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N. Ky. dodged a (Civil War-era) bullet

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Diagrams of the two Civil War-era batteries drawn by Major James H. Simpson, of the U.S. Engineers, in November 1862.

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Brief news reports recently announced that two Civil War-era fortification sites in Devou Park had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Here is the rest of the story ...)

 COVINGTON, Ky. - The terror must have been overwhelming.
 
Day by day, word of mouth and newspaper dispatches from the year-old Civil War had been bringing home images of blood-soaked earth and ripped-off limbs.
 
Here in Northern Kentucky, that horrific carnage - and those battlefields - seemed a distant world away.
 
But then came tremorous warning: Confederate forces had invaded Kentucky, and they were marching north. Southern generals wanted control of the Bluegrass State, and they wanted Cincinnati, a key steamboat and railroad hub and the nation’s sixth-largest city.
 
It was late summer 1862.
 
And anxiety spurred action.
 
In the hills south of the Ohio River, Union engineers and citizens conscripted into work brigades hurriedly labored to fill the gaps between nine fortifications that had been carefully built the summer before. Felling trees and digging rifle trenches, they threw up cannon batteries overlooking key roads and clearings, and then leveled out a road to connect them.
 
With the smell of fresh-turned dirt lingering in the air, the river valley containing the Queen City and its neighbors to the south - Covington and Newport - was now protected by a line of defense stretching 10 miles from what is now Ludlow to what is now Fort Thomas.
 
There Union troops waited, the Confederate Army drawing nearer by the hour.
 
Again, the dread must have been mind-numbing ...
 
In the end, no major battle occurred.
 
The Confederates pulled up just south of Fort Mitchel(l), intimidated by their scouts’ descriptions of what lie in wait - not only artillery but what by then included at least 10,000 veteran soldiers and some 50,000 local militia and “home guard” troops.
 
After three days of tense standoff, the Southern army was called southward as other Union forces advanced through Kentucky. The two armies wound up meeting with thunderous roar on Oct. 8 at a small crossroads town called Perryville. It would prove to be Kentucky’s largest and bloodiest Civil War moment, with nearly 8,000 casualties.
 
But the Northern Kentucky area didn’t entirely escape bloodshed: Four Union soldiers were killed near Fort Mitchel(l) during a minor skirmish on Sept. 10, 1862.
 
Exactly 156 years later - on Sept. 10, 2018 - the pivotal role of those fortifications in repelling the Confederate States Army was officially and formally recognized with the entry into the National Register of Historic Places of the Battery Bates and Battery Coombs Historic District. Within the district are: 
  • Battery Coombs (aka Ludlow Hill), one of the original fortifications built in 1861. 
  • And Battery Bates, which was added after the Confederate army’s retreat. 
Both are in the 246-acre “back-country” area of Devou Park, west of Sleepy Hollow Road.
 
They are also the most intact of the 25 fortifications in the defense line, all but seven of which have been completely destroyed by development over the years, said Jeannine Kreinbrink, president and senior archaeologist with K & V Cultural Resources Management.
 
As the nomination says rather poetically: “After 1865, the line fell back into local legend and obscurity.”
 
Kreinbrink has been working on getting Devou Park’s Civil War batteries listed on the Historic Register for more than 30 years. The above narrative is drawn from the nomination she wrote, which is based on her own archival research, three archaeological digs at Devou that she led, and the research of Civil War historians, including Northern Kentuckian Dr. James A. Ramage and Kentuckian John Kleber.
 
“The listing has been a long time coming,” Kreinbrink said. “But what a huge honor.”
 
It’s too late to stop the physical destruction that weather, bulldozers, and vandals have done to the 25 sites. But she hopes the listing helps repair fading memories and the deficiencies of local history education.
 
“This happened in people’s backyards and they have no idea,” she said. “The Battle of Perryville could very well have happened in the hills of Northern Kentucky. Those soldiers - they had no idea what would happen.”
 
Laurie Risch, executive director of the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Devou Park, echoed that thought.
 
“No one ever thinks about the Civil War around here, or that we had a part in it,” Risch said. “But whereas there was never a major battle, they were prepared for it, and these batteries prove it.”
 
The Behringer-Crawford Museum features an exhibit on the Civil War that includes text panels, documents, letters, infantry rosters, drums, cannon balls and a collection of lead Minie balls.
 
The museum and Devou Park have been careful about calling too much attention to Battery Bates and Battery Coombs, especially their locations, and even with the National Register listing, that’s unlikely to change.
 
The earthwork at Battery Bates - shown here facing south - is clearly visible more than 150 years after it was built.

Battery Bates is relatively easy to find and unfortunately has been damaged by people with metal detectors and shovels looking for artifacts, which is illegal. Several archaeological excavations - in 1981, ’82 and ’95 - uncovered a few things like lead fragments, cinders and wood charcoal. More importantly, it revealed details about the battery’s construction, i.e. horizontally placed logs along the base of the earthwork.
 
Today, the remains of its rifle trenches, a collapsed powder magazine, and the road leading to it are clearly visible. At certain locations, the earthwork is 4 foot higher than the ground sloping away from it.
 
The above-ground features of Battery Coombs, in contrast, are largely unrecognizable to the general public because of erosion, and it’s largely overgrown with honeysuckle and brambles, being in one of the more inaccessible areas of Devou Park. Hence it’s difficult to find.
 
Historical diagrams show rifle trenches, a rifle pit, a connecting road and a possible location for barracks. Coombs was one of the few fortifications to have a barracks.
 
The fact that the new historic district even today consists of rolling hillsides covered with woods makes it easier to mentally recreate the events in that critical part of the Civil War, according to the nomination.
 
“The integrity of the setting enhances the integrity of feeling, which provides an excellent background for interpretation of the entire defensive system,” it reads.
 
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The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of properties recognized by the federal government as worthy of preservation for their local, state, or national significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering or culture.
 
Covington, which recently celebrated its 203rd birthday, now has 18 National Register Historic Districts, as well as numerous individual listings.