…then head over to Cumberland Gap on Saturday.
Tag Archives: Cumberland Gap
It took two centuries and millions of dollars to improve on Daniel Boone’s route through the Cumberland Gap. For years, the portion of US 25E that crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky followed the path of the old Wilderness Road as it skirted the tip of southwestern Virginia, passed along the rocky face of Cumberland Mountain, and cut through the Gap—the notch in the mountain wall near the point where Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky intersect. Then it descended into the valley of Yellow Creek just across the Kentucky state line.
It worked well for a pioneer footpath, but as an automobile route it presented a couple of problems. For one thing, paving over the old Wilderness Road obviously made it very difficult to appreciate the way this critical passage looked when tens of thousands of settlers used it to head to the West.
Second, since it ran along the mountain face, the highway was treacherous. If you happened to veer off the road, you could easily go plummeting down into the town of Cumberland Gap, TN at the mountain’s base. Quite a few motorists had done just that over the years. Locals sometimes referred to it as “Massacre Mountain.”
This combined need for safety and preservation resulted in one of the largest engineering projects this area has ever seen, a four-lane, two-way tunnel bored completely through the mountain not far from the Gap itself.
When the tunnel opened, the old portion of the highway across the mountain closed. The Park Service tore up the pavement and began restoring that part of the Wilderness Road route to its pioneer-era appearance. Now it’s one of the walking trails at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park; you can literally walk in Boone’s footsteps, along the side of the mountain and right into the Saddle of the Gap, along what used to be a busy roadway. (Click here to see a map of both the trail/old highway route and the new tunnel route.)
I was in high school when the tunnel opened. My school was just a short distance from the Gap, almost within sight of the pinnacle of Cumberland Mountain. We all got out of class that afternoon to attend the opening ceremony, seated with the other spectators in folding chairs facing the tunnel’s Kentucky side. The governors of the three states spoke, as did various other local dignitaries. Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA,” there was a brief historical lecture, and a good time was had by all.
For the grand finale, a procession of reenactors marched out of the tunnel, depicting all those who had passed through the Gap: Indians, then long hunters, then pioneers, then Civil War soldiers. It was a flesh-and-blood, live-action version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s poetic summation of the Gap’s importance to the westward movement: “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file— the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.” The reenactors’ march out of the tunnel embodied Turner’s belief that the frontier consisted of stages of development, one following another in inevitable progression, and that the Gap was one of the places where this process played out.
Unconsciously, it also exemplified something that’s always bothered me about the way we remember and interpret the Gap, and indeed about the way we remember and interpret many historic places. The emphasis was on the people who were just passing through it. Migrating buffalo, Indians on the warpath, hunters on their way to the bluegrass, pioneer farmers on their way to new land, Civil War soldiers on their way to invade either North or South (the Gap changed hands four times during the war)—they were all from somewhere else, and going to some other destination. Everything around it, meaning the area where I grew up and have lived most of my life, was just an indistinct blur.
Once I got older and acquired an interest in history, I was a little appalled that I had spent much of my life just a few minutes’ drive from one of the most important places in America and had never really given it much thought. So I picked up a copy of The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid, the inaugural volume in a series of books on historic travel routes originally published by Bobbs-Merril in 1947. Like me, Kincaid had spent quite a bit of time in the Gap’s shadow; he held a number of posts at Lincoln Memorial University, just a stone’s throw from the Gap, and he eventually became the college’s president.
Kincaid’s book probably remains the most comprehensive examination of the Gap and the route of which it was a part, from the earliest European contacts through the first part of the twentieth century. Dr. Thomas Walker, Daniel Boone, the Civil War armies, the post-war British industrialists who founded the towns surrounding the mountain—they’re all there, marching across the pages just as they had marched across Turner’s imagination and then out of the newly opened tunnel in reenacted form. In that sense, the book is comprehensive; it gives you an overview of all the hubbub that went on in this part of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky for the past couple of hundred years.
But the hubbub is basically all you get. Kincaid’s book, like the tunnel pageant, is very episodic. Each chapter is devoted to some notable incident or group of incidents. Explorers, hunters, pioneers, soldiers, and industrialists saunter onstage, do their bit, and then saunter back off. What was going on between all this migrating, invading, and exploiting? Where were the people who actually lived here?
