Federal officials are studying whether to recommend adding a Civil War battlefield in Pulaski and Wayne counties to the national park system.
The Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862 was the first significant victory of the war for the Union, helping break the Confederate defense line across Kentucky and open the way for federal campaigns in Tennessee.
A non-profit group called the Mill Springs Battlefield Association manages the battlefield and has done extensive work to protect the site and develop interpretive displays.
Making the battlefield part of the national park system would help with staffing and interpretive work and assure the continued protection of the site, said Monica De Carlo, executive director of the association.
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The association relies heavily on donations and fundraising.
“We don’t know how much longer we can maintain this,” De Carlo said.
The battlefield includes a 10,000-square-foot museum and visitor center at Nancy, near the heart of the battle in western Pulaski County; a driving tour; a Confederate mass grave; and two restored historic houses.
Both were used as headquarters, and one was used to treat wounded and dying soldiers.
The site includes more than 800 acres, or about 80 percent of the core area of the battle, De Carlo said.
The battlefield is well preserved because of the work of the association and the lack of nearby development, said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Trust, which has helped raise money to buy land for the battlefield.
“It’s one of those sites where you do feel like you’re transported back in time,” Campi said.
The association has identified other land that would bring nearly 100 percent of the central area of the battle into the fold.
That would make Mill Springs one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the country.
The association has done “a phenomenal job” in protecting the battlefield and developing displays, said Justin Henderson, a National Park Service official.
Henderson is leading the study on whether Mill Springs should become part of the federal park system, which also could help with tourism.
Members of the study team have visited Mill Springs and begun research.
The park service will host public meetings Monday and Tuesday to provide information on the study and take comment about adding the battlefield to the park system.
Henderson said the study will evaluate a number of factors, including the national significance of the battlefield, how suitable it is to be added to the federal park system, and the need for park service management.
The study will take place over the next two years.
The park service ultimately will make a recommendation to Congress on whether to include the battlefield in the national park system, but the decision would be up to lawmakers.
Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who pushed legislation authorizing the study and has helped get funding for the battlefield, supports adding it to the national park system.
In addition to its strategic value, the Union victory at Mill Springs was a boost to Northern morale after losses in 1861, and helped the Union keep control of Kentucky.
“Historically, it’s exceedingly important,” Campi said.
The clash happened after Confederate Gen. Felix Zollicoffer moved troops from Tennessee in late 1861 and set up camp along the Cumberland River in Wayne County as part of the South’s bulwark across Kentucky.
Union troops under Gen. George H. Thomas moved to a hamlet nine miles away called Logan’s Crossroads, which later became Nancy, to counter the Rebel army.
The Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden, decided to strike at the Union force before it gathered strength for an attack on the Southern line.
Southern soldiers marched to Logan's Crossroads through the night, in sleet and cold rain, and attacked around 6 a.m., according to histories of the battle.
There were about 5,900 Confederate troops against 4,400 Union soldiers, according to a history on the website of the Civil War Trust.
Rain, fog and smoke from gunfire made it difficult to see at times during the six-hour battle. Zollicoffer mistakenly rode his horse close to a Union position, thinking the troops were Confederates. Union troops killed him, throwing the Confederate forces into disarray.
Crittenden rallied his soldiers, but the fight stalled into furious hand-to-hand fighting along a fence before a bayonet charge by Union troops broke the Confederate line and Southern troops fled.
There were 55 Union soldiers and 148 Confederate soldiers killed in the fight, according to the history on the Civil War Trust site.
The site includes a letter from Union soldier James Wall Scully to his wife about the terrible aftermath he saw that night, in which he used the term “Secesh,” short for secession, for Rebel soldiers.
“I had to come all the way alone over the battle field and it being partially moonlight I encountered some horrible sights. Piles of dead men Secesh and Union lay strewn all over the road and fields, and their ghastly countenances upturned in the moonlight made me feel a sensation crawl over me, not unlike fear,” Scully wrote. “It was a night I can never forget. How many a brave heart beating with hope left both camps this morning . . . only to fly before noon into the presence of their Maker, but such is war.”
The battle was near what was then Logan’s Crossroads and is sometimes called that, but is most commonly known as Mill Springs, the Wayne County community where Thomas, the Union commander, dispatched his report of the battle.
Many of the fallen Confederate soldiers were buried in a mass grave.
The Union dead were buried in individual graves where their units had camped, according to a marker at the battlefield visitor center.
In 1867, the federal government established Mill Springs National Cemetery near the battlefield and the remains of Union soldiers that hadn’t been claimed by family were moved there.
The battlefield visitor center is adjacent to the cemetery.
Despite its significance in early 1862, the battle at Mill Springs was overshadowed a few months later by the bloodbath at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee.
In 1992, the National Park Service put Mill Springs on its list of most endangered battlefields, according to the association.
Local volunteers then formed the battlefield association and began the years-long effort to preserve the site.
Meetings on the study are scheduled as follows:
Jan. 4 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Mill Springs Battlefield visitor center, 9020 West Ky. 80, Nancy, 42544
Jan. 5, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Aspire Center, 90 Airport Road, Monticello, 42633