Imagine a road that existed and was known to the locals but not the Federal forces. Imagine how frustrated and puzzled they must have been when the Confederates that was behind them somehow manages to get in front of them. Imagine the famed General John Hunt Morgan utilizing this forgotten mountain road on his raids into the north. Imagine thousands of soldiers on the Rebel Trace without Federal forces being cognizant of their movement. Imagine such a trail fading into legends and the unknown. (The Old General)
Although history continues to remember and acknowledge the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road, another road that benefited early Eastern Kentucky settlers has been forgotten. Long before the Kentucky Assembly appropriated money for the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road, pioneers settling the mountainous regions of eastern Kentucky utilized buffalo and Indian trails to travel between Pound Gap and the central part of the state. During the War Between the States, this system of treacherous trails was known as the Rebel Trace.
Very little written history remains of this infamous trail. The famous author, Joseph Hergesheimer, wrote about the trail in an April 1930, edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Another author, Martin Harry Greenberg, chose Hergesheimer’s story to use in his book, Confederate Battle Stories. Earlier, Captain Edward Guerrant, and Private George Mosgrove described the trail in their journals of the war. Confederate General Humphrey Marshall also mentioned the trail in his official records. Today, the only mention of the once infamous trail on the internet is Rebel Trace Lake, a small, man-made lake in Menifee County.
Although there are several legs of the Rebel Trace, the main trail ran from Pound Gap through the counties of Letcher, Knott, Perry, Breathitt, Wolfe, Powell, Menifee, and Montgomery to Mt. Sterling. Part of the road could be traveled by wagon, but the majority was accessible only by foot or horseback.
The reason the treacherous road was called the Rebel Trace probably was due to Confederate soldiers using it more than Union troops. Union troops in this area were usually from Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan and preferred to stay on the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap road, which was much safer for them. However, at least two Union regiments were known to use the Rebel Trace: the 14th Kentucky Cavalry and 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry. The majority of these Yankee soldiers was from the mountains of southeastern Kentucky and knew the trails as well as their Rebel counterparts. Also, there were more southern sympathizers living along the Rebel Trace than northern supporters. Because of its friendlier nature, it was not at all uncommon for a Rebel soldier to pause and check on his family while traveling the Rebel Trace.
The Rebel Trace was used dozens, if not hundreds, of times by soldiers during the war. The following examples are only a small fraction of the overall utilization of the trace. The first military use of the trace occurred in the first year of the war, as hundreds of men from the Bluegrass Region of the state used it to travel to Confederate recruiting stations in Prestonsburg, Whitesburg, and Virginia. Union commanders forced southern sympathizers to use the trace by closely monitoring the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road, arresting anyone suspected of trying to join with the Rebels.
In December of 1863, Captain Peter Everett CSA used the trail to escape Yankee pursuers after his raid on Mt. Sterling. The captain left Abingdon, Virginia, with the 1st Battalion Kentucky Cavalry, 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles, and 7th Confederate Cavalry. The Confederates rode rapidly along the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road, stopping long enough in Salyersville to rout a small Union garrison. Later that night, the Rebel raiders successfully attacked a Union force, much larger than their own, that was garrisoned in Mt. Sterling. The raiders captured a large number of horses and supplies, while destroying a large Union commissary stored in the town. Knowing that the Yankees would be expecting them to return to Virginia by the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road, the young captain allowed some of the men of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles to lead the raiding party back along the Rebel Trace. The majority of the men of this regiment was from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and knew the trail by heart. Upon arriving in Whitesburg, the captain left the 10th Kentucky there to check on their families and continued with the remainder of the raiding party back through Pound Gap.
