THE COST OF
WAR: CENTRE COLLEGE AND THE BATTLE OF PERRYVILLE
By Stuart W. Sanders, Centre '95
When the Civil War raged throughout the United States, the Centre College
campus mostly was insulated from the conflict. During the early years
of the war, the fighting seemed far from Kentucky, and faculty and students
believed themselves to be safe in their idyllic surroundings. In 1862,
however, the war was literally dropped upon the school's stately doorstep.
The institution found itself flung headlong into the darkest chapter
of its history.
That October, more than 40,000 Union and Confederate soldiers clashed
at Perryville, a small, riverside village some 12 miles from campus.
More than 7,500 men were killed and wounded, and all nearby communities,
including Danville, became filled with injured soldiers. Immediately
after the battle, local churches, homes, and institutional structures
were occupied as hospitals.
In the building now known as Old Centre, the rooms were crammed with
sick and wounded Union soldiers, their lives ebbing away from typhoid,
dysentery, and pneumonia. Most students had vacated campus, and the
grinding of the surgeon's bone-saw and the groans of the wounded had
replaced professors' lectures. College property was damaged, and the
institution suffered severe economic setbacks from which it took decades
WAR REACHES DANVILLE
A warning of the chaos that would descend upon Danville sounded as
early as Sept. 27, when Confederate troops commandeered several campus
buildings. Many had fallen ill during the autumn campaign, and Old Centre
was put to use when the rebels reached Danville.
Elizabeth Patterson, the wife of a Centre mathematics professor, remembered
the Southern presence. "At night," she noted, "the college
campus would be lighted up by cheerful campfires around which the soldiers
at the hospital would gather, sitting upon logs of firewood and singing
rebellious songs, such as 'Dixie' . . ."
Five days after the battle, Union troops evicted these Confederates
and sent them to the Baptist Church. The campus was again filled with
the wounded and sick, but this time with Northern patients.
By the end of October, nearly 3,500 Union soldiers convalesced in Danville.
As the town had approximately 3,000 residents, these troops more than
doubled the population, straining its resources. The campus was no exception,
and more than 40 years later Centre was still seeking damages from the
OLD CENTRE BECOMES HOSPITAL
estimated that Old Centre could hold 150 patients, and the Greek Revival
building was well-suited for this purpose. Constructed to provide classroom
and dormitory space, the roomy interior provided excellent hospital
quarters. The downstairs included a large center hall, the college chapel,
and Professor Ormond Beatty's chemistry laboratory. The upstairs space
contained four classrooms, with rooms in the wings for two of the school's
literary societies, the Deinologian Society and the Chamberlain Literary
and Philosophical Society.
"I saw the poor, sickly wounded soldiers all over the building,"
former student E.W.C. Humphrey commented, "and the use which they
made of the building was about as severe as it could have been."
Professor Beatty's chemistry lab became an operating room. A.B. Nelson,
who eventually became a Centre professor, recalled that "in order
to enter Prof. Beatty's room, we had to pass through a room occupied
by one of the Federal surgeons-or several of them, as a dead-house or
post mortem room . . . I have seen more than one post mortem examination
held in this room while I was passing through."
Many patients died. Nelson testified, "I have seen soldiers-the
bodies of soldiers taken out of there in the hearse for burial; I would
see them every day or two." Another former student remarked that
Old Centre was full of "some very sick soldiers; plenty of them
that died." Burials were so frequent that troops remained on campus
for the sole purpose of interring the dead.
While scores of soldiers died, caregivers also succumbed to disease.
Union soldier Charles W. Orcutt worked as a nurse on campus. Sadly,
Orcutt died of "neuralgia of the heart" and was buried in
Danville's Bellevue Cemetery. Centre officials also suffered. Lewis
Warner Green, the College president and Centre's first graduate, died
in May 1863 from an illness he contracted while helping sick troops.
Although the classrooms were occupied and many students were absent,
classes continued at other locations. Greek lectures were held in the
president's house, while Latin and chapel services took place, as A.B.
Nelson testified in 1907, "in an alcove of the old octagonal library
building [the Sayre Library], now torn down, and Mathematics in an upper
room of the same building . . ."
