PRESTONSBURG — Thick smoke blanketed still bodies dotting the landscape, as Union and Confederate forces battled throughout the weekend, Sept. 8 and 9, during the annual Civil War reenactment at the Battle of Middle Creek celebration.
The Friends of Middle Creek hosted about 220 reenactors for a three-day event marking the 150th anniversary of a battle local historians describe as the most important in Eastern Kentucky.
Friends of Middle Creek commander Patrick Davis said the reason his group puts on the Battle of Middle Creek each year is to keep the event alive in the public’s mind. Otherwise, the battle might become a “footnote in history.”
“The only way we can make sure future generations don’t forget about us is to play it out as best we can,” Davis said.
A steady downpour did not stop over 100 spectators from lining the hillside to watch Saturday’s reenactment of the Battle of Ivy Mountain. Nearly 700 more turned out for the Battle of Middle Creek the following day, when sunny skies and mild temperatures made for a more pleasant afternoon. In addition, 1,800 students from schools in several surrounding counties visited the battlefield Friday, he said.
Davis said the weather held down numbers somewhat, but he felt the event was still successful.
“We had some adversity,” Davis said. “We had the rainstorm on Saturday, but overall, I think it was a great reenactment. A lot of [participants] saw the rainstorm coming, and they called and said they weren’t coming, but we still had a great crowd.”
Davis said there were about 70 men participating as soldiers on each side of the conflict, and another 80 women and children dressed in costumes befitting the Civil War era. There were also 10 cannons thundering through the valley Saturday afternoon, and seven on Sunday. Participants came from Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina.
A Historic Find
This year, in addition to raising awareness about the history of the battle, one participant actually uncovered a little of it on his own.
Davis said, during the reenactment, one soldier tripped over something partly buried in the ground. When he went back to uncover it and see what it was, he found a cannonball from the original battle, unearthed by the reenactment.
The cannonball is currently on display at the Prestonsburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Davis said he hopes to see it become part of the collection of a future Battle of Middle Creek museum.
“We got a great 15oth anniversary present,” Davis said, “and hopefully it will be our first display, when we finally get a museum on the battlefield.”
Jemma Bentley, of Payne Gap, was visiting the event for the first time with her husband, who was participating in the battles. Dressed as a Southern Belle, Bentley said the costumes were part of the attraction for her.
“I love the dresses,” Bentley said, with a laugh. “And the men get to come home.”
Rick Waltz, of Morehead, has been participating in the reenactment “for many years.” Dressed as a Confederate soldier, Waltz said a “love of history” drives him to seek out events like the Battle of Middle Creek.
“For me, it’s just the experience,” Waltz said. “You can’t get this out of a book. When you experience it and use the equipment, you learn so much more than you could ever get out of a book.
“The battles are just awesome to experience. You get a feel for the men who fought here. There’s just something kind of special. I think every reenactor would say that there’s a special feeling from being on a battlefield where some of these casualties happened. We’re retracing their footsteps and trying to recreate the battle the best we can.”
James Robinson, of Martin, was not participating or dressed in period costume, but he took his son, Seth, to watch the battle for the learning experience.
“This is about our fourth year, I guess, third or fourth year, and we always come and enjoy the battle and see what we can see,” Robinson said.
His son, however, was more specific in describing what he likes about the event. “Cannons!” he said, nodding his head excitedly.
Davis said the battles of Middle Creek and Ivy Mountain were two of the most important Civil War battles in Eastern Kentucky.
“We do this reenactment because, here in Floyd County, we’re blessed to have a national battlefield in our back yard,” Davis said. “Not only is it a battlefield, but it’s the largest battle in Eastern Kentucky.”
According to Davis, Prestonsburg was a Confederate stronghold, serving as the unofficial Confederate capital of Eastern Kentucky. An area near where the East Kentucky Science Center stands now was used as a recruitment and training center for the Rebel army.
In addition, Prestonsburg was as far up the Big Sandy River as boats could travel, Davis said, making Prestonsburg crucial to resupplying Confederate forces.
Both sides saw control of the city as vitally important, he said.
“Whoever won the Battle of Middle Creek would control Eastern Kentucky,” Davis said.
According to middlecreek.org, the official website of the Middle Creek National Battlefield, Col. James A. Garfield led Union forces from Catlettsburg and Lexington to Prestonsburg, after receiving reports that Rebels had occupied the area. The two armies met at Middle Creek, Jan. 10, 1862, near where Route 114 meets Route 404 today.
After four hours of fighting, middlecreek.org says, Confederate Brig. Gen. Humphrey Marshall ordered his men to retreat. They ultimately ended up in Virginia, from which they would never return.
Davis said estimates of the battle’s toll vary widely, with Garfield writing afterwards that no more than 20 people were killed, while Marshall later wrote that as many as 500 died.
Garfield’s victory, the website says, was a boost for what had been up until then an unremarkable military career. The effect of the win ultimately helped propel him to the nation’s highest office.
According to his official White House biography, the victory at Middle Creek earned Garfield a promotion to brigadier general and prompted voters in his Ohio home to send him to Congress that year. In 1880, he was elected president, following a brokered Republican convention.
This story was originally completed as part of a college assignment and posted on ralphbdavis.com.