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Battle of Mill Springs
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
January 19, 1862 General Felix Zollicoffer is shot and killed when he accidently crosses the Union line and speaks to Col. S. S. Fry [US] at the battle of Mill Springs Kentucky
  Generals Who Died In the Civil War
  Felix Zollicoffer
January 19, 1862 Battle of Mill Springs Kentucky
  George Thomas
  Felix Zollicoffer

Battle of Mill Springs

Other Names: Fishing Creek (Confederate name for battle), Logan's Cross Roads (Union name for battle), Beech Grove

Early on a cool Kentucky morning in January, 1862, two similar-sized contingents of Confederate and Union soldiers (roughly 4,000 effectives each) met on a battlefield in south-central Kentucky, west of Somerset. The story of this January engagement, however, began months earlier as Albert Sidney Johnston took command of the Western Theater. General Felix Zollicoffer [CS], a political appointee who was holding East Tennesse with a force estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000 irregulars, moved 6 brigades from Tennessee into Kentucky via the Cumberland Gap. Opposing these men were a small group of home guard in Camp Dick Robinson in Perryville and some widespread groups of militia in southeastern Kentucky. Two skirmishes, one in Rockcastle County (Camp Wildcat) and one in Pike County (Pikeville), Kentucky resulted in two Union victories.

Zollicoffer withdrew to Knoxville following the losses and Union forces advanced to keep a watchful eye on the Gap in case he reappeared. With the approach of these Federal forces East Tennessee Unionists began burning railroad bridges, a situation that led the Confederate general to hang 5 suspected Unionists from railroad bridges. A second, similar uprising in Chattanooga also required Zollicoffer's attention. There he arrested Parson Brownlow, a known Unionist, but was forced to release him on lack of evidence connecting him to the pro-Union uprising.

About the time of the Chattanooga uprising, Zollicoffer was given the job of protecting Johnston's right flank. This time Zollicoffer decided not to travel through Cumberland Gap, instead travelling west of the Union troops. By the end of November, 1861 Zollicoffer had moved out of the mountains to the rolling hills of of the central plateau in Kentucky. Zollicoffer thought he could secure both banks of the Cumberland and be resupplied by boat from Nashville. He made two mistakes. Entrenching with his back to the river was a major tactical error and assuming he could be resupplied by boat at the navigable end of a river in winter was his second error. His troops were forced to scavenge the hills for food.

On Christmas Day, 1862, Johnston wrote "The position of General Zollicoffer on the Cumberland holds in check the meditated invasion and hoped-for revolt in East Tennessee; but I can neither order Zollicoffer to join me here nor withdraw any more force from Columbus without imperiling our communications toward Richmond or endangering Tennessee and the Mississippi Valley."

When Zollicoffer's commanding officer, General George Crittenden [CS], arrived on January 2, 1862 he realized Zollicoffer's mistake [placing his men on the wrong side of the Cumberland] but by that time Crittenden felt that moving 4,000 men across the cold water and ice floes of the river would have been difficult. The Confederates prepared for the approaching Union Army.

To the east of Somerset, Ohio colonel James Garfield secured the extreme right of Johnston's Line at the Battle of Middle Creek, a key Union victory.

Battlefield at Mill Springs
Beyond the Confederate cemetery in Zollicoffer Park, this hill was the site where Union pickets were reinforced and briefly held a line near the start of the battle. As the Rebels withdrew, Gen. Crittenden formed his rear guard here.
Aware of the Confederate contingent that had stationed itself along the Cumberland River, newly-appointed division commander General George Thomas advanced under orders to attack Zollicoffer on the banks of the Cumberland. It took Thomas 18 days to move his army from Lebanon, Kentucky to Logan's Crossroad, about 8 miles east of Zollicoffer's position and 8 miles west of a sizable Union contigent in Somerset. The Virginia-born Thomas then waited for General Albin Schoepf [US] to arrive from Somerset.

After leaving their fortified position and marching most of the night, Crittenden and Zollicoffer encountered sharp resistance near Timmy's Branch where they ran into an encampment of Thomas's Union cavalry (the 1st Kentucky). The cavalry and two partial regiments of nearby infantry formed a weak line and began an orderly withdrawal towards the main Union force. At the top of a hill additional units of infantry joined the fray and for a brief time the picket line held its place, but the Rebel onslaught was too much and the line once again continued its orderly withdrawal.