COLLEGE PROPERTY DAMAGED BY
The Union army occupied campus until late June 1863, more than eight
months after the Battle of Perryville. They left Old Centre in shambles,
and pockmarked columns now stood sentinel to the destruction inside.
G.W. Welsh, a sophomore in 1862, recalled, "There was not much
left except the walls. The desks and chairs were practically used up.
Some of the class rooms that had heavy oak benches were simply defaced
by names being cut on them. The large majority of the benches in the
old chapel were useless, badly broken up." Smashed windows, broken
plaster, and the destroyed chemistry lab brought ruin to the venerable
building. While few classes were cancelled, recitations did not resume
in Old Centre until September 1863, nearly one year after the battle.
The rooms of the Chamberlain Literary and Philosophical Society also
saw damage. Their "library was in a very dismantled condition,"
A.B. Nelson testified. In addition to torn and lost books, the carpet,
curtains, and chairs were destroyed.
G.W. Welsh estimated that at least half of the society's 2,100 books
were gone. "Well, I remember one set of books particularly that
was almost practically consumed," he noted, "and that was
Harper's Magazine, that had been bound annually from the beginning of
the publication." Welsh, who huffed that "we had no twenty-five
cent novels in the library, we had nothing except good literature,"
added that sets of McCaulay, Dickens, and Bulwer were ruined.
The renovations, including repainting the interior, replacing windows
and carpeting, and acquiring new desks and benches, took more than three
months and several thousand dollars. Soldiers destroyed nearly all the
2,100 feet of locust plank fencing surrounding the campus. They chopped
down apple trees and left the College lawn barren. One student colorfully
remarked, "There wasn't grass enough left to keep a goose alive
after [the soldiers] moved that camp" off the lawn.
CENTRE SEEKS RESTITUTION FOR DAMAGES
Civil War, Centre sought restitution for damages. However, the Federal
government would compensate only those who were loyal to the Union and
would pay only for those damages caused by Northern soldiers. As it
was difficult to prove that Federal troops alone caused damages, many
similar claims went unpaid.
In 1906, the school sought an additional $5,000 for the occupation and
damage to Old Centre. The Federal government, in fact, had already made
one payment. In March 1864, Union paymasters had doled out $430 in rent
for a period covering four months and nine days. College authorities
argued that since Union troops used the buildings for at least three
extra months, this payment did not cover the entire occupation. Three
years later the case was still unresolved, and College lawyers continued
to depose witnesses.
Centre never received further payment. While testimony showed that
the school "did not render any aid or comfort to the Confederacy
during the Civil War," the U.S. Court of Claims determined that
(1) the $430 paid to the institution was appropriate to cover rental
fees for the occupation; (2) the College never made claims for damages
during the war or immediately after receiving the rental payment; and
that (3) "The evidence does not establish to the satisfaction of
the court that said Center [sic] College sustained any amount of damages
not paid for and recovered by the payment on account of the use and
occupation hereinbefore mentioned." When Centre's treasury agent
accepted Federal dollars in 1864, he unwittingly doomed the school's
chances of receiving more money in the decades following the Civil War.
The Chamberlain Literary Society filed a separate claim for $1,200
in damages but was not reimbursed. The society's hopes had been bolstered
because the Deinologian Literary Society had received payment for damages
shortly after the occupation. The Chamberlains were not so fortunate,
however, for they were unable to prove that Federal troops alone caused
all of the damages. In May 1864, Federal authorities had paid them $187.50
in rent. When they accepted this payment, they, like the College, lost
any chance of future reimbursement.
Despite the damages and lost tuition dollars, Centre recovered from
the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville. Although the occupation was
a dark episode in the institution's history, Centre's refusal to close
its doors illustrates the College's dedication to education that persists
to this day. Presently, the only reminders of the occupation are the
weather-beaten headstones in Bellevue Cemetery. These silent stones
somberly reflect the sacrifices made by soldiers, civilians, and the
College community when war reared its head near campus.
Stuart W. Sanders '95 is director of the Perryville Battlefield
Preservation Association, the nonprofit organization charged with preserving
and interpreting Kentucky's largest Civil War battleground. Author of
"Kentucky's Civil War Heritage Trail," a guide published by
the Kentucky Department of Travel Development, he has written for Civil
War Times Illustrated, America's Civil War, Washington Times, and other
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