Caves, rich in quaintly formed stalactites and stalagmites, and their recesses filled with metallic salts of the most powerful and diverse natures; break the mountain sides at frequent intervals. Everywhere one is met by surprises and anomalies. Even the rank vegetation is eccentric, and as prone to develop into bizarre forms as are the rocks and mountains. The dreaded panther ranges through the primeval, rarely trodden forests; every crevice in the rocks has for tenants rattlesnakes or stealthy copperheads, while long, wonderfully swift "blue racers" haunt the edges of the woods, and linger around the fields to chill his blood who catches a glimpse of their upreared heads, with their great, balefully bright eyes, and "white-collar" encircled throats.
The human events happening here have been in harmony with the natural ones. It has always been a land of conflict. In years ago-- De Soto, in that energetic but fruitless search for gold which occupied his later years, penetrated to this region, and found it the fastness of the Xualans, a bold, aggressive race, continually warring with its neighbors.
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When next the white man reached the country--a century and a half later--he found the Xualans had been swept away by the conquering Cherokees, and he witnessed there the most sanguinary contest between Indians of which our annals give any account--a pitched battle two days in duration, between the invading Shawnees, who lorded it over what is now Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana--and the Cherokees, who dominated the country the southeast of the Cumberland range.
Again the Cherokees were victorious, and the discomfited Shawnees retired north of the Gap. Then the white man delivered battle for the possession the land, and bought it with the lives of many gallant adventurers. Half a century later Boone and his hardy companion followed, and forced their way into Kentucky. Another half century saw the Gap the favorite haunt of the greatest of American bandits--the noted John A. Murrell--and his gang. They infested the country for years, now waylaying the trader or drover threading his toilsome way over the lone mountains, now descending upon some little town, to plunder its stores and houses.
At length Murrell and his band were driven out, and sought a new field of operations on the Lower Mississippi. They left germs behind them, however, that developed into horse thieve counterfeiters, and later into guerrillas and bushwhackers. When the Rebellion broke out the region at once became the theater of military operations. Twice Cumberland Gap was seized by the Rebels, and twice was it wrested away from them. In it was the point whence Zollicoffer launched out with his legions to "liberate Kentucky," and it was whither they fled, beaten and shattered, after the disasters of Wild Cat and Mill Springs.
Three months later his beaten forces sought refuge from their pursuers behind its impregnable fortifications. Another year saw Burnside burst through the Gap with a conquering force and redeem loyal East Tennessee from its Rebel oppressors.
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Had the South ever been able to separate from the North the boundary would have been established along this line. Between the main ridge upon which Cumberland Gap is situated, and the next range on the southeast which runs parallel with it, is a narrow, long, very fruitful valley, walled in on either side for a hundred miles by tall mountains as a City street is by high buildings.
It is called Powell's Valley. In it dwell a simple, primitive people, shut out from the world almost as much as if they lived in New Zealand, and with the speech, manners and ideas that their fathers brought into the Valley when they settled it a century ago. There has been but little change since then.
The young men who have annually driven cattle to the distant markets in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, have brought back occasional stray bits of finery for the "women folks," and the latest improved fire- arms for themselves, but this is about all the innovations the progress of the world has been allowed to make. Wheeled vehicles are almost unknown; men and women travel on horseback as they did a century ago, the clothing is the product of the farm and the busy looms of the women, and life is as rural and Arcadian as any ever described in a pastoral.
The people are rich in cattle, hogs, horses, sheep and the products of the field. The fat soil brings forth the substantials of life in opulent plenty. Having this there seems to be little care for more. Ambition nor avarice, nor yet craving after luxury, disturb their contented souls or drag them away from the non-progressive round of simple life bequeathed them by their fathers.
As the Autumn of advanced towards Winter the difficulty of supplying the forces concentrated around Cumberland Gap--as well as the rest of Burnside's army in East Tennessee--became greater and greater. The base of supplies was at Camp Nelson, near Lexington, Ky. All the country to our possession had been drained of its stock of whatever would contribute to the support of man or beast.
That portion of Powell's Valley extending from the Gap into Virginia was still in the hands of the Rebels; its stock of products was as yet almost exempt from military contributions. Consequently a raid was projected to reduce the Valley to our possession, and secure its much needed stores. It was guarded by the Sixty-fourth Virginia, a mounted regiment, made up of the young men of the locality, who had then been in the service about two years.
Beer's third Battalion, Sixteenth Illinois Cavalry--four companies, each about 75 strong--was sent on the errand of driving out the Rebels and opening up the Valley for our foraging teams. The writer was invited to attend the excursion. As he held the honorable, but not very lucrative position of "high, private" in Company L, of the Battalion, and the invitation came from his Captain, he did not feel at liberty to decline.
