open space and protect watersheds and wildlife habitats. The Perryville Battlefield, home to numerous rare bird species, has a dedicated “Bird Trail,” for example. Battlefields also boost local economies, generating tourism dollars that help create new jobs and add revenues to local and state governments. 

The federal American Battlefield Protection Program has awarded more than $4.8 million in grants to preserve Kentucky battlefields in the past 20 years. But much more is available, and since this competitively awarded funding is made on a 1-to-1 matching basis, states such as Tennessee and Virginia, which have established state battlefield preservation programs, reap a far greater share than Kentucky.

The lack of dedicated state funding for battlefield preservation is a lose-lose situation for Kentucky’s heritage and economy. The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund has helped preserve several tracts at battlefields in Kentucky including at Perryville, Tebb’s Bend and Blue Licks, but unfortunately the fund has been hit by budget sweeps in recent years that threaten its ability to continue this work.

As Civil War reenactors gather at Perryville as they do every year for the anniversary of the October 8, 1862, battle, let us do our own part and convince the legislature increase funding for preservation of Kentucky’s battlefields.

Steve Zahn is an actor and preservation advocate. He wrote this for the American Battlefield Trust.