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The battle for historic preservation

October 29, 2009|Brad Jones

MOUNT STERLING — An old sign leans into the wind along Camargo Road, on the edge of Mount Sterling. The words on the sign, once bronze, are now faded and difficult to read from the angle and speed of passing traffic.

A few feet away, teenagers file into a local theater to a catch a movie on a lazy, Sunday afternoon, and the lanes are nearly full at a neighboring bowling alley. Tomorrow morning, bells will ring-in another week of classes at the Montgomery County High School.

Yet, long before the theater and the bowling alley, the high school, before brick and mortar altered the rolling hills around Mount Sterling into suburbs and businesses, an important historical event took place on these lands. There, along Camargo, on the approach into town, Gen. John Hunt Morgan, the famed Confederate Cavalry leader from Kentucky, and his cavalry halted in the pre-dawn darkness of June 8, 1864, before the Battle of Mount Sterling.

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The old sign tells this story.

That morning, Morgan and his cavalry approached Mount Sterling from the south, through the dark fields along Camargo Road (U.S. 460) and, pausing at daylight on a low ridge on the outskirts of Mount Sterling, Morgan ordered his cavalry into battle.

The Confederates advanced over the ridge and, exposed to the first of two enemy positions, were fired upon by the Union defenders. A quick battle ensued before Morgan's cavalry, with superior numbers, overwhelmed the smaller Union force, capturing around 75 men.

Morgan's cavalry moved swiftly over the rolling hills, before encountering a larger Union force encamped along the left side of Camargo Road, closer to town, in the same area where the theater and bowling alley now set. The Confederates captured several hundred Union soldiers at that engagement, driving the remaining defenders into town-Union forces skirmishing house-to-house against the advancing cavalry.

After the battle, wounded soldiers were treated at a field hospital on a hill overlooking town. The sprawling campus of the Montgomery County High School was later built along the same hill, in the same area where a field hospital once treated soldiers wounded in battle. In just two days of fighting, hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed, wounded or captured. In the years since the battle, much of these hallowed lands have been lost to development.

Historic preservation is an important endeavor for local communities. Battlefields, preserved much as they were during the event, are crucial links to the past. They provide a hands-on lesson to students, and historians, and they enrich communities by allowing us to see through the fog of time, and envision armies maneuvering, engaging, celebrating victories and mourning defeats. Walking along the topography of the land, seeing the ridges and fields as they were during the battle are effective teaching tools unparalleled by books and lectures.

There are several impressive examples of battlefield preservation in the Central Kentucky area. Richmond witnessed an important Civil War battle in 1862. Over the years, portions of that battlefield were threatened by development. Concerned by this continued threat, the community organized the Battle of Richmond Association (BORA) in 2002. Bolstered by a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program, or the National Park Service, BORA has purchased and preserved 362 acres of the Richmond battlefield, including several structures that played key roles during the battle. Additionally, a visitor's center, museum and walking tours are open and available to the public.

Every August, Richmond hosts the annual battlefield re-enactment, a two-day event coinciding with the anniversary of the battle, an event that draws thousands of tourists and brings the battle to life, more than a century later.

Kentucky's largest Civil War battle took place in the fields around Perryville. Much of that battlefield has been saved through efforts of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association (PBPA), an organization founded in 1991.

In the last two decades, the PBPA worked to purchase hundreds of acres of battlefield lands and have identified further preservationist objectives with the aid of grants and private donations. Today, the Perryville Battlefield is considered one of the most well-preserved and authentic battlefields of the Civil War.

Land witnesses to the Civil War battles of Mount Sterling are mostly gone. Businesses and nearby subdivisions continue to expand, and soon all open land of the battle will disappear. The rolling hills where a Confederate cavalry charged, and the Union defended and men died, are lost to development. A chance to preserve a part of our heritage is lost.

Maybe someone will take time to remember this history, even if they are unable to see the land as it was during the battle. Maybe teenagers enjoying a movie at the theater, or bowlers filling lanes at the bowling alley will take a moment from their leisure, and pause to read the fading words on that old sign, leaning into the wind.

Brad Jones is a Sun community columnist who lives near Mount Sterling.

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