A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: When the Army came to Newport — the Newport Barracks and the New West

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This illustration from Ballou’s Pictorial of December 1856 depicts the Newport Barracks in the background, at the confluence of the Licking River with the Ohio River.

Part 3 of a series on the Licking River.

By Steve Preston

What do Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame), President William Henry Harrison, President Zachary Taylor, Zebulon Pike, Sam Walker (namesake of the Walker Colt Pistol), Robert E. Lee, and General William Tecumseh Sherman all have in common? At one time or another, all of these individuals were stationed at, or visited, Newport Barracks.

The site of today’s General James Taylor Park in Newport, Kentucky, was once a bustling military installation that supplied troops and material for the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, and the United States’ westward expansion. During the heyday of Manifest Destiny, Newport Barracks was the supply link that connected the eastern coastline to the new western frontier.

As Cincinnati’s Fort Washington fell into disrepair and disuse, the need for a new supply depot for the military became paramount. The state of Kentucky was seen as an excellent site, due to its location on the Ohio River and its saltpeter supplies for gunpowder. Much jockeying went on between several locations including Frankfort, Louisville and Newport. Using all his connections, including family member James Madison, General James Taylor, Jr. (1769-1848) was instrumental in persuading General Charles Scott to pick Newport.

The Flood of 1884 was one of many that devastated Newport Barracks and led to the eventual decision to close it.

The Flood of 1884 was one of many that devastated Newport Barracks and led to the eventual decision to close it.

Land originally owned by Taylor at the mouth of the Licking River was chosen. Taylor had sold the land to the city for one dollar. Reaping the benefits of his generosity, Taylor was chosen to be superintendent of the construction of three buildings on the site: a brick powder magazine, a two-story brick arsenal, and wooden barracks.

In July 1806, Ensign Jacob Albright, and a detachment of soldiers became the first permanent garrison stationed at the Newport Barracks. As early as 1803, however, some temporary assignments occurred there. For example, Meriwether Lewis visited Newport Barracks in 1803 on his way to St. Louis to meet William Clark for their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond.

While here, Lewis went to Big Bone Lick to collect fossils for President Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, the boat carrying the prehistoric specimens sank in the Ohio River.
Later, in 1808, Zebulon Pike, namesake of Pike’s Peak, visited Newport. He liked it so much that he offered to serve as a recruiter here.

As the United States began its second war with England, the War of 1812, the Newport Barracks became the major supply and mobilization point for the Western Theater. Although war materiel was hard to come by, much of what was available came through Newport on its way to troops fighting in Northern Ohio and near Detroit. Units such as the 4th Regiment, 7th Regiment, 17th Regiment and nearly all Kentucky Militia units passed through Newport.

During the Mexican American War, the Newport Barracks was heavily utilized. Its location on the Ohio River provided rapid deployment for troops heading to the Mississippi River and Louisiana, and thence to Mexico. The Barracks was at its peak as it sent recruits to Louisiana, soon after Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States in 1845.

May 1846 saw a youthful William Tecumseh Sherman, then just a Lieutenant, drop off recruits in Newport. He tried to stay on and go with the recruits to fight, but was forced back on a steamboat bound for Pittsburgh.
During the Mexican American War, Newport Barracks was so overcrowded that Samuel Walker, of Walker Colt fame, commented that there were “…upward of 400 [men] and room for a scant 150.” Things at the Newport Barracks settled back to normal at the close of the war. The post was quiet up to the Civil War with the only action of note being an 1858 court-martial that involved Robert E. Lee as one of the jurors.

Throughout the Civil War Years, the Newport Barracks remained a post loyal to the Union. The Barracks was used as a prisoner-of-war camp and also a place to house malcontents from both sides of the river. Troops garrisoned there help build the gun placements throughout Northern Kentucky and Ohio.

The frequent flooding of the barracks left it always in need of repair. The expenses of repair, coupled with several epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and malaria, made what had become a one-company post hard to justify. Repeated flooding in 1882, 1883, and 1884 sounded the death knell for the barracks. In continuous use from 1803 to 1890, Newport Barracks’ last garrison marched 3 miles to the newly built military installation called Fort Thomas and faded into the history of Northern Kentucky.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum

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