Perryville is truly in the middle of nowhere. Driving at high speeds down the winding roads towards the battlefield, it is difficult to imagine that thousands of young men marched out there on foot, ready to give their lives for such a seemingly insignificant location in rural Kentucky. But that is exactly what happened a century and a half ago. As I drove into the park, past a designated picnic area and a small shelter, it seemed entirely impossible that many more than 7,000 people from distant lands suffered horribly and died on this very ground.
The silence of the place is overwhelming. Standing in the fields of Perryville, one notices only the serenity of the gorgeous rolling landscape. If it were not for the sun-stained signs posted throughout the fields indicating the location of significant events, the cluster of stone monuments, and the immobilized cannons perched atop the fateful hilltop, one would never know of the human carnage that once coated these fields. One would never know the suffering, struggle, and great loss that briefly coalesced in this picturesque vista. It is almost as if the earth has been trying to forget. It’s almost as if the earth has already forgotten.
You hear “Civil War” and are begrudgingly transported to a dry elementary school history lesson. It’s easy to think of some Hallmark card version of the highly romanticized Battle of Gettysburg or a fiery pyrotechnic tableau of the shelling of Fort Sumpter. In your mind, you see a picture of Abraham Lincoln posing under some tent with some generals. Perhaps images of faceless, nameless, lifeless bodies decaying in an unknown field springs to mind. Perhaps you even see some sweltering reenactment you were forced to attend as a child plays out before your eyes. It has all become so mythologized. These people, these events, they’ve become as cold and impersonal as the austere monuments that seek to retain their fading memory. Their stories, their struggles, and their lives all seem so distant to us in our insulated modern world. In the warm summer air, I try in vain to imagine thousands of men my age marching to their deaths along the same roads I walk.
150 years really isn’t that long ago. Even though the Perryville battlefield has been washed by rain and decorated with trimmed grass, corn, and beautiful flowers, what brought those many men to die there is still a very real and present issue in our society today. The seed of human aggression and irrationality which blossomed into the Civil War has not, and can not be truly eradicated. The very situation that drove tens of thousands of men to march into a gorgeous Kentucky field to do battle with each other until the ground was “slick with blood” is the same thing that threatens to demolish our great society once again: to look at another person across the field — any field whether it be religion, politics, race, national origin, personal opinion, etc., — and forget that they are a human being. The ability to dehumanize another person, to reduce them to the sum of their beliefs or immutable characteristics is easier now than it ever was a century and a half ago.
Just as most people have forgotten the Battle of Perryville, most people have forgotten what drew those men to that hilltop. Most people have forgotten the importance of national unity, respect for each other as individuals, and equality under the law. We cannot forget that we, as Americans, live under the common belief that, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Perhaps it was best put by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 when he famously proclaimed, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”