Historic Sites In Kentucky. More Than Just Parks has 5 incredible must-see sites for you to visit.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’m going to give you my list of the Top 5 Historic Sites In Kentucky that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as opposed to national parks.
If you are planning a trip to Iowa then you might want to pick up a copy of Kentucky Bucket List Adventure Guide: Explore 100 Offbeat Destinations You Must Visit! It’s written by Paul Mckee.
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
Historic Sites In Kentucky
5. Belle Of Louisville
At #5 on our list of historic sites in Kentucky is the Belle of Louisville.
It’s one of Louisville’s premier attractions. Built in 1914, the Belle of Louisville is the only remaining authentic steamboat from the great American packet boat era.
A National Historic Landmark and an icon of the Louisville waterfront, the Belle is the most widely traveled steamboat in American history.
The Belle sits on the Ohio River in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, taking passengers on cruises and participating in the annual Great Steamboat Race—a competition between the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati that is part of the Kentucky Derby Festival.
Visitors can learn more about the steamboat’s history on a cruise while dining, dancing, and relaxing.
Historic Sites In Kentucky
4. Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument
At #4 on our list of the best historic sites in Kentucky is the Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument.
The Battle of Mill Springs was a Union victory early in the Civil War. The battle took place on January 19, 1862.
Confederate General Felix K. Zollicoffer was killed when he mistakenly approached a Union officer thinking it was one of his own men.
The death of the their commander coupled with intense Union volleys of gunfire quickly demoralized the Confederate forces. They subsequently retreated into Tennessee.
The Union victory led to the total collapse of the eastern sector of the Confederate defensive line established to defend the Upper South. This, in turn, helped to solidify the Union’s control of what was a pivotal border state in the conflict.
Things To Do At Mill Spring
There’s a wonderful Mill Springs Visitor Center which features a 20-minute film about the Battle of Mill Springs. Visitors will find a museum with many fascinating exhibits which provide a greater understanding of the battle’s combatants and its impact on the war.
Regarding the battlefield itself, much of the battlefield can be seen from public roadways. The Mill Springs Battlefield Association developed a 10-stop Driving Tour, which begins at the Visitor Center.
All stops along the tour are marked with large signs. There are also informative signs to help you understand a site’s significance. Parking is limited at certain stops.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs then I recommend Zollicoffer Park. The park is named for the Confederate general who died there.
There’s a half mile Ravine Trail which takes hikers down into a ravine, crossing the battle-lines of the two sides. Signs along the way explain key battle events.
You may also want to tour the Brown-Lanier House. It’s an antebellum home built before the Civil War. The home housed the families that operated the nearby grist mill.
During the battle, the historic farmhouse became headquarters for generals on both sides of the fighting.
You can also see the nearby grist mill which is currently operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is located on the shores of Lake Cumberland and fed by springs.
The mill has been completely restored with a working water wheel.
Historic Sites In Kentucky
3. Camp Nelson National Monument
Coming in at #3 on our list of the best historic sites in Kentucky is Camp Nelson National Monument.
In April of 1863, Burnside asked a search committee to identify a location that would allow the Department of the Ohio to consolidate troops and supplies in central Kentucky.
This led to the creation of Camp Nelson. It was established as a supply depot and hospital during the Civil War for the U.S. Army.
Camp Nelson became a large recruitment and training center for African American soldiers (USCTs).
A “Home For Colored Refugees”
Camps, such as Camp Nelson, served as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed. They offered protection to formerly enslaved people in Confederate states under Union control.
The federal government established what it called a “Home for Colored Refugees” at Camp Nelson.
It initially included a communal mess hall, a school, barracks for single women and the sick, and duplex family cottages.
Things To Do & See
There are museum exhibits and a short film. The visitor center provides an orientation to the historic events that unfolded at Camp Nelson.
Objects on display provide a window into the role Camp Nelson played during its height as a military installation, supply depot, hospital, recruitment center, and refugee camp.
While there, visitors can also see the Oliver Perry “White” House. It’s an original home built in the mid-1850s that was used as Officer Quarters while the property was part of Camp Nelson (1863-1866).
Five Miles Of Hiking Trails
When I’m visiting an historic site, my favorite activity–other than looking for books in the bookstore–is walking the grounds and soaking up all of that wonderful history. At Camp Nelson, there are five miles of hiking trails allowing visitors to experience the incredible landscape firsthand.
On the hiking trails, there are numerous interpretive markers providing an opportunity to explore earthworks and fortifications which protected Camp Nelson.
You, too, can walk in the footsteps of Civil War soldiers to gain a better appreciation of what happened. It just gives me goose bumps thinking about it!