He went, as private soldiers have been in the habit of doing ever since the days of the old Centurion, who said with the characteristic boastfulness of one of the lower grades of commissioned officers when he happens to be a snob:. For I am also a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go; and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. Three hundred of us responded to the signal of "boots and saddles," buckled on three hundred more or less trusty sabers and revolvers, saddled three hundred more or less gallant steeds, came into line "as companies" with the automatic listlessness of the old soldiers, "counted off by fours" in that queer gamut-running style that makes a company of men "counting off"--each shouting a number in a different voice from his neighbor--sound like running the scales on some great organ badly out of tune; something like this:.
Then, as the bugle sounded "Right forward! Whither we were going we knew not, nor cared.
Such matters had long since ceased to excite any interest. A cavalryman soon recognizes as the least astonishing thing in his existence the signal to "Fall in! He feels that he is the "Poor Joe" of the Army--under perpetual orders to "move on. Down we wound over the road that zig-tagged through the forts, batteries and rifle-pits covering the eastern ascent to the Flap-past the wonderful Murrell Spring--so-called because the robber chief had killed, as he stooped to drink of its crystal waters, a rich drover, whom he was pretending to pilot through the mountains--down to where the "Virginia road" turned off sharply to the left and entered Powell's Valley.
The mist had become a chill, dreary rain, through, which we plodded silently, until night closed in around us some ten miles from the Gap.
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As we halted to go into camp, an indignant Virginian resented the invasion of the sacred soil by firing at one of the guards moving out to his place. The guard looked at the fellow contemptuously, as if he hated to waste powder on a man who had no better sense than to stay out in such a rain, when he could go in-doors, and the bushwhacker escaped, without even a return shot. Fires were built, coffee made, horses rubbed, and we laid down with feet to the fire to get what sleep we could. Before morning we were awakened by the bitter cold. It had cleared off during the night and turned so cold that everything was frozen stiff.
This was better than the rain, at all events. A good fire and a hot cup of coffee would make the cold quite endurable. At daylight the bugle sounded "Right forward! In the meantime, other things were taking place elsewhere. Our esteemed friends of the Sixty-fourth Virginia, who were in camp at the little town of Jonesville, about 40 miles from the Gap, had learned of our starting up the Valley to drive them out, and they showed that warm reciprocity characteristic of the Southern soldier, by mounting and starting down the Valley to drive us out.
Nothing could be more harmonious, it will be perceived. Barring the trifling divergence of yews as to who was to drive and who be driven, there was perfect accord in our ideas. Our numbers were about equal. If I were to say that they considerably outnumbered us, I would be following the universal precedent. No soldier-high or low-ever admitted engaging an equal or inferior force of the enemy.
Suzy Barile, Writer
About 9 o'clock in the morning--Sunday--they rode through the streets of Jonesville on their way to give us battle. It was here that most of the members of the Regiment lived. Every man, woman and child in the town was related in some way to nearly every one of the soldiers. The women turned out to wave their fathers, husbands, brothers and lovers on to victory.
The old men gathered to give parting counsel and encouragement to their sons and kindred. The Sixty-fourth rode away to what hope told them would be a glorious victory. At noon we are still straggling along without much attempt at soldierly order, over the rough, frozen hill-sides. It is yet bitterly cold, and men and horses draw themselves together, as if to expose as little surface as possible to the unkind elements.
Not a word had been spoken by any one for hours. The head of the column has just reached the top of the hill, and the rest of us are strung along for a quarter of a mile or so back.
Suddenly a few shots ring out upon the frosty air from the carbines of the advance. The general apathy is instantly, replaced by keen attention, and the boys instinctively range themselves into fours--the cavalry unit of action. The Major, who is riding about the middle of the first Company--I--dashes to the front.
A glance seems to satisfy him, for he turns in his saddle and his voice rings out:. The Company swings around on the hill-top like a great, jointed toy snake. As the fours come into line on a trot, we see every man draw his saber and revolver. The Company raises a mighty cheer and dashes forward.
Company K presses forward to the ground Company I has just left, the fours sweep around into line, the sabers and revolvers come out spontaneously, the men cheer and the Company flings itself forward. All this time we of Company L can see nothing except what the companies ahead of us are doing.
We are wrought up to the highest pitch. As Company K clears its ground, we press forward eagerly. Now we go into line just as we raise the hill, and as my four comes around, I catch a hurried glimpse through a rift in the smoke of a line of butternut and gray clad men a hundred yards or so away. Their guns are at their faces, and I see the smoke and fire spurt from the muzzles. At the same instant our sabers and revolvers are drawn. We shout in a frenzy of excitement, and the horses spring forward as if shot from a bow. I see nothing more until I reach the place where the Rebel line stood.
Then I find it is gone.