‘Diggers’ help discover real site of Ashland’s Civil War skirmish

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“Ringy” Tim Saylor, left, and “King” George Wyant, right, hosts of the National Geographic Channel show Diggers, used metal detectors to search for artifacts at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Eric Brooks.

 

When Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, invited the public over last fall to mark the 150th anniversary of a Civil War skirmish there, curator Eric Brooks needed a convenient but inconsequential place to put portable toilets.

He didn’t want them near the mansion, historic outbuildings or gardens. And he didn’t think they should go near the corner of Woodspoint and Fincastle roads, where it was thought that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry surprised a camp of sleeping Union soldiers on the morning of Oct. 18, 1862.

He found a nondescript spot for the toilets about 20 yards from a back corner of the mansion. “But we’re not going to do that this year,” he said about Saturday’s second annual Living History Event.

That’s because metal detectorists with the National Geographic Channel show Diggersmade a surprising discovery when they visited Ashland last spring to work with Brooks and archaeologist Kim McBride. The Union camp wasn’t where everyone thought it was. It was right where the portable toilets had been placed.

“The beginnings of protecting a resource are identifying where it’s located,” McBride said with a laugh. “Now that area will get the respect and special treatment it needs, and we can study it further.”

Ashland staffers and docents will be there Saturday, explaining how Morgan’s men used rifle and cannon fire to quickly subdue the Yankee camp. They also will show whatDiggers found there: a button, a rations tin, a knife, bullets, a mortar fragment and the brass handle from a cannon’s leveling mechanism.

Saturday’s event will focus on the war and the preceding Antebellum period, when Clay played the central role in stalling Southern secession.

“The bitter, brutal irony is that once he died, there was no one to keep that from happening,” Brooks said. “And the consequence of secession literally came to his back door. That’s a pretty amazing story.”

McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, has done occasional work at Ashland since 1989. She excavated former privies, finding a trove of broken china and crockery, and she recently checked for artifacts on the mansion’s north lawn so geothermal wells could go there.

McBride had never done any excavation related to the Civil War skirmish. So when producers forDiggers asked permission to explore the 17-acre grounds, she and Brooks saw an opportunity.

McBride set up a grid near Woodspoint and Fincastle, beside a stone monument erected decades ago to mark the skirmish. Diggers hosts George Wyant and Tim Saylor searched there but found nothing.

“We thought that was odd, and quite disappointing,” Brooks said.

Then he remembered an old book that a visitor had brought in a few weeks earlier. It was a history of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, the unit that set up camp at Ashland the day before the skirmish.

When Brooks read the book more closely, he found this passage: “Our camp was in a fine grove of native forest trees on the south side of the road, and a short distance east of the Clay mansion.” So Brooks, McBride and the Diggers hosts went to that side of the Ashland property and started finding artifacts.

Discovery of the camp’s true location helps explain a couple of old stories, Brooks said. One was that Union soldiers came to the mansion the evening before the skirmish because they heard piano playing. The other story was that Susan Clay, Henry’s daughter-in-law, held her 5-year-old son, Charles, on the floor because he kept wanting to look out the window at the battle.

“She was afraid he was going to get shot,” Brooks said. “And no wonder! The fighting was really close to the house. That’s a cool dimension to the story we didn’t have last year.”

There will be plenty to see and do Saturday. Civil War re-enactors will drill and fire cannon. Others in period dress will cook, do laundry and demonstrate farm work. Artisans will make and sell crafts.

Milward Funeral Directors, which handled Henry Clay’s burial in 1852, will have its old horse-drawn hearse there, along with the same type of metal coffin used to bury him.

And if visitors need toilets, they will find them on the north side of the mansion, where the geothermal wells will soon be dug. Brooks and McBride are pretty sure there’s nothing important under there.

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If you go

Ashland Living History Event

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.

Admission: $14 adults, $7 ages 17 and younger, $35 family rate.

Information: (859) 266-8581, Henryclay.org