The Navy In The Mountains
Needing men with military training and political connections to the region, President Lincoln called upon two Navy officers to help organize the war effort in eastern Kentucky.
William "Bull" Nelson
A lieutenant in the Navy and a Kentucky native, Nelson was instructed to recruit and train soldiers to "liberate" east Tennessee. He established Camp Dick Robinson for that purpose. Nelson was known for his hot temper which eventually led to his death at the hands of a fellow Union officer.
Samuel P. Carter
Carter was on the U.S.S. Seminole, stationed near Brazil, when he was ordered home to help recruit and train refugees fleeing to Kentucky from his native east Tennessee. Carter selected the location for Camp Wildcat. He later became the only soldier ever commissioned a brevet major general in the Army and a rear admiral in the Navy.
Read All About It!
Newspapers as far away as Boston carried accounts of the battle. Many "correspondents" were soldiers writing letters to newspapers back home. They often mixed facts and opinions.
From the Nashville Banner:
"We have seen Wildcat, and chased the kittens into their holes, but with all their Yankee cunning, they have not the courage to fight ...."
Captain Albert Roberts (alias John Happy), 20th Tennessee Infantry (CSA)
From the Toledo Blade:
"We passed the campground of Zollicoffer's men and saw the ruin that they made. They laid waste to everything upon which they laid their murderous hands."
E.B. Raffensparger, Chaplain, 14th Ohio Infantry (USA)
General Battles the Press
General Schoepf was unhappy with professional reporters who also followed the army. While camped at London after he battle he wrote:
"With importunate citizens on one side and meddlesome reporters on the other, I can scarce find time to attend to the appropriate duties .... cannot something be done to rid our camps of this latter class?"
Soldier and Artist
The only illustration of the battle of Camp Wildcat was drawn by thirty-year-old Alfred E. Mathews, a private in the 31st Ohio Infantry. He arrived after the battle and based his drawing on descriptions from soldiers who had witnessed the fight.
His Art Pleased the General
Mathews created more than thirty-five illustrations during the war. His drawings of the siege of Vicksburg were praised by General Grant as being "among the most accurate and true to life I have ever seen".
Artists Captured the Action
Artists had an advantage over photographers during the Civil War because they could create action pictures. The long time needed to expose film forced photographers to limit their photos to subjects that wouldn't move.
The Wilderness Road
In 1796 the Wilderness Road opened "the west" to settlement, and thousands of pioneers poured over the mountains into Kentucky.
A Promising Invasion Route
At the beginning of the Civil War both Confederate and Union generals viewed the Wilderness Road as a promising invasion route. The North saw a means of reaching and freeing east Tennessee. The South viewed it as a back way into the heart of Kentucky.
Road's Promise Was Unfulfilled
Soldiers that walked the road found it unfit for travel. Years of rolling wheels and pounding hooves had taken a toll. Rocks broke wagon wheels, and mud holes swallowed horses and wagons.
"We found the road for three miles lined with the train of wagons, stuck in the mud, mules into their bellies ...."
Stephen Keyes Fletcher, 33rd Indiana Infantry
The road that looked so inviting on the map proved of little use to either army.
(Right Illustration Caption)
"The Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap to settlements in Kentucky is now completed."
Kentucky Gazette, October 15, 1796
Thunder in the Hills
Both armies used artillery during the battle and the booming of their cannon could be heard for twenty miles.
The Confederates Shot Solid Ball and Log Chains.
"Whiz came a cannon ball ... and immediately after a log chain followed it whirling through the air.
Correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette
The Union Fire Exploding Shells.
"The shells whistled through the air ... and fell bursting away in the valley below."
Stephen Keyes Fletcher, 33rd Indiana Infantry
On the evening after the battle, anticipating another attack, Union soldiers hauled two cannon weighing nearly a ton each up this hill to the top of Hoosier Knob.
"We met a hundred men dragging two of the heavy guns up the hill, a work one would almost conceive impossible ..."
Correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette
Worries About The Home Front
Soldiers at Wildcat were often torn between duty and their cares at home.
Guarding The Wrong Place
While posted at Camp Wildcat, Colonel Theophilous Garrard received a disturbing letter from his wife telling him that, while he has been away, Confederates had raided his home town.
Missing His Wife
Before marching to Wildcat, Confederate Colonel James E. Rains wrote his wife:
"How I would like to see you. The tone of your last letter was rather sad. Don't be so, my precious wife .... These clouds will pass away ... My campaigns will soon be over."
James Rains was killed on December 31, 1862, at the Battle of Stones River.
Stephen Keyes Fletcher of the 33rd Indiana offered encouragement to a brother disappointed as being left at home:
"Now don't think of going to war ... Where would the farm go to? ... No other one could take your place."
Geology Helped the Union
"On the 21st I reached the enemy's entrenched camp on Rockcastle Hills, a natural fortification, almost inaccessible."
General Felix Zellicoffer
Millions of Years in the Making
This "natural fortification" began forming nearly 300 million years ago when ancient rivers spread sand and gravel over the area. Under the pressure of its own weight, the material hardened into rock which was later thrust up and eroded to form these hills and the cliffs that surround them.