Historic Sites In Kentucky
2. Fort Donelson National Battlefield
At #2 on our list of the best historic sites in Kentucky is Fort Donelson National Battlefield.
The Battle of Fort Donelson, which took place from February 11-16, 1862, was one of the Union’s first major victories.
Following his victory at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant marched his troops to Fort Donelson.
On February 13th, a Union gunboat opened fire on the fort. Additional ships and soldiers arrived, giving Grant an almost three-to-one advantage over the Confederate forces.
“Unconditional Surrender” Grant
On February 15th, Confederate troops counter-attacked. The unflappable Grant reorganized his men, occupied the outer defenses of the fort and applied pressure which led many Confederate soldiers to flee. When Confederate General Simon Buckner asked Grant his terms for surrender, he gave an historic reply:
“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”
Grant’s response earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” The victories at Forts Henry and Donelson helped to make Grant a hero in the North.
Vastly outnumbered, the Confederates immediately surrendered and gave the Union control of much of the Cumberland River.
The General Who Would Be President
Did you know that Grant was an average student at West Point? Well, there’s obviously more to life than book learning which is painful for a former history teacher to admit.
There were only three were professional soldiers who spent their entire lives in the military before becoming president. Grant was one. The other two were George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.
Grant Was A Gifted Writer
Here’s another interesting fact. For an average student, Grant was a gifted writer. This would prove to be most fortuitous for his family because, after leaving the presidency, he became ill. Grant was also financially destitute due to bad investment decisions which he had made.
Worried about his wife’s financial future, he decided to write his memoirs. He wrote them as he was dying from throat cancer, show a clear, concise style, and his autobiography is considered among the best, if not the best, written by a President.
I highly recommend The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant written by none other than Ulysses S. Grant.
Things To See & Do At Fort Donelson
Located along the beautiful banks of the Cumberland River, the Fort Donelson National Battlefield is a wonderful place to visit.
You can drive the actual battlefield grounds. First, however, I would recommend a trip to the visitor center.
There’s a great park film that will help you understand the significance of the battle and why Fort Donelson was so important for the Union forces fighting there.
CHECK OUT: 10 BEST Civil War Sites In America
A Six-Mile Trail With 11 Stops
The park has a 6-mile trail with 11 stops. It’s a self-guided driving tour that takes you through battlefield sites, the spot where Union soldiers camped for the night before the surrender.
There you can see the historic Dover Hotel which is the site where Ulysses S. Grant accepted the Confederate surrender of the Fort from his old friend Simon B. Buckner.
While you’re there, you may also want to visit the Fort Donelson National Cemetery.
The names of the soldiers interred in this hallowed ground have been compiled from original cemetery records.
The #1 Historic Site In Kentucky
1. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
As our #1 historic site in Kentucky, we have selected the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.
In 2021, C-SPAN asked a group of distinguished presidential historians to rank our nation’s presidents from the very worst to the very best.
At the top of their list, with a total score of 897 points, was Abraham Lincoln. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt came in second and third respectively.
Why is Abraham Lincoln ranked as the greatest president of all time? Simply put, he saved the Union.
In the process of saving the nation, Lincoln managed to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him.
Lincoln Transformed The Presidency
Lincoln transformed the Presidency. He remade the president’s role as commander in chief and as chief executive into a powerful new position. In the process, he imbued the office with broader powers by making it supreme over both Congress and the courts.
His detractors argued that he took actions which were unconstitutional such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus.
For those without a legal background, this is a writ “requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.”
For Lincoln, however, it made no sense “to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution.”
No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and, in saving the Union, no President has ever accomplished as much.
Visit Lincoln’s Birthplace
As the National Park Service notes, “His early life on Kentucky’s frontier shaped his character and prepared him to lead the nation through Civil War. The country’s first memorial to Lincoln, built with donations from young and old, enshrines the symbolic birthplace cabin.”
At the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, there are two farm areas where visitors can see how Lincoln lived as a child in Kentucky.
See The Cabin Where Lincoln Was Born
At the birthplace site, visitors can view an early 19th century Kentucky cabin, which symbolizes the one in which Lincoln was born. The cabin is enshrined inside the memorial building at the site of his birth.
Visitors can also tour Knob Creek Farm, where Lincoln lived with his family from the ages of 2 through 8. This site includes a historic tavern and log cabin.
There are also hiking trails and picnic areas.
Map Of Historic Sites In Kentucky
List Of Historic Sites In Kentucky
- Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
- Fort Donelson National Battlefield
- Camp Nelson National Monument
- Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument
- Belle Of Louisville
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and proud dad of these two guys hopelessly obsessed with the national parks.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested joining the adventure, sign up below!