A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Newport Barracks and Mexican-American War; housing soldiers ready to be deployed


Part 13 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

In 1845, President James K. Polk officially annexed Texas. An angry Mexico broke off diplomatic relations, and the United States turned towards war. Many were moved by patriotic duty to defend the new annexation. Manifest Destiny was in full swing and patriotic fervor stirred it to a frenzy.

The state of Kentucky was asked to fill two regiments and a cavalry unit. This would require 2,400 Kentuckians to answer the call. A tidal wave of almost 13,000 responded, resulting in turning away five times as many men as needed. The coming war and mobilization would turn the sleepy Newport Barracks into a virtual city of its own.

Occupying the land of present-day James Taylor Park, Newport Barracks had replaced Cincinnati’s Fort Washington in 1803 and had served as a primary mobilization point during the War of 1812. Since then, it had served as just another supply post, as the West began to pass the Tristate by. Barracks Commander, Nathan Macrae, wrote in 1842 that Newport Barracks was “. . . the most unmilitary looking post in the country.” The United States military spent most of the 1840s updating and enlarging such things as the living quarters and parade ground. Macrae now boasted that the barracks could comfortably house 456 soldiers. With its new improvements, the townspeople took notice and soon enjoyed watching military exercises on its grounds. These new improvements would prove timely, with the increased traffic of wartime.

Newport Barracks. Source: Ballou’s Pictorial, December 20, 1856, p. 393.

By 1847, Newport Barracks, whose usual garrison was around 40 soldiers, was a bustling military installation, just as it had been during the War of 1812. Fighting men and their supplies gathered at the barracks to be mobilized. Its location on the Ohio River provided rapid deployment for troops heading by steamboat to fight in Mexico. At the height of activity during the war with Mexico, both the 15th and 16th United States Infantry Regiments assembled here.

As a depot of military supplies and a recruiting center for soldiers, several thousand men passed through the town of Newport and its barracks during the Mexican-American War. The US Census of 1840 showed all of Campbell County having a population of 5,214. The new recruits shuffling through Newport Barracks would have been an approximate 18% increase to that number. Samuel Walker, of Walker Colt fame, commented that there were “. . . upward of 400 [men] and room for a scant 150.”

Walker’s estimate was actually less than the real number. In October 1847, Newport Barracks garrisoned around 587 soldiers while they waited deployment. So many steamboats left the Newport Wharf during the war period that it became a social event for area ladies to “see off” the troops, waving their handkerchiefs until the steamers had passed the bend in the river. An emotional farewell was given to a group of Newport’s own volunteers, under command of Captain Lyleton Bennett, when they left Newport’s wharf with a flag sewn by the ladies of the city. Newport’s socialites enjoyed military balls and dinner parties at the post. Even the farmers of the area were involved in the events, as many of their crops and animals were purchased by the army to send with the soldiers.

Of those thousands of men from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana who passed through the Newport Barracks, the city of Newport and the Tristate were well represented. According to the Kenton County Public Library in Covington, at least 56 men from the area were among them. The record of the 16th United States Regiment shows that all enlisted ranks, including musicians, were represented by Newport men. Of these 56 listed local men, none were killed in action. At least five local men died from disease and injury while in service. Most served honorably but three of the men were listed as “deserted.” Kentuckians would see action at such places as Cerro Gordo, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. Over 5,000 Kentuckians would serve in the war. Of those, less than 70 died from combat. About 612 Kentuckians would not live to see the Bluegrass again, succumbing to diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever.

With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February 1848, the hustle and bustle at the Newport Barracks slowly wound down. The military installation had reached its zenith in American history and slowly slid into disrepair again after frequent flooding and the need to focus military installations further west. While the barracks was failing, the city of Newport was flourishing. Manufacturing and shipping helped the city thrive. Newport’s population itself would reach 5,895 by 1850, while Campbell County’s climbed to 13,127. Newport would continue to grow, and like Cincinnati, would be a hub of business.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.


Related Posts

2 Comments

  1. Lawrence Hubbard says:

    Is there any way of getting all of these printed into a book. Along with pictures of the period and the Newport Barracks didn’t close it was moved to Fort Thomas(that is how the town was named) and there is two cannons from the Mexican war located at the water tower. The post would remain active up until the draft ended but no troops stationed there. The hospital continues to be used today by the VA the housing which was still being used up until the 80’s along with the gym and other buildings were sold or given away with the exception of some housing units in the back which are empty awaiting to be sold or tore down. The original Infantry unit that assigned there was reassigned to Alaska during WW2. There is a lot of interesting history of the Fort Thomas Post were they trained the buildings still standing there and how they are being repurposed.

Reply to Judy Clabes Cancel Reply