No Easy Way Up
The rugged terrain forced the Confederates to approach Camp Wildcat up an easily defended valley.
Hoosier Knob proved especially difficult to attack. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, the only access was up steep, narrow saddles on which the Union soldiers could train their guns.
"I ordered the works to be charged."
Colonel Tazewell Newman, 17th Tennessee Infantry
It was up this ridge that Confederate Colonel Tazewell Newman led four companies of the 17th Tennessee Infantry, supported by three companies of the 29th Tennessee Infantry, in an assault on Hoosier Knob.
Confederates Are Hit Hard
Newman's men were met with deadly blasts of Union gunfire. Company E was hit the hardest, with six soldiers killed and seventeen wounded. The dead included O.P. Newman, who was shot through the head while standing near his brother - - the Colonel.
Captain Became Governor
Company E was commanded by Captain Albert Marks. Marks had enlisted in the Confederate army despite his opposition to Tennessee's decision to leave the Union. He later became Governor of Tennessee.
Hoosier Knob - Point of Attack
The hardest fighting took place here.
Confederates Approached Unseen
The main attack came late in the morning. Six hundred Confederate soldiers emerged from the woods below to within thirty steps of where you now stand.
"They soon came near us under cover of wood, which entirely concealed their approach."
Colonel John Coburn, 33rd Indiana Infantry
Union Soldiers Awaited Their First Test
Hoosier Knob was defended by six hundred Union soldiers from the 33rd Indiana Infantry and the 1st Kentucky Cavalry. Most had never seen battle.
"Some showed cool determination, others were excited and tremulous."
Sergeant Eastham Tarrant, 1st Kentucky Cavalry
The Union Held Its Ground
Confederates attacked at least twice but were unable to drive the Union soldiers off the knob.
"(The Confederates) approached with wild cheers and loud oaths, but were met with volley after volley, which repulsed them. They fled, leaving their dead and wounded."
John McBride, 33rd Indiana Infantry
Union Line Almost Breaks
Soldiers Caught Between Enemies and Officers
During the fighting on Hoosier Knob, some Union soldiers began to panic and run. They found themselves facing the guns of their own officers.
"A few men from both the Kentucky and Indiana ... took to flight and rushed down the path .... Cols. Coburn and Wolford, pistol in hand braced themselves before the fugitives when they saw them flying, and threatening to shoot the first who attempted to pass soon restored order."
Earthworks Built After The Battle
On the morning of the battle, the only Union fortification on this hill was a small breastwork of logs at the north end of the knob. Most of these entrenchments were dug in the afternoon only after the hardest fighting had ended.
Union reinforcements from the 14th and 17th Ohio regiments used bayonets, picks, and shovels to help construct the defenses. By evening 1,200 Union soldiers camped behind a shoulder-high ring of trenches and logs.
More Trees Than Soldiers Killed
Soldiers also constructed several hundred feet of log breastworks on the Winding Blade Road and Infantry Ridge.
After the battle a Kentucky soldier claimed that regiments from Ohio had slain more timber than his whole state could cut in a month.
Dealing With Death
"The thought of laying those men in the ground far, far from home was more than could be borne."
John Wilkens, 33rd Indiana Infantry
They Knew The Enemy
Union soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Tennessee Infantry, who arrived after the battle and helped bury Confederate dead, knew many by name.
"They found among the dead many acquaintances, neighbors, cousins, brothers and in one case a father."
Correspondent for the Boston Courier
Confederate troops, passing the body of a Union soldier, identified him as a shoemaker from Bledsoe County, Tennessee named Merriman. After the war, one soldier wrote, "Of all who saw him and are yet living, I suppose not one has forgotten him."
The Union held military funerals for its dead. Tributes were paid and music played.
Confederate dead were buried without ceremony near where they fell. Nearly ten years later, citizens of Crab Orchard, Kentucky returned to the battlefield and gathered the remains that could be found. After a solemn ceremony they were buried in the Crab Orchard Cemetery.
Disease More Deadly Than Guns
"They coughed in platoons, ... like the musketry at Wildcat."
Disease Attacks After The Battle
The Union army, which suffered only four deaths at Wildcat, lost more than two hundred to disease after the battle.
"There was much sickness with diarrhea, dysentery, measles, and fevers."
Jonathan Wood, 14th Ohio Infantry
Help From Home
Catherine Merrill was one of several women who travelled to Kentucky from Indiana to help care for the sick.
"The little town with encampments around it seemed to be one great hospital."
The 33rd Indiana Infantry suffered the most. By early December, from two to five of its soldiers were dying every day.
"Fount Caudell is sick ... buried two today ... two deaths last night ... Emanuel Phillips died last night ... Jeff Deivert died ... Fount Caudel died ..."
Diary of David Fateley, 33rd Indiana Infantry.
Regimental bands were ordered to stop playing music at funerals because it depressed the living. At one point less than one hundred men out of a thousand were able to fight and the regiment was declared unfit for duty.