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Those odd-looking books on the shelf

Battle of Perryville KY, 8 Oct 1862

So I’m back in Kentucky for the last few days of this combination NGS-and-research trip, still hunting for so much as a footprint to prove my 2nd great grandfather George Washington Cottrell really was born in Kentucky, as he said he was.

Now I won’t say it was because it was starting to get late and I was starting to get frustrated — as I usually am — with George and his missing parents, but my eyes did stray along the shelves of the Kentucky Historical Society and came to rest on those odd-looking books on the shelf.

Now, an hour later, having been thrown out of the KHS at closing time, I’m no closer to finding George or his parents (or their footprints) but man… what a find those odd-looking books turned out to be!

It isn’t just that they told me much I’d never have known otherwise about the Battle of Perryville, 8 October 1862, by far the bloodiest battle in Kentucky and — purely in terms relative to the size of the armies that met in the field — one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Civil War. Union losses were 4,276 men (894 killed, 2,911 wounded and 471 captured or missing; Confederate losses were 3,401 men (532 killed, 2,641 wounded and 228 captured or missing).1

But those books told me so much about what’s hidden behind the battle lines on the map you see here. If you look really closely at the enlarged version (click on the map to enlarge it), under the bottom red arrows where Bull Run meets Doctor’s Creek, are two words: “Squire Bottom.”2 And therein lies the tale.

Henry Pierce Bottom (1809-1901) was a prosperous slave-owning farmer and a magistrate in Boyle County, Kentucky, from 1860-1865. He married Margaret “Mary” Delilah Hart around 1840 and they are known to have had two sons: Samuel Davis Bottom in 1841, and Rowan Bridges Bottom in 1848.3

Sources differ as to his loyalties during the war. Historian Kenneth Noe refers to him persistently as a secessionist4 while other sources — and, eventually, a court decision — held that he was loyal to the Union.5 What is beyond debate is that it was his farm on which much of the Battle of Perryville was fought.

And those odd-looking books on the shelf of the Kentucky Historical Society contained a printout, from microfilm, of hundreds and hundreds of pages of court filings, depositions and other papers related to “Squire” Bottom’s unsuccessful decades-long fight to win reimbursement from the Union forces for the damage done to his farm.

Battle losses weren’t compensable — they were simply what happened in war — but Bottom claimed that most of the damage was done by the thousands of Union troops who camped out on his farm after the battle. They burned his fence posts for firewood, ate his smoked meat and his oats and corn, made off with all of his hogs and his cattle and two horses. All told, he claimed more than $4,800 in damage — and collected nary a cent.6

The claim was first filed in 1866, and denied shortly thereafter both because the Bottoms didn’t get vouchers from the Union quartermaster and because of doubts about Henry’s loyalty. It was refiled thereafter and then lay dormant for years as Henry’s health failed. After his death, his executor pressed the case and kept appealing and appealing. The loyalty issue eventually went their way, but not the final decision: ultimately it just wasn’t proved that the damage came from the troops and not from the battle.7

Now maybe there are folks out there who’d have put those books back on the shelf after seeing that they have dry and dusty legal documents from a court of claims case. I mean, hey, after all, you’re not really going to get good genealogical information from a lengthy description of corn crops and numbers of hogs, are you?

And oh boy would those folks have been making a mistake. The documents in the file are simply amazing: Henry’s son Samuel testified in 1904 that the farm was “all tore to pieces,” with not a fence intact, the barn burned, and their entire crop destroyed. The family didn’t give anything to troops on either side, he said; we “had nothing after the battle to give.” Preston Sleet, a neighbor after the war and an African American Union soldier during the battle, testified for the Bottoms family that Union troops had burned the fence rails for firewood and used hay for their bedding. Even a Union quartermaster testified in favor of the claim.8

A physician from town, J.B. Bolling, said he went to the farm the day after the battle and every day thereafter for weeks to care for the wounded. The farm, he said, was “in desolation. It was all used up pretty much.” and Henry Bottom “was broken in spirit from that time on, until he died.” Another neighbor, Mingo Williams, spoke of the sheer numbers of dead in the fields. The farm was “covered in dead men.”9 Witness after witness came forward, and each and every one was examined in detail about his knowledge of the area, his own role in the battle and his relationship, if there was one, to the Bottom family. The wealth of detail is stunning.

The farm was never the same after that battle. The Union troops buried their own in neat rows. Bottom, his hands and his slaves were pressed into service to bury the Confederate dead. By 1868, the Union dead had been moved to a federal cemetery in another county; a Confederate cemetery was dedicated near the battlefield in 1902, just after Bottom’s death — the stone pillar bears the names of a few Mississippi soldiers whose effects Bottom had saved so they could be identified.10

The Union dead at Perryville were not honored there until 1931, then the entire battlefield area became a national historic landmark in the mid-1950s.11 Today, the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site occupies much of what was Henry Pierce Bottom’s land and a major re-enactment is scheduled for the 150th anniversary of the battle, on the weekend of October 6-7, 2012.

I don’t have any ancestors — that I know of, yet! — from Boyle County, Kentucky, and I can’t spare time on this trip for a side jaunt to Perryville. For today, I’m off to the archives and back to hunting for footprints left by George and his parents.

But if my eyes should come to rest on any other odd-looking books on the shelf, you know what I’ll be doing. Because for us, as genealogists, it’s the hidden treasures tucked away in those dry and dusty odd-looking books that keep moving us forward… and where, who knows, maybe someday, those footprints I’m hunting may just turn up.


SOURCES

Image by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CWmaps/, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Battle of Perryville,” rev. 13 May 2012.
  2. Hal Jespersen, “Perryville: 1545” (http://www.posix.com/CWmaps/ accessed 16 May 2012).
  3. See Owners of the Perryville Battlefield,” The Perryville Civil War Battlefield Website (http://www.perryvillereenactment.org : accessed 16 May 2012).
  4. Kenneth W. Noe, “Remembering Perryville: History and Memory at a Civil War Battlefield,” The Perryville Civil War Battlefield Website (http://www.perryvillereenactment.org : accessed 16 May 2012).
  5. See generally R.B. Bottom, Executor, vs. United States, case files 9877 and 2514 consolidated. The stated citation on these volumes, reprinted from microfilm by the National Archives for the Kentucky Department of Parks, is to General Records of the Department of the Treasury, Records of the Division of Captured Property, Claims, and Lands, Record Group 56, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The case file name and numbers have been confirmed; the record group has not been confirmed.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Noe, “Remembering Perryville: History and Memory at a Civil War Battlefield.”
  11. Ibid.
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