You might say Mill Springs Battlefield Association Executive Director Stephen B. McKinney was tailor-made for his newest job.
The Alabama native has been in the position for around seven weeks now, and he’s intent on aggressively pursuing national park status for the battlefield, along with drawing in more tourists in an effort to make the park a more educational experience.
“It (the position of MSBA executive director) fit many of the things I was looking for in a position,” said McKinney. “I’ve been very interested in history preservation and conservation and historic easements.”
“Interested” can be taken to a whole new level in McKinney’s case. McKinney, who has worked in private consultation for both profit and non-profit organizations for more than 20 years, has experience in advertising, marketing, public relations, fundraising, and client relationship management.
McKinney received his undergraduate degree from Auburn University, and from there he pursued his master’s degree in public administration from Auburn University-Montgomery.
But he didn’t stop there. McKinney — who has been intensely interested in Civil War history since his childhood days, when he had abundant access to the Alabama state archives thanks to his grandmother’s employment there — also has a master’s degree in military history from American Military University.
McKinney’s master’s thesis was titled “Confederate Defeat: A Failure of Strategy and Tactics?” and it has been published.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities,” McKinney said. “I’ve been really blessed.”
This Saturday, McKinney will give his first speech as MSBA executive director during the 151st anniversary ceremony of the Battle of Mill Springs. The battle occurred on January 19, 1862 in Pulaski and Wayne counties. It was the second-bloodiest battle in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and more significantly, the battle was the first major victory for the Union Army in the Civil War and represented a major breach in the Confederate State’s “Western Defense.”
The Confederate defeat, coupled with the subsequent losses of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, ultimately led to the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862.
More than 160 soldiers were killed and more than 600 wounded in the Battle of Mill Springs and generals’ names like Felix Zollicoffer and George H. Thomas became the stuff of legend. Zollicoffer — who is the namesake of Zollicoffer Park at the site — was killed in the battle.
McKinney himself has ties to the battle. It was during a visit to the site in 1997 when he learned that his great-great-great grandfather, James Henry Thomas McKinney, of Company B, 16th Alabama Infantry (with the Confederate forces), was killed and buried in a mass grave there.
“I had my hand on the gravestone and I just thought ‘right name, right unit ... it’s him,’” said McKinney. “ ... I got goosebumps.”
James Henry Thomas McKinney was nearly 40 years old when he died, and McKinney said he had two sons — one who avoided conscription and lived out the war in the “Freedom Hills” in northwest Alabama, and another who joined the Alabama Calvary and who died of measles in Memphis, Tenn.
McKinney, who has served as historic coordinator and technical advisor on 18 television and film projects about the Civil War, has been a Civil War reenactor since 1976. He is a Civil War artifact collector and authenticator as well.
But nothing can really take the place of knowing your ancestors fought and died during the bloodiest conflict on American soil.
McKinney says he knows of 30 of his relatives who fought in the Civil War, including James Henry Thomas McKinney.
“I’ve walked the ground that he (James Henry) walked, I’ve been down to where they camped at Beach Grove,” said McKinney. “From that perspective, Mill Springs is a very special place to me.”
Now, as McKinney prepares to position Mill Springs the best he can to allow its inclusion in the U.S. National Park Service (see the accompanying article), he plans to work on expanding the historic site’s reach to a larger audience, and he intends on making the battlefield, the Mill Springs Visitor Center and Museum and the historic Brown-Lanier House B&B more valuable educational opportunities.
“The Mill Springs Battlefield has huge potential to become a major tourist attraction,” said McKinney.
The ceremony for the 151st Anniversary of the Battle of Mill Springs is set for 1 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday) at Zollicoffer Park in Nancy, Ky.
The program will include the raising and lowering of the flags by the Boy Scouts a speech from McKinney and a firing ceremony by the 4th Kentucky Infantry.