Efforts to include a Civil War battlefield in Pulaski and Wayne counties in the national park system are about to gain momentum.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Somerset, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced they will introduce legislation in June to make the Mill Springs Battlefield a national park.
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That has long been a dream of volunteers who have worked to preserve the battlefield, the site of the first significant Union victory in the war in January 1862.
Making the site a national park would give it more prominence, assure continued protection of the battlefield and help with funding for employees and interpretive work.
Currently, a non-profit association manages the battlefield, relying heavily on grants and fundraising.
The national-park designation would help boost tourism in the area, said Bill Neikirk, who has been active since the early 1990s in protecting the battlefield and developing displays.
“By being a national park it brings in tourism, obviously,” Neikirk said. “People will know it’s a significant battlefield or it wouldn’t be a national park.”
The National Park Service is studying whether to recommend making Mill Springs a national park.
The study will evaluate a number of factors, including the national significance of the battlefield and the need for National Park Service management.
The study has not been completed
However, Neikirk said National Park Service staffers have indicated the battlefield meets the criteria to become a national park.
“We feel pretty confident it’s going to happen,” Neikirk said of the battlefield becoming a national park.
The study is the first step in that process.
The second is legislation to make the battlefield a park, which is what Rogers and McConnell said they plan to introduce.
“Enshrining this American Civil War battlefield among our nation’s most treasured lands can promote the public education, tourism, and remembrance of the Union Army’s first significant victory in the West,” McConnell said in a news release.
Rogers lauded the work the non-profit Mill Springs Battlefield Association has done to preserve the site and showcase its history.
The association owns more than 900 acres, said Neikirk, a past president of the group. The land includes all the core area of the battle in western Pulaski County and most of an area in Wayne County also involved in the clash.
The battlefield includes a 10,000-square-foot museum and visitor center at Nancy, in Pulaski County; a driving tour; a Confederate mass grave; and two historic houses.
Both houses were used as Confederate headquarters during the battle, and one was used as a hospital.
A national-park designation “would be a tremendous honor for our rural region and a testament to those who have successfully preserved this site for battlefield re-enactments and visitors from across the country to learn more about our American landmark,” Rogers said in a release.
The Battle of Mill Springs, also called the Battle of Logan’s Crossroads, 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.
Southern soldiers marched to Logan's Crossroads through the night, in sleet and cold rain, and attacked early on Jan. 19, 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 American Battlefield 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.
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 American Battlefield Trust site.
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.
The Union victory at Mill Springs was important because it boosted morale in the North after setbacks in 1861 and because it helped break the Confederate defense line across Kentucky, opening the way for federal campaigns in Tennessee.