Have you ever enjoyed a bowl of burgoo? I did earlier this year, in the dining room of the Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky.
What exactly is burgoo? A sort-of thick soup, heavily seasoned, of Southern origin. Under the entry for stew, the (online) Encyclopedia Britannica noted that “Kentucky’s burgoo is similar, adding beef and potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other vegetables”. A 5/22/2023 online Taste of Home article What is burgoo and how do you make it? that I found while researching noted that burgoo is “a regional specialty around the Bluegrass State as well as parts of Illinois and the Ohio River Valley”. Everyone seems to think this southern dish started in Kentucky.
Everette Dick’s fascinating 1948 book The Dixie Frontier: A Social History tells us more. In the 12th chapter Dick tells us that after events like a log rolling there would be a feast: “A favorite dish was know as bergu or burgoo. It was a pot pie made from a mixture of vegetables of all kinds and wild meats such as squirrel, turkey, venison, and the like, highly seasoned and cooked in a big iron kettle out of doors”. Later in that chapter he noted that when a corn husking was finished: “After that came the supper, which always included burgoo”. Further, Kleber’s 1992 Encyclopedia of Kentucky tells us of burgoo that: “Its use as the name of a Kentucky stew is traced to Gus Jaubert, of John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry, who applied it to field rations he concocted and later prepared for political gatherings”. Very interesting.
As I sat inside the thick limestone walls of the circa 1779 Old Talbott Tavern, I awaited my burgoo. A cup of “Kentucky burgoo” at the OTT was $4.99 a la carte while a bowl was $7.99. I just had a cup, as an appetizer to my meal. The burgoo was rich and tasty, and much spicier than I had expected. The dark color, flavor, and texture of the meat struck me as beef. But there could have been several meats in it. There was a variety of vegetables, and it was indeed “highly seasoned”. I thought it was quite good, and would definitely order it again. I found the burgoo paired well with sweat tea.
There is no set list of ingredients to burgoo, only general guidelines. It is supposed to be thick, and strongly seasoned/spicy. It is often cooked in a large pot, in the past outdoors over an open fire.
I did not grow up eating burgoo. My mother fixed vegetable soup in my youth, to which she always with added chunks of beef. But there was no seasoning, it was not thick, and the color was much lighter than the burgoo I had at the tavern. And it contained only one meat. Good it was. Burgoo it was not.
I am glad I have experienced actual burgoo at the Talbott. Now I am stewing about making some for myself.
On October 8, 1862 Union and Confederate armies clashed at little Perryville, Kentucky. It was to be the largest engagement of the WBTS to occur on Kentucky soil, and inflicted a stunning number of casualties. About 16,000 Confederates under Gen. Braxton Bragg (aided by Leonidas Polk, Buckner, and Hardee) faced off against about 58,000 Union soldiers under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell (aided by Thomas, McCook, and Gilbert). But through an amazing error, Buell only committed about 22,000 of his men to the battle.
Gen. Braxton Bragg moved into the Bluegrass, attempting to coordinate with Gen. Kirby Smith on a campaign to drive Union forces out of disputed Kentucky. Smith was not very helpful. Bragg’s army got bogged down reducing a Union garrison at a railroad bridge near Munfordville. By the time the Confederate army arrived at Bardstown, a massive Union force under Maj. Gen. Buell were counter maneuvering him and closing in. Bragg’s troops relocated east to more favorable ground outside of little Perryville.
The campaign was complicated by scarcity of drinking water, as Kentucky was in a drought. Confederate Gen. Hardee camped near Perryville, as there was some water there. There was some light skirmishing late on the 7th. The next afternoon was the fateful moment. Gen. Leonidas Polk took up a defensive position at Perryville, but when Bragg arrived he determined that they must instead attack the approaching Union army.
