The camp wildcat battle was fought near London, Kentucky, in October 1861. On October 21st, 1861, the stillness of this forest was broken by the sound of musket fire.
These hills witnessed the first battle between Union and Confederate armies in Kentucky.
The Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter South Carolina on April 12, 1861.
Despite promises from both sides to respect Kentucky’s neutrality, by the September Union and Confederate troops had marched across her borders. Rumors flew of coming attacks and secret plots.
During the early stages of the Civil War, both sides actively recruited Kentucky’s men of military age. Of particular importance for the Union cause was Camp Dick Robinson.
Established in August 1861 near Lancaster, the Confederates feared that this recruiting camp would be a staging ground for an invasion of East Tennessee.
As that region was primarily Unionist in sentiment, President Abraham Lincoln hoped to force the Confederates from that area.
To counter this threat, Confederate General Felix K. Zollicoffer’s command, which was stationed at Cumberland Gap, moved into Kentucky via the old Wilderness Road.
Marching northward, Zollicoffer’s men camped at Cumberland Ford (now Pineville) before skirmishing with Union troops at Barbourville on September 9.
After brushing the Unionists aside, Zollicoffer’s men marched on London.
When news of the Confederate thrust reached Camp Dick Robinson, Union Colonel T.T. Garrard rushed men to the Rockcastle Hills in Laurel County to block the rebel advance. There, Garrard established a defensive position at Camp Wildcat.
Although a lack of food and forage slowed Zollicoffer’s men, by October 17, the Confederates were near the Laurel River, threatening London. Garrard was then reinforced by a Union brigade commanded by General Albin Schoepf, who assumed command of the Federal force.
On the morning of October 21, the Confederates advanced against the Union line. The Federals held the high ground and the Confederates had a difficult time attacking up the mountainous terrain.
In the midst of the battle, nearly a thousand more Union soldiers and six cannons arrived from Camp Dick Robinson after a forced march of forty-five miles in thirty-eight hours.After making several attempts to storm the Union position, the Confederates fell back.
Casualties were light in what proved to be the first major engagement in the Bluegrass State. The inexperienced and entrenched Union forces suffered four killed and eighteen wounded, while the attacking Confederates had eleven killed and forty-two injured.
“Having reconnoitered it in force, under heavy fire for several hours…. I became satisfied that it could not be carried otherwise than by immense exposure, if at all”
General Felix Zollicoffer.
The Battle of Camp Wildcat set the stage for another Confederate incursion by Zollicoffer, which led to the Battle of Mill Springs, fought in January 1862.