"Now the whole world will know about Mill Springs, Ky., and they'll come here."
Congressman Hal Rogers has put a lot of work into introducing the Mill Springs Battlefield site to the rest of the nation. On Wednesday, he had the privilege of saying the words above in establishing and unveiling the National Monument signifying the site as the 421st unit of the National Park Service.
Rogers joined Sen. Mitch McConnell and a host of other local dignitaries under beautiful skies outside the Mill Springs Battlefield Museum in Nancy, right along Ky. 80. Only a short distance away is the battlefield itself, where one of the defining battles of the Civil War took place in January of 1862.
Last month in Washington, D.C., Rogers, McConnell, and others took part in a signing ceremony at the U.S. Capitol officially establishing the Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument as the the newest part of the National Park System.
The occasion has been a long time in the making. In 2019, President Donald Trump signed legislation designating the Mill Springs Battlefield and Museum as a national monument, the result of years’ worth of work on behalf of those local individuals dedicated to the preservation of the historic Civil War site in western Pulaski County. Rogers introduced legislation in January of 2013 to conduct a study regarding the feasibility of bringing the Mill Springs Battlefield site and its museum located on Ky. 80 into the nation's National Park System. Rogers and McConnell both worked for years to try and make this a reality, securing federal funding for land preservation, establishing the museum and visitor's center, and more recently, working directly with Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to establish the battlefield as a National Monument, an area protected by the federal government.
Among other features, the Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument preserves Zollicoffer Park, the centerpiece of the core battlefield area, which was conveyed by Pulaski County to the NPS.
It was a significant battle to be won, as in 1991, the National Park Service identified the Mill Springs Battlefield as one of the 25 most endangered such sites in the country. Since then, the Mill Springs Battlefield Association (MSBA) has fought hard to preserve 900 acres of land between Pulaski and Wayne Counties relevant to the unique history there.
Rogers recalled when he first "fell in love with this project," upon coming out to see "what little was preserved of the battlefield" in the late '60s for the first time with well-known former County Judge Roscoe C. Tartar.
"I came out here with him ... and he took us to what's now called the Zollie Tree, which is where (General Felix Zollicoffer) died," said Rogers. "... He took me to see the Confederate mound, the mass grave of the Confederate soldiers killed in this battle. You had to tread lightly to stay clear of beer cans and trash and waste and all sorts of weeds and trees and the like. It was a shame."
The visit inspired Rogers' interest in the site and wanting to see it taken care of and given the proper historical weight and respect it deserves.
"It has so much history to it, it has so much love of land and love of Kentucky and love of the Union that it appeals to everyone," added Rogers.
The Battle of Mill Springs took place on January 19, 1862. It was the second-largest battle to take place in Kentucky and had a significant impact on the momentum of the war as the first major Union victory in the Civil War, stopping the Confederates from moving further north and thus transforming the dimensions of the War Between the States.
"Their heroism began the march toward the preservation of the Union, and the atonement of our nation's original sin," said McConnell of what took place at the battlefield at that time. "Their victory brought us closer to fulfilling our founding ideals of freedom and equality. So today, with reverence and with gratitude, we honor their sacrifice."
McConnell lauded the MSBA as "Kentucky patriots" for their work to make the once-disregarded site in Pulaski's far western corner what it is today, and said it's a "privilege to be a small part of that team." The Senate Majority Leader of the United States took time off the campaign trail against challenger Amy McGrath to make the appearance in Nancy on Wednesday. McConnell praised Rogers, saying the National Monument status would not have happened without him.
"Make no mistake about it, Hal Rogers was the leader in making this happen," said McConnell. "All I did was just salute when he told me to and do what he asked me to do."
The other monumental figure in this endeavor was past MSBA president and still a dedicated party Bill Neikirk. Rogers recalled Neikirk's role in bringing the battlefield preservation group to Mill Springs in the early '90s, and how indispensable he's been in the effort to bring the battlefield under federal protection today, ultimately making "much easier" the jobs of Rogers and McConnell.
"Bill orchestrated the first major land purchase with that preservation group," said Rogers. "It was across the road — 15 acres, $50,000. Fast forward to 2006. We were able to secure a million dollars for this visitor's center and museum, and the association raised another $300,000 locally, which is an impressive event by itself. ... Today we're reaping the harvest of many works that he worked in the field. While there are a lot of people to thank for this monumental day, one man led the charge, and it was Bill Neikirk."
Rogers presented Neikirk with a copy of the tribute he made on the House of Representatives floor to the local MSBA figure, and also presented the museum with the pen that President Trump used to sign into law the designation for Mill Springs Battlefield to become a national monument, along with a copy of the legislation.
The American Battlefield Trust, a charitable organization focused on battlefield preservation, partnered with MSBA in its efforts. Tom Bennett of the American Battlefield Trust spoke Wednesday. He said there's "no more active, more important, more significant citizen group" than the MSBA.
"Congressman Rogers as chairman of Appropriations (in Congress) made sure that the Battlefield Trust Fund is fully funded now for several years. Sen. McConnell shepherded the legislation through the Senate last year to continue to appropriation, and for the first time, we'll be able to spend some of the money on interpretation," said Bennett, "so the education of our children and the education of America about these historic sites is now available and now possible for us."
Wayne County Judge-Executive Michael Anderson led the Pledge of Allegiance, and Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley also spoke at the event.
"What an honor it is to be the county judge executive at a time like this, to see us cross the finish line, to have this beautiful park on display for the world to see now," said Kelley.
Kate MacGregor, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior spoke at Wednesday's event, telling the story of the Battle of Mill Springs and its significance in American History. She championed President Trump signing into law the Great American Outdoors Act, investing billions into public lands.
"The sacrifice of the men buried here is a solemn reminder that freedom was purchased by blood, sweat and tears, and that we must likewise resolve never to falter, never to back down, and most importantly, never to lose heart in the pursuit of a more perfect union," she said. "President Trump understands the magnificence and impact of our federal lands, monuments and battlefields, and ... how crucial they are to telling the story of our great nation.
"This historic victory will live on for our children, for our grandchildren, and the many generations to come here after," she added.
Elisa Kunz will serve as Acting Superintendent for the Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument, as announced during the event.
“The National Park Service Arrowhead will now be featured at Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument," said Kunz. "It means a chance to open up to new audiences, develop economic connections, conserve natural resources, and connect with a larger pool of people who understand the value and appreciate the education provided by the National Park Service. Community preservation work has done a great deal to get us to this point and we look forward to growing our audience in the years to come.“
While the entire project is authorized for the National Park System, some of the property — largely located in Wayne County — still requires official transfer to the National Park Service.
The boundary includes the Visitor Center and Museum, Zollicoffer Park, Timmy's Branch, the Beech Grove Fortified Encampment, the Mill Springs Crossing Fortified Ferry Landing and Mill Site, the West-Metcalfe House, the Brown-Lanier House and the restored grist mill administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to Rogers' office.
Rogers said at the event that a second celebration — possibly at the mill — will be scheduled in Wayne County in the near future to mark the completion of the project in both counties.
The Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument is now open to the public, including the Visitor's Center and Museum. Visitors to the new national monument can also begin a 10-stop, self-guided driving tour of the battlefield from the visitor center.
"The National Park Service is getting quite a deal," said Rogers. "... This is a big day for all of us. I feel it because we've all been working together for 50 years, and this is the culmination of that project so far. We've got a mile or two to go yet, but (those involved have) been terrific."