In the fall of 1861, Felix Zollicoffer, the Confederate general responsible for the troublesome eastern section of Tennessee, moved north from Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road into the mountains of Kentucky with about 5,400 men. Union forces in the Bluegrass State responded by sending a small detachment of raw recruits to Wildcat Mountain near present-day London.
The Confederates badly outnumbered the force at Camp Wildcat, so on Oct. 2oth they were reinforced by the arrival of additional troops under Brig. Gen. Albin F. Schoepf, bringing their total to 7,000. They arrived just in the nick of time; the next day, the Confederates launched an attack on a hill occupied by the 33rd Indiana. The Union troops’ stubborn resistance convinced Zollicoffer that Wildcat Mountain couldn’t be taken by assault, so the next morning saw the Yankees still in possession of the ground and the Confederates returning southward toward Cumberland Ford.
The Battle of Wildcat Mountain/Camp Wildcat was small by Civil War standards—the Union forces suffered around 2o casualties, the Confederates around 50—but Zollicoffer’s withdrawal the night of Oct. 21st marked the end of his first attempt to secure control of eastern Kentucky, and gave the Union its first victory in that state. Today the Camp Wildcat Preservation Foundation preserves and interprets the site of the battle. I got the chance to pay a visit this week.
Getting to Wildcat Mountain is both easy and difficult. Easy, because I-75 cuts right through the part of eastern Kentucky where it’s located; difficult, because the site itself is in a rugged, wooded, mountainous area, and the only access is via a narrow gravel road. But it’s well worth the effort. An interpretive kiosk offers visitors an overview of the events leading to the battle and the way in which the struggle played out on the wooded slopes. There are two trails, one of which takes you past the original bed of the old Wilderness Road to a monument near the site of the Union camp.
The longer trail, about an hour’s hike, takes you to Hoosier Knob, the hill where the most intense fighting took place. Both trails feature signage and various interesting sights along the way; to see the whole battlefield requires about an hour and half to two hours.
What impressed me most about the battlefield was the obvious dedication of the CWPF in developing the site. Its location and the nature of the terrain present considerable difficulties to anyone trying to interpret it, but there were a number of visitors there when I arrived, and a large tour group stopped by later in the day. It’s a great place to learn about the Civil War in the Appalachian border region, so see it if you get the chance.