A Historical Hike

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener 

I took advantage of the 3-day Memorial Day weekend to combine work with exploring and history.

South on I-75 to Exit 49 north of London, Kentucky in the community of Hazel Patch is Camp Wildcat Battle Field, the site of the first recognized Union victory of the Civil War in 1861.

For history and Civil War buffs, the site is along the old Wilderness Road which on the map of the time made this highest point a seemingly important military position. The pinnacle is known as Hoosier Knob, a peculiar name for deep in the Bluegrass state, but more on that in a bit.

Both Union and Confederate commanders thought the Wilderness Road would be a strategic supply line and control of it for each side was imperative.

Keep in mind, Kentucky officially stayed neutral during the war. But boys from the Bluegrass were recruited for both Union and Confederate forces making it a most uncivil war.

Union Forces led by the 33rd Indiana Infantry cut and climbed their way to the highest peak—thus the name Hoosier Knob—and later skirmished with Confederate units from Kentucky and Tennessee.

The knob is pretty much sheer rock cliffs on three sides with access to the top only from the south. From their higher vantage point, Hoosier troops were successful in turning back attacks from the Confederates because of the topographic uniqueness. So the history books gave the first win to Indiana over Kentucky.

There is an interesting historical interpretative center at the battleground and there are more historical narratives (as well as welcomed resting benches) along the 3/4 mile graveled walking path to Hoosier Knob. It is an up and down climb but be warned that the final assault to the peak is just as steep as it was in 1861.

Two surprises at the peak await diligent climbers: a replica of a 1-ton Civil War cannon and trenches dug by Hoosier forces encircling the peak have been preserved. In 1861, mules and manpower inched the powerful and heavy cannons to the peak. Bayonets, knives and bare hands of the 33rd Indiana Infantry dug the trench.

I found the hike wonderful exercise and a good history lesson.

I also found several other Hoosiers making the same Memorial Day trek. On our return hike from the Knob, my group met and exchanged pleasantries with a couple going up. When we returned to our vehicle, there was another Indiana license plate indicating they were from Bartholomew County.

And on the farm lane like drive to the battle site, we pulled over to let cars by. A glance in the rearview mirror showed me the familiar Indiana license plate of another kindred Hoosier soul going to historic Hoosier Knob.

But it seems that after the battle, military leaders on both sides found out the Wilderness Road was more wilderness than road. The lower marshy areas were thick with River Cane—a Kentucky cousin of bamboo, great for fishing poles and making towers for green beans. The hills were heavy with the shrubby Mountain Laurel—a beautiful blooming plant but that which grows so thick that even rabbits can’t make their way through it. On the map it looked strategic but in reality, it was durn near impassable for man and beast.

So it seems that on the map the Wilderness Road was of military significance, but after the battle which left 15 dead and 60 wounded from both sides, history determined that the skirmish needn’t had to have occurred at all.

Other than for making for a Memorial Day weekend tale to tell.