Hospital ledger tied to KY Civil War battle sold on eBay. Buyer donates it to historical society

·4 min read

It’s not every day that a Kentucky Civil War artifact turns up on eBay.

But that’s just what happened when a historian group discovered that someone was selling a hospital ledger tied to the Battle of Perryville online. After a $3,000 purchase, a Kentucky historian studied the ledger, revealed some new Civil War mysteries, and donated the ledger to the Harrodsburg Historical Society.

The ledger is attributed to Dr. Robert Wilson Thrift, the surgeon of the 49th Ohio Regiment of the Civil War. The ledger has ties to Harrodsburg and the Battle of Perryville, one of the bloodiest battles Kentucky experienced during the Civil War, according to the Harrodsburg Historical Society.

Joni House, a historian who is associated with the non-profit organization Friends of Perryville Battlefield, said they became aware of the ledger when an antique dealer from New York put it up for sale on Ebay. They paid $3,000 for the artifact before donating it.

“To be able to return that particular piece of history to Kentucky was very important,” House said.

After the Battle of Perryville, thousands of wounded soldiers crowded nearby buildings seeking medical treatment, according to Friends of Perryville Battlefield. Harrodsburg facilities treated a many of the wounded soldiers.

The ledger from Dr. Thrift contained historical records, including the names of the wounded soldiers who were treated in one of the Harrodsburg hospitals and regimental information of the 49th Ohio Regiment.

A page from a hospital ledger associated with the Battle of Perryville from the Civil War
A page from a hospital ledger associated with the Battle of Perryville from the Civil War

‘Out of the blue’

House said it’s rare to find hospital ledgers from Civil War battles in general, but to find a ledger associated with the Battle of Perryville is especially rare.

“To find that primary resource just out of the blue with all those names in it, it’s pretty remarkable that we found it and it survived,” House said.

House transcribed the ledger, which actually led to more mysteries about the Battle of Perryville. Preliminary research revealed there were discrepancies regarding information on the regiments from Georgia. Additionally, it’s not clear which Harrodsburg hospital treated the wounded soldiers.

“It just could be that the Georgia boys just lied about their regiments. There are now more questions than answers and that’s what makes history so cool,” House said in a news release.

After the ledger was transcribed, it was donated to the Harrodsburg Historical Society on March 14.

“We are grateful to the Friends of Perryville Battlefield for the gift of this unique primary source,” Nancy Hill, president of the Harrodsburg Historical Society, said in the press release. “The only physician’s ledger that documents soldiers treated here in Harrodsburg. This is a rich resource for genealogists and military historians and will provide many opportunities for future research.”

Friends of Perryville Battlefield said the ledger was used as a scrapbook and several articles were pasted over the original pages. The Friends of Perryville will work with the Harrodsburg Historical Society for restoration and conservation efforts.

“Now this gives researchers and historians and genealogists really great, primary resource information,” House said.

What was the Battle of Perryville?

The Battle of Perryville occurred on Oct. 8, 1862. It was part of a Confederate invasion of Kentucky that also included earlier battles at Richmond and Munfordville, which the South won, according to the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, published in 2000.

At Perryville, “savage fighting” ensued after Confederate troops attacked Union soldiers. It was the largest battle fought in Kentucky during the war, according to the encyclopedia. In his 2000 book, “The Civil War in Kentucky,” Lexington attorney and historian Kent Masterson Brown quoted a description one Rebel soldier, Sam Watkins, later gave of the fighting at one point in the battle.

Watkins was quoted as saying a lieutenant colonel told soldiers “to charge and take their guns, and we were soon in a hand-to-hand fight — every man for himself — using the butts of our guns and bayonets. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons.”

The encyclopedia said there were 845 Union soldiers killed in the battle and 2,851 wounded. On the Confederate side, there were 510 soldiers killed and 2,635 wounded.

However, Brown said in his book those numbers understated the actual number of soldiers killed and wounded.

Nearly every available building in a 10-mile radius was used to house dead and wounded soldiers, Brown wrote.

Kentucky was experiencing a severe drought that fall. Wounded soldiers “cried out for water during the night as weary surgeons operated to save as many as possible of the wounded,” the encyclopedia said.

Confederate armies left the state after the battle. There were Confederate raids into Kentucky during the rest of the war, but the battle at Perryville ended the last full-scale invasion of the state by Confederate forces.

The American Battlefield Trust says that while the South secured a tactical victory, the withdrawal of Southern forces afterward left the state in Union hands, so the organization lists the battle as a victory for the North.

Reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story.