Battlefield at Mill Springs
Looking into the Confederate position in the ravine from the Union position along a split rail fence at the top of a ridge
The noise of this engagement sent an alarm to the Union forces. By the time the picket line had withdrawn to the split rail fence, nearly an hour after the initial engagement, forward Union forces had just begun to fall into the main line near the top of the rise south of the encampment. From the end of the rail fence the line formed a salient and extended a little further along a ridge in front of a historic road.

As Confederates approached the main line from a deep ravine, Thomas arrived from his headquarters west of the crossroads. He personally started directing his troops, placing newly arriving regiments into the battleline. He had two goals in mind: protecting his encampment and supplies, and keeping a line of advancement open for Schoepf's forces, some of whom had already arrived following a difficult crossing of Fishing Creek to the east of Thomas's position.

General Zollicoffer led the first attack, driving Thomas's forces back, almost to the top of the ridge. Because they were using outdated flintlocks, the Rebel's gains must be considered impressive. As company battled company the line became confusing, resulting in a couple of gaps in both the Union and Confederate lines. A steady rain contributed to the confusion, as did the men's lack of experience. Zollicoffer tried to rally his men, but accidentally rode into a gap. As the General mistakenly addressed a Union Colonel Speed S. Fry, (4th Kentucky [US]), Zollicoffer's aide realized the mistake and opened fire as he warned the general. Speed's first shot wounded Zollicoffer's aid and his second shot penatrated Zollicoffer's heart, killing the general. On the far side of the salient as the Rebels reached the rail fence they engaged the Union forces in brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

As news of Zollicoffer's death spread to the enlisted men they began to withdraw. General Crittenden managed to keep his troops in the battle, reorganizing and firming the center of his line. From his vantage near the center of line, Thomas realized there was a problem and moved the 9th Ohio Regiment to his right, where they fixed bayonets and charged, managing to exploit the turmoil and turn the Rebel left. In the commotion caused by this setback Union forces managed to turn the right flank. Suddenly, there was little for Crittenden to do but establish a rear guard and join his men in a hasty 10-mile retreat to their own fortifications with Thomas's men on their heels.

Arriving at the Cumberland, Crittenden organized a second rear guard to defend the position while the rest of his troops prepared to steam across the river on a rear-wheeler. Union troops established a line on Moulden's Hill overlooking the Confederate camp and began a cannonade. Thomas never demanded a surrender. He later told Fry that he never even thought of it.

Leaving cannon, horses, mules and small arms, the Confederates crossed the Cumberland on a rear-wheel steamboat and flatboats. Thomas's artillery quickly ranged the steamboat, which the Rebels set on fire, but did not have much luck with the flatboats. As supplies reached the Union troops, who had not eaten all day, Thomas ordered them to bivouac where they stood. Before a planned dawn attack, the Confederate's rear guard withdrew, leaving empty entrenchments. Thomas prepared to cross the river, but there was no rush. Crittenden's force had withdrawn and a significant number of his men had simply left the unit. With Johnston's right flank destroyed, Ulysses S. Grant could now concentrate on his center.

Other facts on the battle:

Thomas was not mentioned by name in an official order of thanks, which some view as a snub.

George Bibb Crittenden was son of popular Kentucky Senator John Crittenden

The initial conflict occurred at Logan's Crossroads, near Somerset. The Confederate forces entrenched at a position known as Beech Grove. Mill Springs, which is the generally accepted name, was the site of a mill and headquarters across the Cumberland River from the Confederate entrenchments.

Errata about the battle: Some articles cite the date of battle as January 19-20.

Benson J. Lossing, in Our country. A household history for all readers gives the date as January 18. This is wrong. (This book is not recommended)

Fort Henry and Fort Donelson

More Information on Mill Springs:
Mill Springs Battlefield
Mill Springs National Cemetery

Want more information:
Abraham Lincoln: A History. Tennessee and Kentucky, The Century; a popular quarterly. / Volume 36, Issue 4, Aug 1888
The American conflict By Horace Greeley.
Web pages:
Battle of Mill Springs (Mill Springs Battlefield Association)
Disaster on the Cumberland The Battle of Mill Springs, by Geoffrey R. Walden

State of Kentucky page on the battle

Links appearing on this page:

Albert Sidney Johnston
Battle of Middle Creek
Felix Zollicoffer
Fort Henry and Fort Donelson
James Garfield

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles

Battle of Mill Springs was last changed on - November 12, 2006
Battle of Mill Springs was added in 2005

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