Of The More Than 7,500 Soldiers Killed At Perryville, Only One Lone Rebel Is Buried In The Lexington Cemetery
By Stuart W. Sanders
When Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle raged outside of Perryville on October 8, 1862, more than 7,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed and wounded. Despite these casualties, only one known rebel killed at Perryville lies buried in the Lexington (Fayette County, Kentucky) Cemetery. Robert Satterwhite Hamilton of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment, a Lexington native whose family supported the Union cause, is this lone Southern burial. Today, the site of his interment highlights the fratricidal nature of the American Civil War.
Hamilton, described as an “ardent secessionist” by one of his comrades, moved to Nashville in 1860. Employed as a proofreader for the Southern Methodist Publishing House, Hamilton embraced the Confederate cause. The Hamilton family epitomizes the “brother against brother” conflict that was the Civil War. The Hamiltons, like many Kentucky families, were divided over secession. While Robert enlisted in the Confederate army, his siblings eventually joined the Federal service.
In the summer of 1862, multiple Confederate armies invaded Kentucky. These Southern troops hoped to pull a Union army away from Chattanooga, which was a vital Confederate railroad junction. Also, the rebels hoped to procure thousands of recruits in Kentucky, a border state that had tried to remain neutral during the early phases of the war.
Confederate commanders were convinced that if the Commonwealth were held, thousands of Kentuckians would rally to the Southern banner. Robert Hamilton, then eighteen years old, joined the march into his home state. His fellow troops had seen action before—the 1st Tennessee had fought in western Virginia and at the Battle of Shiloh in Southwestern Tennessee.
After maneuvering around Kentucky for more than a month, Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi clashed with Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Union Army of the Ohio at Perryville. Although the Confederates were outnumbered, they attacked the Federal lines located north of town. Most of the Union soldiers were new recruits, and the Confederates pushed them back for more than a mile.
During the battle, the First Tennessee Infantry attacked the Union left flank, located at the northern end of the Federal battle line. Here, the fight was severe, and some of the heaviest casualties were sustained in this sector of the battlefield (located near the present-day battlefield museum and Confederate mass grave). The Southerners savagely assaulted a Union artillery position, drove off the green infantry support, and captured the Federal cannons. Then, after driving a raw Wisconsin regiment out of a cornfield, the First Tennessee attacked another strong Union position, located on a ridge now known as Starkweather’s Hill.
Twelve cannon and more than 1,000 Union soldiers were crammed on the narrow ridge. The First Tennessee, along with the remnants of other Confederate regiments, charged the hill three times. Reaching the crest, a hand-to-hand fight broke out among the wheels of the guns. One Confederate private recalled that “Such obstinate fighting I had never seen before or since. The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces.” The fighting was so severe, Union Captain Robert Taylor noted, that the ground literally became slippery with blood.
Eventually, the First Tennessee pushed back the Union force to another ridge. There, the Federal troops made a tenacious stand behind a stone wall, where they exchanged gunfire with the rebels for more than an hour. As night fell, the Union First Wisconsin Infantry staged a counterattack and captured the battle flag of the First Tennessee. Darkness, and the determined Union defense, ended the fighting on this portion of the battlefield.
Although the Confederate army won a tactical victory, they were outnumbered and left Perryville that night, leaving their dead and wounded on the battlefield. Several Confederate soldiers from the First Tennessee were detailed to care for the wounded and bury the dead. Among these soldiers was Private Marcus Toney, who was, Toney wrote, “intimate friends” with Robert Hamilton. According to Toney, Hamilton was shot in the forehead during one of the charges up Starkweather’s Hill. He died instantly.
After removing his wounded friends from the battlefield, Toney buried 27 members of the First Tennessee in a ravine near Starkweather’s Hill. No shovels were available, so Toney used a dead Union soldier’s breastplate (an ornamental device) to scoop dirt over his fallen comrades. Robert was the first burial, and the young Lexingtonian was placed at the head of the mass grave.
From the light of a burning barn, Toney scribbled a note to Robert’s sister-in-law in Lexington, Mrs. Wesley C. Hamilton. Toney recalled that he did not write directly to Robert’s brother because Wesley “was a Union man, and Robert never wrote a line to him; but all his correspondence was with his sister-in-law.” Toney informed the sister-inlaw that “Robert was killed in a gallant charge this evening. Will take care of remains until you arrive.” A Union soldier agreed to deliver the letter. Toney went to a field hospital about a mile from the battlefield, where he spent several days caring for eight of his comrades. He was so busy with the wounded, Toney wrote, that “For three nights I did not close my eyes in sleep.”
Several days later, Mr. and Mrs. Wesley C. Hamilton found Toney in Perryville. They brought supplies for the wounded and a hearse and casket for their brother. Toney promptly took the grieving family to the gully where he had buried Robert and the other 24 members of the First Tennessee.
Upon reaching the shallow grave, Toney brushed the dirt away from Robert’s face. “Mrs. Hamilton, this is Robert,” Toney said. Decomposition had begun, and Mrs. Hamilton could not recognize her brother-in-law’s body. “Is it possible that these are Robert’s remains?” she asked. Toney reached down, pulled one of Robert’s hands out of the earth, and wiped the dirt from Robert’s fingers. When Mrs. Hamilton saw the hands, she immediately recognized him. “I am satisfied,” she said.
According to Toney, Mrs. Hamilton recognized the corpse because “Robert was a very studious young man, and in his deep studies I have seen him bite his nails to the quick, and frequently brought blood. When Mrs. Hamilton saw the hand and the condition of the finger nails, she knew they were Robert’s. When the body was taken to the hospital and prepared for burial, there was no doubt in her mind.” The remains of Robert Hamilton were taken to Lexington and were interred in the Lexington Cemetery.
Despite the fact that Robert was killed by Federal troops, his family still supported the Union cause. According to the report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky, Robert’s brother, John W. Hamilton, joined the 18th Kentucky (Union) Infantry Regiment in March 1864. Therefore, nearly two years after Robert died while fighting for the Confederacy, his brother John enlisted in the Federal Army. John survived the war, but died in 1867 at the age of 37. Both brothers, who fought on different sides in America’s bloodiest conflict, now lie buried side by side. They are interred in the Hamilton family plot, located in Section C, Lot 16, of the Lexington Cemetery.
The brothers’ graves detail their respective armies. The bottom of Robert’s grave lists “CSA,” while John’s is inscribed “USA.” These two brothers, who fought on opposite sides, are now united in burial. They served different armies but share the same ground.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle and the new book The Battle of Mill Spring, Kentucky. He can be reached at PerryvilleUnderFire@gmail.com
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