When European colonists began to explore westward from Virginia, they saw this as a wild and untamed land. Their settlements in the east provided them with great comfort and safety compared to what they encountered here. To them, this was a wilderness.
As wild as the new land was, however, the explorers did not have to find their way completely unaided. They found trails made by native people, as well as traces beaten down by herds of bison and other large animals. When Dr. Thomas Walker's party entered what is now Kentucky through a pass, or a "gap," in the Cumberland Mountain range, they followed an existing trail known as the War Road or Warriors' Path. Later explorers and colonists also used this trail to pass through the Cumberland Gap.
In 1775, Daniel Boone blazed a trail into Kentucky, using parts of the Warrior's Path and other trails along his route. "Boone's Trace" passes about three miles east of here. In the years that followed, thousands of settlers traveled Boone's Trace, tripling the population of Kentucky by the time it became the 15th state in 1792.
In 1795, the new Kentucky legislature passed an act to open a wagon road from Crab Orchard, Kentucky, to Virginia through the Cumberland Gap. The new road followed portions of Boone's Trace, but took a different route through this area, then known as the Rockcastle Hills. We now call this route "The Wilderness Road."
The Wilderness Road was the most direct route for commerce traveling both into and out of Kentucky during the early 1800s. Other routes to the West were opened in the later part of the century, but the road played an important part in the Civil War. Confederate strategists saw it as a way to gain access into the populated Bluegrass region, and ultimately, the territory north of the Ohio River. For the Union, it was a route to the South and the Confederate's supply line.
In the late summer of 1861, Union forces set up a camp at the junction of the Wilderness Road and the road leading to Richmond and Lexington. They named their camp "Wildcat." When Confederate troops attacked the hilltop camp on October 21, 1861, they found it impossible to rout the Union soldiers from the Rockcastle Hills. Confederate General Zollicoffer later described Camp Wildcat as "a natural fortification, almost inaccessible."
The Wilderness Road and Camp Wildcat continued to play a role throughout the war. The camp was used by both Confederate and Union forces, as control of this portion of the road shifted between the two armies.