During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces vied for control of the Cumberland Gap which was a strategic stronghold for both sides. Union commanders viewed the gap as a way to cut the Confederacy in two and an opportunity to disrupt communication and supply lines along the southern railroad. Confederate commanders recognized this and saw the gap as a critical defensive position.
Both Union and Confederate troops spent months at a time at Cumberland Gap, watching and waiting for the enemy’s next move. Although there were never any major battles at Cumberland Gap, there were a number of skirmishes and strategic flanking movements. During the war, both sides actually occupied Cumberland Gap twice. The Union army finally captured it for good in September, 1863.
For early settlers and pioneers the Cumberland Gap was a gateway that led through the southern Appalachian Mountains into the great wilderness of Kentucky. They mostly traveled on foot, coming from as far away as Pennsylvania. Although many of these early travelers had different dreams and expectations heading west into Kentucky, they were all in search of land and a new start. They often traveled in groups for safety and had an insatiable drive to penetrate the great wilderness.
Survival in the southern mountains meant living off of the land. Between the mountain ridges, the valleys were much more fertile and better to farm. Wild plants served to cure many of the more common mountain ailments and crops such as corn and sorghum were staples of the people that lived throughout the region. Hogs, sheep, chickens, and some cattle provided food, milk, and eggs. Many of these families were of Scots-Irish descent and brought with them their traditions, music, language, and methods of survival. Life in the mountains was sometimes harsh but the mountains were home to many of these families, some of which remain in the area today. Today, an estimated 47 million people in the United States are descendants of these early travelers who made their way through the Cumberland Gap.
Consisting of some 24,000 acres, the area was dedicated as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on July 4, 1959. Today, the park provides visitors the opportunity to discover rich history, spectacular overlooks, unique rock formations, cascading waterfalls, caves, and an extensive trail system. Besides the gap itself, it contains about two miles of the Wilderness Road; the ruins of an early iron furnace; Civil War fortifications; Tri-State Peak, where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet; and the Pinnacle, from where parts of several States may be seen. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park also provides some 85 miles of trails, camping, and abundant wildlife, guided tours, and a visitor center that houses a museum with interactive exhibits, films, and handmade crafts from the region.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.
Source: National Park Service
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
91 Bartlett Park Road
Middlesboro, Kentucky 40965
Did You Know?
Today, over 43 million Americans can trace their heritage to the families that migrated along the Wilderness Road.