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Steven Wilson: Mountain Fortress
Steven Wilson: Mountain Fortress


About the Author

Born in Ohio and raised in Wisconsin, Steven Wilson has been fascinated by history since he was a child. One of his first books, a birthday present from his aunt, was THE CIVIL WAR by Bruce Catton. He was equally enthralled by motion pictures, working in his great-uncle's theater at the age of seven, hauling tins of un-popped popcorn to the concession counter.

Buy Voyage of the Gray Wolves by Steven Wilson
He's held a variety of jobs including tower clock repairman, factory worker, shoe salesman, stock boy, roofer, construction worker and now, museum curator. Wilson began writing novels in 1993, after a sketchy attempt to write short stories.

His eclectic interests include motion picture history, movie soundtracks, 19th Century military history, and World War II. He works fulltime as a curator and museum consultant and writes part-time. He considers research as least as important as the writing, and plans to write some non-fiction works in the future.

Website: http://www.huntersandthehunted.com/

E-Mail: readermail@HuntersAndTheHunted.Com

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Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer was charged with protecting the Cumberland Gap.

It was one of the most inhospitable places in the country, and it was also the site of a major slice of Civil War history: the Cumberland Gap.

It is a somber reminder that war is often fought in the most inhospitable of locals; the Cumberland Gap. With its rocky outcropping called the Pinnacle, this pathway of American history was in the beginning a warrior's trail for Cherokee venturing into the forest lands that would one day be called Kentucky. After that it was a doorway for expansion-adventurers, traders, and pioneers coming down the Wilderness Road and moving over the low gap through the Cumberland Mountains to seek opportunity in the rich interior of western lands. During the Civil War it was fortified to block invasions. In the end however, its remote location and rugged terrain tested both those who invested it, and those who hoped to conquer it.

Late in the summer of 1861 Confederate troops commanded by Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer secured the Cumberland Gap region and immediately began constructing fortifications. It was a fortress in the making, a single, narrow pathway through which invaders had to pass; plenty of timber for campfires, barracks, and defensive structures; and a grand view of the low hills and broad valleys to the north and south. By the fall, Confederate Brigadier General William Churchwell, nearly minted commander of the Gap, had directed the construction of seven forts on the North Slope and cleared the mountain of all trees within a mile of those emplacements. This would be the first of many scars visited on the landscape because of the war. Eventually, the mountain would be completely denuded of trees, a shocking reminder of the destructive power from even the passive elements of war.

With the forts in place, trenches ringing the mountain, outposts scattered on the foothills, and a seemingly formidable position, Churchwell was assured of achieving victory by simply doing nothing. But inaction can be a poor strategy even if it is the only one available. When Zollicoffer drove north into Kentucky to fulfill his orders "to preserve peace, protect the railroad, and repel invasion," he was roughly handled by Union forces under the command of Major General George H. Thomas, and shot dead when he mistakenly galloped into a mass of Yankees.

Postcard of the Cumberland Gap during the Civil War (Bell County History and Research site).

Churchwell was now faced with the certainty that Union forces would soon be approaching Cumberland Gap. Fighting regular troops would be enough of a chore but the Gap was situated in the midst of a hard-bitten population of "Lincolnites" who were waiting for an opportunity to join their blue-clad saviors.

The Confederate forces' first encounter with the Yankees was an artillery duel when Union forces under former navy lieutenant Samuel Powhatan Carter probed the defenses in March 1862. It wasn't until later that spring that a sizable Union force led by Major General George W. Morgan moved on the area. Morgan's strategy was to lead his army through Big Creek and Roger's gaps, west of Cumberland Gap. After battling their way through dense woods, thick underbrush, and up the rocky terrain (hauling cannon and wagons by block and tackle), Morgan's four columns assembled in the broad Powell Valley, weary but victorious. The Union general then received word that he and his army were required to return to the other side of the mountain that they had just scaled, to counter an expected Confederate thrust. The bark of the surrounding trees must have been blistered off by the profanity.