It’s not that this context would necessarily be more interesting than some of the highlights in the history of the region. In fact, it’s hard to beat this corner of the world for dramatic incidents and wonderful stories—the gruesome murder of Boone’s son when the famous pathfinder tried to lead a party through the Gap in 1773, the escape of General George Morgan’s besieged garrison from the pass in 1862, or the creation of a short-lived industrial and resort enterprise which flourished for only a few years before vanishing entirely in the 1890′s. Still, these occasions when the world came crashing in on the Gap region don’t, in and of themselves, constitute its complete history.
There is a natural tendency, especially among older or popularized history books, to focus solely on those occasions in which “something happened.” History then becomes a simple series of events. To be fair, this part of Appalachia wasn’t too heavily settled until after a lot of the more favorable lands to the east and the north were taken up, so there wouldn’t have been too much to cover besides the migrants passing by for those earliest years. But by the early 1800′s, this region began to have a history of its own. You don’t get much of that in many accounts of the Gap.
The region in which the Gap is located might have something to do with it. An early commentator referred to Appalachians as “contemporary ancestors,” meaning that people in this region lived for many years in a kind of static state of preservation, exactly as the pioneers who passed along the Wilderness Road to greener pastures had once lived. It wasn’t true, of course, but the idea caught on and has become one of the most widespread and persistent of Appalachian stereotypes. If you buy into it, then it makes sense to ignore the broader regional context, because you’d essentially be assuming that the region didn’t really have a history of its own.
It reminds me of the concept in evolutionary biology known as “punctuated equilibrium.” in which species change during occasional fits and starts, with longer periods of stasis in between. If you assume that things are just puttering along as usual, then why bother? You might as well ignore the stasis altogether.
I’m not denying that the more dynamic periods of history merit disproportionate attention, so I don’t intend this to be a criticism of historians in general. Nor do I intend it to be a criticism of Kincaid’s book in particular. It’s a valuable distillation of information about this area that I’m very glad to have in one volume. Besides, he was writing at a time before many of these issues became problematic. Anyone interested in the history of Cumberland Gap in particular or Appalachia in general owes him a debt of gratitude. (Besides, he and I have the same alma mater, so I’ve got his back.)
It’s just that the backdrop to that procession of long hunters, pioneer migrants, Civil War soldiers, and New South industrialists is my homeland, and I wish I knew as much about the folks who lived here as I do about the ones who were just passing through.
Most people think of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as a pioneer site, but it was also a strategically important point during the Civil War, changing hands four times.
Just recently I stopped by the visitor center on my way back from lunch. Imagine my surprise when I found Entangled in Freedom on sale in the gift shop. This novel aimed at young readers is about a slave who accompanies Confederate troops into the field, and has generated some degree of controversy online because of its depiction of race relations in the nineteenth-century South and the nature of slaves’ participation in the Confederate war effort. Kevin Levin and Andy Hall have addressed some of the book’s interpretive issues at length, so there is little need for me to go into them here.
Part of the book is set in and around the Gap, which is presumably why CGNHP is selling it. What’s weird is that for a book that misreads some of the big issues involved in the Civil War, it includes a surprising amount of relatively little-known, arcane detail about local history and geography.
For example, there really is a cave in the mountain face, just above the old Wilderness Road, and incidentally this isn’t the first time a cave near the Gap has appeared in a work of fiction. Cudjo’s Cave was a nineteenth-century novel set in the Cumberland Gap region which also featured an underground sanctuary, and coincidentally enough, it also featured a slave character. After the war the real cave became a tourist attraction, and the proprietors re-christened it “Cudjo’s Cave” as a nod to the book. Now it’s in NPS hands and has reverted to “Gap Cave,” its original name.
And there really was a massive cannon named “Long Tom” that soldiers pitched over the side of the mountain, at least according to local Civil War lore. My hometown of Tazewell is correctly identified as the site of an engagement, and while we’ve got an interesting history of our own, we’re not exactly Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville. Historical figures who were present at Cumberland Gap during the war appear in the book, too.
There are a few bits of trivia that are off. The troops encamped at the Gap couldn’t have gotten water from Fern Lake, because it’s an artificial reservoir created in 1893, three decades after Union and Confederate forces were contending for control of the pass. (The park is incorporating the lake into its boundaries as part of a 2001 piece of legislation, by the way.) Still, it’s surprising to see Fern Lake mentioned at all.
All this credible detail within a context that misinterprets some of the fundamental issues of the war makes for an interesting case of the forest vs. the trees.
…although it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of.
This crater isn’t at Petersburg. It’s tucked away on the side of a mountain at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, at the junction of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. I had to hike over and snap a photo of it for a slide presentation last week, and I thought you folks might be interested in seeing it and hearing the back story.
