Comes to Kentucky
In the summer of 1861 Kentucky was officially neutral, but both the North and South were recruiting soldiers from the state. The Federals wanted to plug the gap on the Wilderness Road and prevent the rebels from moving into Kentucky in an effort to control the Bluegrass region, and possibly gaining access to the Ohio River. It was not easy finding ways through these rugged hills regardless of which direction you're coming from. On the Federal end, Colonel Israel Garrard was ordered to march his fledgling troops forward to the Wilderness Road. They were to guard a ford across Rockcastle River in the rugged Rockcastle Hills. Garrard's troops established camp on a ridge three miles above the south side of the river at a fork in the road and named it Camp Wildcat. The 1st Kentucky Cavalry, which was sent ahead of them, was also less than battle ready. Training had not gone much further than instructions on how to shoot a musket. As the Rebels advanced toward his position, Garrard wrote for help "if I do not receive more troops (I intend) to abandon this place... I have no idea of having my men butchered up here where they have a force of six to one... I would like to hear from you immediately." Garrard's pleas were answered on the night before the battle, when Union reinforcements arrived and tripled the number of soldiers in blue.
In order to reach Wildcat before the Confederates, these fellows had to negotiate roads so deep with mud that it reached the axles on their wagons. Rebel troops under Felix Zollicoffer marched north on the Wilderness Road and began moving up the slopes of a knob occupied by an Indiana regiment at 9:00 on the morning of October 21, 1861. Fire was intense from both sides and close fighting continued for an hour and a half at which point the Confederate Colonel Tazwell Newman, who was leading the 17th Tennessee Infantry, ordered four of his units to charge the hill with bayonets flashing. "After fortification was reached and many of my men had got within the works.... not receiving any support, and being nearly destitute of cartridges. I ordered my command to fall back."
A second offensive, backed by artillery was mounted in the afternoon. As a journalist from the Cincinatti Gazette wrote, "(Zollicoffer's) attack was unsuccessful, simply because it came 24 hours too late." The Union soldiers spent the night of the 21st digging trenches and hauling logs to fortify their breastworks in preparation for an attack that never came. By morning, the Wilderness Road and the Hazel Patch were abandoned by the Confederates. Zollicoffer wrote, "Having reconnoitered in force under heavy fire for several hours from heights on the right, left, and front, I became satisfied that it could not be carried otherwise than by immense exposure... I deemed it proper the next day to fall back."
The inexperience of the soldiers and the natural cover provided by the heavily wooded terrain helped keep the number of casualties low. Four Union soldiers were killed and eighteen wounded. Zollicoffer reported eleven killed and forty-two wounded or missing from the Confederate side. However, the aftermath of the battle proved more deadly that the engagement itself. Twelve of 21 Union prisoners taken by General Zollicoffer died within six months. Measles and fever took a heavy toll. The 33rd Indiana alone lost at least fifty men to sickness and hundreds of others were reported ill within a few weeks of the battle.
The nervous young Colonel Israel Garrard was relieved by the Austrian Brigadier General Albin Scheopf as commander of Union forces during the battle itself, but Israel saw action throughout the war. He took part in the pursuit and capture of John Hunt Morgan on his raid north of the Ohio and led Schofield's cavalry in the repulse of Hood's invasion of middle Tennessee. General Scheopf resigned his command within two years, after the Battle of Perryville, sick of criticism that he failed to crush General Bragg's army. He finished the war as a well-respected military warden who pushed his superiors to improve conditions for the Confederates held at Fort Delaware.
Zollicoffer, a former Whig Congressman, had most recently been a newspaper editor in Nashville. Three months after the assault of Camp Wildcat, in January of 1862, his flamboyancy trapped the better part of his troops on the wrong side of the Cumberland after rains had swollen it and forced them to fight Federal troops under Virginian General George Thomas at a disadvantage. This was the Battle of Mill Springs or Fish Creek, the first step on the road to Shiloh.
The attack commenced at 6 am on a dreary day. As the nearsighted Zollicoffer was surveying the field through the rain and early morning mists, he thought he saw a problem. Sporting a white rubber raincoat so he could easily command attention, he rode up to an officer and ordered him to stop firing at what appeared to be his own men. The officer, a county Judge from Kentucky, turned away a bit confused, about to give his troops the order to cease fire and quickly realized that he had been talking to a Confederate. One of Zollicoffer's aides approached to warn him that he was in danger; "General, it's the enemy!" In retrospect, this may not have been the most useful thing to say. At that point, the Federal officer turned and shot Zollicoffer point blank in the chest. Seeing this, the Bluecoats opened fire on both Zollicoffer and his aide. Soldiers then dragged Zollicoffer's body out of the road and propped it against a white oak. Souvenir-seekers clipped buttons from the general's coat and locks of his hair. Legend has it that scavenging continued until the body was clad only in underwear. General Thomas posted a guard to prevent further looting and eventually returned Zollicoffer's body to his family in Nashville.