In May of 1864, another attack was conducted by utilizing the Rebel Trace. However, this time, Union soldiers took advantage of the trail. The 11th Michigan Cavalry had received a report that a company of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles was encamped at the old Confederate training grounds at the mouth of Colly Creek in Letcher County. Major Charles Smith of the 11th Michigan wisely asked the 39th Kentucky to accompany them on a raid on the Confederate encampment. He was aware that the mountain regiment knew the trails that led to the encampment. Leaving Pikeville, the men of the 39th Kentucky led the Union raiding party past Pound Gap and down the Kentucky River. Early on the morning of May 13th, the Union raiders passed through the sleepy little town of Whitesburg, traveled the trail running along Dry Fork Creek, Smoot Creek, and Trace Fork of Colly Creek and arrived opposite the encamped Confederates. Taking advantage of surprise, not to mention their new repeating rifles, the attacking Yanks drove the Rebels out of their camp and into the nearby woods.
The most famous use of the Rebel Trace occurred during the first week of June in 1864, when General John Hunt Morgan led a large contingent of mounted and dismounted Confederate soldiers on his last raid into the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. On June 2nd, the Confederates attacked and routed a contingent of approximately 500 Union soldiers guarding Pound Gap. From scout’s reports, the general knew that General Stephen Burbridge was bringing several thousand Union troops along the Mt. Sterling-Pound Gap Road on a raid aimed at destroying the salt works in Saltville, Virginia. Morgan knew he could not defeat the much larger Yankee force and decided to continue the raid, hoping to entice the invading Union Army into turning around and chasing him. The Confederate general chose to travel to Mt. Sterling by the Rebel Trace, which would allow him to travel parallel with the Yanks on the main road.
Once again, men of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles led the way along the treacherous trail. The grueling trip was hard on both man and animal, resulting in the loss of more than two hundred horses along the trail. Upon arriving outside Mt. Sterling, the general was surprised to learn that his dismounted men had kept up with mounted ones, an amazing feat that rivaled the legendary Stonewall’s foot cavalry. The Confederates easily captured Mt. Sterling, routed the Yanks stationed in Lexington and defeated the defenders of Cynthiana. Unfortunately for the dashing general and his men, General Burbridge turned around at Pound Gap upon learning of Morgan’s raid and uncharacteristic of the general, relentlessly pushed his men back to central Kentucky, resulting in the deaths of many of the Union cavalry horses along the way. Burbridge, reinforced with additional troops from central Kentucky, attacked and defeated Morgan at Cynthiana. Many of the retreating Rebels traveled back to Virginia along the Rebel Trace.
After the end of the war, the Rebel Trace continued to be used by the mountain people but never again on a large scale. As years passed, many legs of the trail were improved for the use of wagons, and eventually, for automobiles. Blacktop roads and concrete bridges replaced muddy ruts and rocky creek crossings. The memories of the old Rebel Trace have pretty much been forgotten now, though occasionally, one will listen to an old-timer tell of his grandfather pointing out a deeply rutted trail through the mountains that once was trodden by thousands of horses and foot soldiers.
Sadly, many of these stories and sites have been lost to passage of time and the so-called “progress of man”. The following excerpt from Guerrant’s journal sums up how General Morgan’s adjutant felt about part of the Rebel Trace while traveling it in June of 1864:
“Our journey lay 30 miles down the everlasting Troublesome (Creek). It was a Troublesome Creek, a Troublesome Way, a Troublesome Journey, a Troublesome Troublesome! Awful traveling on our horses. Stopped a moment at the forks of the Troublesome to see our column properly formed. After great difficulty and hard traveling, which broke down dozens of horses, we stopped for the night.” A characteristic description of the famed Rebel Trace!
On a personal note, a fight along the Rebel Trace affected my family. My great-great-grandfather, Ben Brown of Dry Fork, was a member of the Union home guard. He was killed during a fight in January of 1865, along the Rebel Trace on Dry Fork. My great-great-grandfather Sergeant John B. Cornett of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles led the Confederate patrol involved in the fight. This engagement resulted in a feud between the Brown and Cornett families for years to come after the end of the war. Ben Brown was John Cornett’s uncle as Ben’s sister, Sally Brown (wife of Joseph Cornett of Dry Fork), was John’s mother.