Morgan's brief presence to the west and behind the Cumberland Gap pointed out the obvious to Churchwell: he was vulnerable to encirclement and siege. That was the deficiency of the Gap; while it protected its habitants, it also trapped them. The surrounding mountains made passage extremely difficult, but as Morgan's efforts proved, it did not prevent troop movement. Finally given permission by Union General Don Carlos Buell, Morgan turned his troops around, crossed the mountains through the two smaller gaps, and set off eastward up the valley. When federal forces arrived at the Gap on June 17, 1862, they found the fortifications abandoned. After spiking five of the larger guns, destroying supplies, and cutting up 500 tents, the Confederates fled south. "The Gap is ours," General Morgan announced, "and without the loss of a single life."

The Union was determined to hold the Gap and before long supplies streamed down the narrow mountain roads from the north. "During our five days journey," a reporter from the Cincinnati Gazette wrote, "we met at least 500 Government wagons and not less than 3,000 mules." Morgan estimated that he received enough supplies to last 20,000 men for 90 days. The problem is, he had considerably less than half of that force. Pro-Union refugees flowed in to take up arms but many of them were in ill health and simply not capable of soldiering. By early-August the desperate situation took a decided turn for the worse when Confederate General Kirby Smith's army took a page from Morgan's notebook and moved through Big Creek and Roger's gaps (this time, heading out of the valley, north), and placed themselves directly in Morgan's rear. "If you want this fortress," Morgan replied to a demand to surrender from Smith, "come and take it."

Morgan's response was heroic but the truth is that he had 10,000 men to Smith's 25,000 and on September 12, 1862 the Union general's quartermaster reported that there was no more forage for the horses and mules. Six days before that, the defenders had run out of bread. Surrender would have been the only option available to the doomed army had it not been for Captain Sidney S. Lyon, a former Kentucky surveyor. Lyon knew all of the minor roads that wound through Kentucky and he led the endangered garrison nearly two hundred miles to safety. The Gap was in the hands of the Confederacy again, and without a shot being fired.

By the late summer of 1863 Union forces under the command of a "tall, dapper, lean-cheeked Irish nobleman" named John Fitzroy De Courcy had been ordered by General Ambrose Burnside to take the Cumberland Gap. Colonel De Courcy's 1,700 men were inexperienced and lacked food, medicine, and sufficient ammunition. Before them, still relatively untouched by years of warfare and bristling with cannon, were the considerable defenses of the mountain fortress.

First, De Courcy had to convince his opponents that his tiny command was vastly larger than it was. He divided his men into sections and sent them marching down a hill one section at a time, in full view of the enemy He then routed them around the hill when they were out of sight of the Confederates, and sent them down the hill again. To the rebels, the message was clear; they were about to be attacked by a substantial army composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

Amateur theatrics aside, it would take more than De Courcy's imagination to remove the Confederates from their fortifications. It would take bombast and a bottle.

Confederate Brigadier General John W. Frazier commanded the rebel forces at the Gap but with the loss of a mill that had supplied his men with corn and wheat, and the appearance of De Courcy's formidable army, it appeared that he could not command his nerves. Frazier sent Captain Rush Van Leer to meet with De Courcy and open negotiations. Frazier reasoned that at least if the armies were negotiating, they were not shooting at each other. A Union officer offered Van Leer a drink of whiskey, who then suggested that some of the other Confederate officers would want one as well. "Fill them to the ears, if you can," De Courcy instructed his subordinate, so back up the mountain went Van Leer, weighed down with whiskey. The whiskey was dispensed to the rebel officers and Frazier retired to his tent to think, and drink. Allowing time for the alcohol to work its magic, De Courcy sent a note to Frazier. "It is now 12:30 pm," the Irishman wrote, "and I shall not open fire until 2 pm unless before that time you shall have struck all your flags and hoisted in their stead white flags in token of surrender." At 3:00 pm, Frazier surrendered the Gap. Northern forces held, it, uncontested, for the rest of the war.

The Cumberland Gap might have entered history as the site of a momentous Civil War battle. It was the eastern pin of the Confederate defensive line (the west being forts Henry and Donelson), and it was of obvious strategic importance. But in the end its own isolation led to its historical anonymity; the war simply by-passed the Cumberland Gap and eventually nature reclaimed the land and erased the fortifications.

Still, it had its potential. General Ulysses S. Grant, traveling through the Gap on his 1864 journey to Washington noted: "With two brigades of the Army of the Cumberland I could hold that pass against the army which Napoleon led to Moscow." That would have been a sight to see; Grant, Napoleon, and the Cumberland Gap.

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2005 All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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