The Confederate assault got underway about 2 PM on the 8th of October. Confederate forces managed to press forward, silence a Union hilltop battery, and took much of the field. But the Confederate advance ground to a halt after Union reinforcements arrived. The fighting was savage, volleys of musket fire and artillery rounds rending the air. The Yankees even attempted a bayonet charge once. The Confederate attack of Maney’s brigade on Open Knob was successful, swept down the back of the hill and through a cornfield, but came to a halt when faced by fresh Union forces behind a stone wall on a ridge. At this point it was obvious that it would not be possible to destroy the Union army before their reinforcements arrived.
As noted in Lowell H. Harrison’s 1975 book The Civil War in Kentucky: “Atmospheric quirks apparently prevented both Bragg and Buell from hearing the early battle sounds. When the thunder of the guns and the crackle of rifle fire finally reached Buell after three o’clock, he sent General Gilbert to find out what was happening”. History can be stranger than fiction.
One of the most amazing stories of Perryville is that near dark, Gen. Polk inadvertently rode into Yankee lines, thinking they were his soldiers, and began commanding them to cease firing at the Confederate line he had just left, as he thought they were engaging in “friendly fire”. When a Union Colonel inquired who he was, Polk bluffed his way out and rode back to Southern lines, and then cried out for his troops to open fire on the Union line he had just left!
The wall of flame from the Southern muskets devastated the stunned Union unit, rendering almost 70% casualties in it.
By night it became clear to Gen. Bragg that he was facing Buell’s entire 58,000 man army, as it maneuvered into position against him. Knowing he could not hold out against 3.5 to 1 odds, Bragg ordered his army to fall back east to Harrodsburg. Bragg’s army subsequently left their seriously wounded at Harrodsburg and withdrew through the Cumberland Gap.
The carnage at Perryville was stunning for such a short battle with so few men involved. Bragg lost 510 killed and 2,635 wounded. Buell had lost 845 killed and 2,851 wounded. All this in just over five hours of contact! The next day (October 9) Leonidas Polk, the “Bishop General”, entered the Episcopal church in Harrodsburg and offered a prayer of “peace to the land, and blessings on friend and foe alike”. Polk, a valiant soldier, was that affected by the carnage he had witnessed. I drove past that church in Harrodsburg last year on the day that I also visited the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site.
The Union army buried their dead. Local farmer Henry “Squire” Bottom and his slaves buried the Confederate dead that were strewn over the field. Some reports are that with fences down from the fighting, hogs were running wild and feasting on the dead. A fine marker now stands over the mass grave of Confederates.
And just when you think it’s over...The Kentucky Encyclopedia (John Kleber, 1992), under the entry for Harrodsburg, noted the following: “On October 10, 1862, Lt. John Boyle led the 9th Kentucky Cavalry in a surprise raid on Harrodsburg, where many buildings had been converted into temporary hospitals, and captured 1,600 Confederate soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded from the recent Battle of Perryville. Some of the captured Confederates were members of a detachment of Gen. Braxton Bragg’s rear guard. Harrodsburg was placed under Federal martial law for the remainder of the war”. This daring (sarcasm) Union Lieutenant, presumably leading a platoon, rode into a basically unguarded town and captured wounded Confederate soldiers! I am almost surprised that Lincoln’s army did not give him their new medal, the Medal of Honor, created in 1862 to give to soldiers who fought against Dixie. It’s origin takes a bit of the luster from that medal, does it not?
I will close with one parting thought. As I strolled through the Civil War museum in Bardstown last month, I saw a display about a little unnamed drummer boy, a Confederate one I believe. It told of soldiers observing the boy, about 8 years old, laid out mortally wounded by a house, crying out in delirium for his “dear mother” to come and take him home. They marched by a couple of hours later and the boy lay there, forever silent. Dixie just wanted to secede and be left alone. But Lincoln brought about this cataclysm, and this little drummer boy’s blood is on his hands.
Joe Putnam is a life long resident of Kentuckiana, with ancestors having lived with a 75 mile radius of Louisville since 1780. He has blogged at God, Kin, and Soil and has indie published a few small books available on Amazon.