On Friday America celebrates the 238th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence. On that day, America said it was independent. While that declaration was an important milestone, as we all know, it would require much conflict for the claim to become a reality. The Declaration of Independence would be followed by a violent war with the greatest superpower of its day. And it wouldn’t end there: other wars would follow. Time and again America has been forced to back up its declarations with military might. For a nation born in an atmosphere of high minded ideals, we have seen more than our share of conflict. Much of that conflict has focused on Kentucky and Kentuckians.
I’ve often said on these pages that we should strive for better ways to leverage our heritage as an economic development strategy. One aspect of that heritage is our military history. From its earliest days as a part of “American” history, Kentucky was a place oft visited by wars and warriors. That’s especially true for East and Northeast Kentucky.
Daniel Boone- who likely did more to settle and found the state than any other statesman or explorer- entered “Kentucky” near modern-day Elkhorn City. Later, he would help blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap, spend a winter in present-day Owsley County, establish a fort on the Kentucky River, and lose a son in one of the final battles of the Revolutionary War on the banks of the Licking River.
Less well known but perhaps even more of a warrior was Boone’s compatriot, Simon Kenton, the founder of Mason County. Kenton fought in the Revolutionary War, the Northwest War, and the War of 1812. He purportedly was asked to identify Tecumseh’s body after the famous battle of the Thames, but he misled souvenir seeking soldiers into thinking it was the body of a different man.
Kentuckians were also present during the other major historical battle of that war: the Battle of New Orleans. Kentucky Rifleman supposedly gave Andy Jackson the edge in his conflict with the British. Later, when Jackson ran for President, he honored Kentuckians’ service by commissioning a song called the Hunters of Kentucky. That tune became his official campaign song in 1824 and 1828.
In the Civil War, the eastern part of Kentucky produced both warriors and battlefields in spades. A vital recruiting camp and future-haven for runaway slaves was established in Garrard County. A Mason County native and U.S. Naval officer named William Bull Nelson played a critical role in organizing Kentucky volunteers for the war. General George Thomas, a man who would eventually be regarded as one of the greatest commanders in the Civil War, fought two of the wars earliest battles in the region: the Battle of Wildcat Mountain near London and the Battle of Mill Springs near Monticello. Future President James Garfield would fight battles near Pikeville. When Confederate forces launched their last best effort to take Kentucky, Edmund Kirby Smith marched his half of the rebel army through the Cumberland Gap. Later, Union warhorse Ambrose Burnside would establish a supply camp near Somerset as he joined the invasion of Tennessee. Last but not least, Confederate Raider John Hunt Morgan would criss-cross East Kentucky burning multiple courthouses and alternately sneaking up on and running from Union forces as he rode his way to military fame.
Following the Civil War, conflicts shifted to the western plains. There, at least four Eastern Kentucky heroes were issued the Medal of Honor. One famous soldier from this era was Mason County native Charles Young, an African American. Young would ultimately serve more than two decades with the Buffalo Soldiers out west. Later, he helped lead forces against Pancho Villa.
World War 1 saw heroes from Leslie County and Fleming County: Willie Sandlin of Hyden won the Medal of Honor while Ambers Sapp of Nepton posthumously won a DSC.
World War 2 saw Medal of Honor winners from Russell and McCreary County, while Fleming County native Franklin Sousley was forever immortalized in the famous picture of Marines raising the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima.
I could go on, but for brevity’s sake will stop here.
Obviously this martial history is a proud one for our region. The question: how can we better leverage it for the sake of economic development? What attractions, parks, reenactments, events, festivals, museums, etc. are missing? Our task as economic developers is to support the development of more of all the above. Ultimately though, it will take entrepreneurs to go into action and fight the vagaries of the market to achieve commercial breakthroughs.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. He provides assistance to entrepreneurs in East Kentucky. Johnathan is also a veteran Infantryman of the U.S. Army and Kentucky National Guard. Contact him via www.kyinnovation.com