Before the war, Ben Brown and Joseph Cornett’s families had worked together to improve the trace enough to allow wagons to travel the Dry Fork section to the river just below Whitesburg.
Postscript: The following is a brief description of the location of the Rebel Trace.
From Mt. Sterling in Montgomery County, the trace follows Spencer Creek in a southeasterly direction for several miles, leaving the creek only to cross Greenbriar Creek on its way to Slate Creek. The trace continues up Slate Creek, eventually leading into Menifee County, turning eastward toward French burg. Near Frenchburg, the trace turns southward and follows Indian Creek, leading into Powell County, where the creek flows into the Red River, near Haystack Rock in the Red River Gorge. Turning eastward once again, the trace follows the Red River toward Campton, in Wofle County. Near Sky Bridge, the trace leaves the Red River and follows Camp Swift Creek to Campton. Leaving Campton and winding its way southeastward past Vancleve, in Breathitt County, and beyond Jackson, the trace reaches Quicksand Creek, and crosses over onto South Fork of Quicksand. The trace follows South Fork to a point near its head, where it crosses over onto Buckhorn Creek. The trace reaches Troublesome Creek in Knott County by following Buckhorn upstream to its head, crossing onto Balls Fork, thence up Balls Fork to Vest, and finally crossing over onto Troublesome Creek by way of Ogden Branch. (An alternate route, as described by Guerrant, follows Troublesome upstream out of Breathitt County, past the mouth of Buckhorn through Perry County, and past the mouth of Ogden Branch into Hindman in Knott County) Following Troublesome into Hindman, the trace turns up the right fork, continues to the head of Troublesome, and crosses over onto Carr Creek. Following Carr Creek downstream and southward, the trace then turns eastward up Little Carr (Burgers) to its head, and crosses through the gap into Letcher County where it reaches Rockhouse Creek. A short distance down Rockhouse Creek to a fork in the same, the Rebel Trace also forks, with one fork leading directly to Pound Gap at the Virginia and Kentucky state line. The second fork takes a longer route to Pound Gap through Confederate encampments at the mouth of Colley Creek and at Whitesburg.
To reach Pound Gap by the shorter route, the trace follows Rockhouse Creek upstream past Deane and turns southward, crossing over onto Millstone Creek. Continuing southward and following Millstone Creek downstream, the trace reaches the North Fork of the Kentucky River, and then follows the river upstream to its head at Pound Gap. The trail through the gap and across the mountain into Virginia is also known as the Fincastle Trail.
To reach Pound Gap by traveling through Whitesburg, the trace follows Rockhouse Creek downstream to Low Gap Branch, and then travels upstream of the branch, crossing over onto Colly Creek. The Rebel Trace follows Colly Creek as it flows downstream, to its junction with Rockhouse Creek. At this junction, the Confederate Army under Colonel John S. Williams had an encampment that was used periodically throughout the war. In order to reach Whitesburg from this encampment, the trace turns up Trace Fork of Colly Creek to its head, crossing over onto Smoot Creek. The trace goes a short distance down Smoot Creek and crosses onto Dry Fork Creek by way of a small gap. Following Dry Fork Creek downstream to the mouth of Little Dry Fork, the trace goes up Little Dry Fork to its head, and then crosses over onto the North Fork of the Kentucky River, just below the Confederate encampment on John A. Caudill’s property. This encampment was in the huge bottom where Food City is now located and is just downstream from the mouth of Sandlick Creek. Another mile or so upstream from the encampment is the town of Whitesburg, a Confederate stronghold.
Another leg of the Rebel Trace left the head of Millstone Creek and followed Rockhouse Creek upstream, crossing back into Knott County on Beaver Creek. The trace then followed Beaver Creek to the Licking River and downstream from there, to Salyersville in Magoffin County, which was located on the Mt. Sterling- Pound Gap Road. There were probably other legs of the Rebel Trace that have now been lost to modern times. (Taken from Confederate Kin III; Chaltas, David)