On Confederate Routes

Historical Marker #685 in Crab Orchard remembers the various Confederate forces that used a section of the old Wilderness Road while operating in Kentucky during the Civil War.

The most famous road in early Kentucky was what became known as the Wilderness Road. The original main route, called Boone Trace, ran from the Cumberland Gap north to Boonesborough in present-day Madison County. Not long after it was blazed, a branch trail at Hazel Patch that ran northwest toward Logan's Station (present day Stanford) was formed. This trail eventually ran all the way to the Ohio River, where Louisville was soon established. When it was improved in the 1790s, the Wilderness Road became the main route for westward moving migrants from states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

During the Civil War, routes of travel—especially those like the Wilderness Road, which connected with gaps through the mountains—were strategically important to the belligerent armies. If roads were well constructed, cavalry forces could move faster and obtain information quicker than traveling cross country. Similarly, commanders armed with vital information supplied by the cavalry could move their infantry and artillery into strategic position more rapidly, which could potentially determine the outcome of an engagement.

When Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan made his summer 1862 raid into Kentucky to gauge the sentiment of the state and to gather intelligence for General Braxton Bragg, he utilized a familiar part of the old Wilderness Road that ran through Crab Orchard on his return trip to Tennessee. Bragg used intelligence gathered by Morgan and advanced into Kentucky in September 1862 by way of middle Tennessee. After staying in the commonwealth for more than a month and fighting the Battle of Perryville on October 8, part of his retreating Confederate force followed the old Wilderness Road through Crab Orchard on their way to the Cumberland Gap and on back into Tennessee.

This route remained important to the Union army long after the Confederate army withdrew from Kentucky in the fall of 1862. When Camp Nelson was established in Jessamine County in 1863, the old Wilderness Road was used to move men and supplies for an invasion of East Tennessee. The route eventually helped the Union forces capture Knoxville and Chattanooga that fall and set the stage for the advance on and capture of Atlanta the following year.