Despite Kentucky’s neutrality, both the Union and Confederacy had troops within state borders by the fall of 1861. On September 9, Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer left Knoxville with an army of approximately 4,700, moving through the Cumberland Gap. Union troops had gathered at Camp Dick Robinson, under General Albin Schoepf, planning an offensive into East Tennessee. Hearing of Confederate cavalry near London on September 23, 975 men of the 7th Kentucky under Colonel Theophilous Garrard were rushed into place along the Wilderness road, the main travel route through the region. They took position at Camp Wildcat, near a ford on the Rockcastle River.
Zollicoffer ordered his troops to strike on October 21, commencing the first battle of the war in Kentucky. When Union troops were reinforced by men from Camp Robinson, Zollicoffer called off the attack and fell back to Tennessee. He moved his troops north of the Cumberland River in December and into winter camps at Beech Grove, where General George B. Crittenden took command of the approximately 6,500 troops in that area.
Federal troops, under Schoepf and General George H. Thomas, were ordered to concentrate near Fishing Creek, ending up at Logan’s Crossroads, north of the Confederate position. Crittenden ordered his troops north and into driving rain and mud early on the morning of January 19, meeting Union troops at the Battle of Mill Springs, where Zollicoffer was mortally wounded. Confederate troops, exhausted from a difficult night march and fighting since dawn, lost the battle and ultimately withdrew back to Tennessee.
The Union victory opened the Southern defensive line in Kentucky, and set the stage for the invasion of Tennessee and Forts Henry and Donelson weeks later.