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