'Civil War Days' brings history and modern Pulaski together at battlefield

Nov. 8—Did you know that almost every charge made by Civil War soldiers involved a bayonet coming at the opposing side, yet wounds from a pointed object made up less than one percent of all injuries suffered in the conflict?

That's the kind of fact those who attended the inaugural "Civil War Days" at the Mill Springs Battlefield near Nancy learned on Saturday, under a blue and gray sky on a wet day in Pulaski County — though the weather largely left the battlefield alone.

Stepping onto the grass off of Ky. 235, the same ground where the iconic Civil War Battle of Mill Springs took place on January 19, 1862, modern-day visitors walked amongst re-enactors dressed in period garb, and paid witness to infantry drill demonstrations, authentic blacksmiths at work, soldiers sitting around their tents cooking meat the way they would have in the 1860s, and of course, the booming sounds of cannon fire.

Considered the first definitive Union victory in the western theater of the Civil War, more than 160 human lives were taken, and more than 600 people wounded as a result of the Battle of Mill Springs, which is also famous for the death of Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer. The "Zollie Tree," a famous landmark from the site felled by lightning 23 years ago, was named in his memory.

In the fall of 2020, the Mill Springs Battlefield officially became part of the National Park System and got its National Monument. So park rangers were mixed among those in Civil War uniforms, providing information to those in attendance and helping them get the most out of their experience Saturday.

"We've met our expectations for our first one," said Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument Superintendent Dawn Davis of the event, around 3 p.m. on Saturday. "We've had over 300 people, we've had good crowds. ... I think there's been a lot of positive feedback, a lot of excitement that we're doing an event. So we're really pleased."

She said a favorite activity was "drill like a soldier," with about 30 children lined up to take part in learning how the men on the battlefield moved their muskets — wooden ones for the kids.

"They learned what life was like for a soldier, the daily grind of it," said Davis. "... It's more than the one day of the battle. We have games that children would have played."

And kids were taking part in this world without smartphones or video games, noted Davis, helping them experience as much as possible what life was like in the generations that came before.

"By seeing people out here dressed in period (outfits), it helps bring (history) off the pages of a book," she said. "It's not just a date in a history book that you have to learn, it really is about helping them make some connections, to kind of get an idea. We can't re-create exactly what happened here, but it gives an idea of what would have taken place."

Re-enactors weren't limited to soldiers; women in Civil War-era dresses and tradesmen hard at work over a fire added to the time-warped feel of the event. Among the latter were blacksmiths, making hooks and tools with 19th-century technology, over a coal-burning open fire using items like an anvil and vise.

"We're just trying to show people how it used to be done," said Randy Sharpe, assistant to Brando Vanschoyck. "He saw some stuff online (about blacksmithery) and decided to get into it. We went to Fort Boonesborough (near Richmond); they had a blacksmith (event) in October about 10 years ago. That put the hook in us."

Vanschoyck, who lives in the Faubush area, said that at the time, he was working on a "pretty intricate twist, called a Rubik's twist." He has those skills after apprenticing under Dan Estep, a notable traditional blacksmith, and has also learned under fellow masters like Randy Wolf (at Fort Boonesborough) and Clay Spencer, one of the nation's greatest blacksmiths, located in North Carolina, as well as being a NASA engineer who helped design the Apollo 11 spacecraft for the U.S., noted Vanschoyck.

He added that he hasn't done blacksmith work for a couple of years, concentrating on his music career instead, "so when they asked me to come out here, I was so ready to do it. ... This gives me an excuse to play. We're just big kids.

"My favorite part is talking to people," he added. "I love to talk, I love to meet people and as far as blacksmithing, I like teaching better than I do actually working, getting to share the craft. Any time you meet somebody interested, I try to make it a positive experience, so that's what they'll relate to when they think of blacksmithing."

Perhaps the county's most authoritative voice on the Civil War is Bill Neikirk, whose efforts with the Mill Springs Battlefield Association and well-attended re-enactments over the years helped keep the historic grounds relevant until it officially became a National Monument.

Neikirk was right back in his element on Saturday, sharing an encyclopedic knowledge of the battle with those in attendance. He said he was excited to see the Civil Wars Days event taking place, and to be a part of it, as a re-enactor and an "interpreter" for the modern-day crowd.

"It tells me and our board that we've had for the last 32 years now that's worked to get to this point how proud we all are that the National Park Service is now here, and we can do things that honestly we couldn't do anymore because of money and all that stuff," said Neikirk of the Mill Springs Battlefield Association. "Honestly, our group just got old enough that there were no young people to take it over for us. Thankfully, the National Park Service came in and we know (the battlefield) will always be preserved, and they can do a lot of things we could just dream of doing. It's great."