Most of us associate Cumberland Gap with the frontier era, but the Gap was an important location in the Civil War, too. It stood at the junction of two Confederate states and a border state, a potential avenue of advance either from Tennessee into Kentucky or vice-versa. It also offered access to railroads that connected Virginia with the western part of the Confederacy.
Confederates seized it early in the war to secure East Tennessee and a route northward into Kentucky, where Unionist refugees were assembling in camps, waiting for an opportunity to return through the Gap and drive the Confederates out of their homeland. One of those Unionists was Samuel P. Carter, member of a prominent early Tennessee family and now commander of a Union brigade.
In 1862 Carter’s brigade was placed under the command of George W. Morgan as part of the Army of the Ohio’s Seventh Division, and that summer these men marched southward for the long-awaited Union attack on the Gap. Rather than assaulting the Confederates head-on from the north, Morgan divided his force in two and crossed the mountains at two gaps to the west, approaching Cumberland Gap from the south. The Confederates evacuated before Morgan arrived, and his troops occupied the Gap on June 18 without the loss of a single man.
They weren’t there for long. When the Confederates advanced northward into Kentucky under Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith, Morgan found himself cut off. With dwindling supplies and a Rebel force hovering outside his position, Morgan mined the mountain and then evacuated the Gap almost exactly three months after taking it, leading his men on a harrowing retreat north to the Ohio River through the only avenue of escape open to him. (One of the Union officers present described the capture, occupation, and retreat from the Gap in this letter sent to the New York Times.)
Morgan left a small group of men behind to set fire to the buildings and light fuses to the mines and powder stores. They did so in the wee hours of the morning of September 18. When the powder in the commissary near the base of Tri-State Peak went off, it shook the mountain and sent debris hurtling into the air, an event depicted in this wartime engraving of Morgan’s troops marching northward as explosions tear through the night sky behind them:
The Confederates had to wait a full eighteen hours for the detonations to subside before they could occupy the Union positions. The Rebels maintained control of the Gap for a year after Morgan’s retreat, until Union troops under Ambrose Burnside re-captured it in September 1863. It remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war.
The commissary explosion left a gaping hole in the side of Tri-State Peak. You can access it via a path that joins the Wilderness Road trail near the “Saddle of the Gap,” the point where the road actually passes through the opening in the mountain. Here’s what it looks like:
There’s a wayside marker at the site with a description of the Union evacuation. Have a look the next time you’re in the park, but wear good walking shoes. The trail is a little rough and steep in places.
When you hear “Cumberland Gap,” you probably think of Daniel Boone and the role the pass played in westward expansion. But the Gap has quite a Civil War history, too. It was the right anchor of the Confederacy’s defensive line in the West and changed hands four times.
This weekend Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is hosting a Civil War event, so let me take this opportunity to direct your attention to this summary of the war in the Gap by my good friend and former boss Steven Wilson.
Hey, speaking of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park—check out this list of “America’s Undiscovered National Parks and Monuments” that popped up on MSN’s front page today. Cumberland Gap is the fourth one featured.
I’m not sure the Gap is as obscure as they’re making it out to be. The crowds aren’t anything like what you’ll run into in the Smokies or the Grand Canyon, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the view at the Pinnacle to myself, and the Visitor Center is always full enough. If they really wanted to feature some “undiscovered” parks, I can think of a lot of neglected battlefields that would’ve benefited from the attention.
As you browse through the list, note the emphasis on nature and scenery, rather than history. The Gap is one of the few “historical” parks that made the cut, and it’s just about the only item in the list where the description focuses as much on what happened there as on the ambience.
All this raises some interesting questions about the place of heritage tourism in travel writing.
This past Independence Day wasn’t just America’s birthday celebration. It was also the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
When I was a kid my family lived just a few miles from the park. Years later, I lived in an apartment on the park’s edge, at the foot of Cumberland Mountain and just below the pathway followed by the Wilderness Road, with a fantastic view of the opening in the mountain wall that made this spot one of the most important in the history of American expansion. At work, my desk sat before a huge window that looked toward the Pinnacle. I still drive past the Gap several times a week, and I can’t begin to count how many hours I’ve spent wandering the trails and enjoying the interpretive exhibits and programs.
So on behalf of everybody else who either lives in the neighborhood or has paid a visit, here’s a big thank you to the park’s staff, and congratulations on five decades of preservation and education.