Battle of Mill Springs I

Jan 16, 2019 7:26 PM

Brig. Gen. George Thomas

The 2nd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry at


January 19, 1862

[Note: The least known major battle of the Civil War was fought in Kentucky 157 years ago this weekend, marking a significant change of military fortunes for the Union—just weeks before it was eclipsed by Grant’s conquest of Forts Henry and Donelson. My grandmother’s grandfather was there, a private in the 2nd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry USA. At or near the top of the list of untold stories of the Civil War is that of Southern men who fought for the Union. My ancestor was one of thousands of East Tennessee Unionists who enlisted in volunteer regiments with the primary purpose of liberating their homes from the Confederate rebels who had taken them over. I have been tracing the history of his regiment, and as we approach the anniversary of the first big battle in which he fought I share with you a part of their story—his story. In October 1861 that regiment was part of a brigade that met a Confederate incursion into Eastern Kentucky and drove it back at the battle of Camp Wildcat. After the exhilaration of that victory, things started to go downhill. The story of the East Tennesseans at Mill Springs begins in November 1862 near London, Kentucky.]


November 1861 was hard on the volunteer soldiers from Tennessee. The morale of the troops, so high after the victory at Wildcat, plunged drastically.  The weather was miserable, damp, and cold with no relief.  About a third of the men were sick, many critically so. The promised uniforms and arms were still inexplicably held up in a bureaucratic backwater. The Tennesseans, still mostly clothed as civilians and equipped like a militia with old-model weapons and paraphernalia (although some had probably picked up second-hand caps, jackets, belts, etc. through purchase or trade), stood out like misfits against the blue-clad Ohioans and Illinoisans.  Besides this, they were increasingly reinforcing the opinion of their regular Army superiors that they were clamorous, unruly, and unreliable.  From their own point of view, they were simply responding to an outrageous situation.

As citizens in a democratic society they were used to asking their leaders questions, receiving explanations from them, and requiring them to defend their decisions. Soldiers, however, don’t get explanations, only orders, and all their orders so far were perplexing to the point of madness: Move forward. Make camp. Be ready to march tomorrow. Hold up, the new orders now are to wait.  Reinforcements will be coming in days—but reinforcements don’t arrive.  Now they are hearing every day about the dire situation of the patriots in East Tennessee, but not only are they forbidden to march to their relief, the army is ordered instead to pull back.

Regardless of Buell’s strategic intent for the pullback, it was widely regarded on both sides of the lines as a retreat.  When the Rebels heard about it they whooped and hollered and called it “the Wildcat Stampede.” Union troops—and not only those from Tennessee—were disgusted and bitter and despised the thought of giving up ground that they had paid for in blood.

By this point the murmuring had reached a fever pitch, and it is no exaggeration to say that the regiments were on the verge of mutiny.  In fact, a near mutiny actually did take place on the night of November 13 when garbled orders mistakenly caused the Tennessee regiments to pull out from their London camp along with the rest of Thomas’s command. (Apparently it was Albin Schoepf’s mistake, but the men blamed Thomas and Buell.)  Furious with the order, many Tennesseans threw their guns on the ground and swore they would not obey it.  In a letter written to Horace Maynard a week later, S. P. Carter gave an understated description of that day:

I was intensely mortified at the hesitancy of some of our Tennesseeans [sic] to move on when they found they had to take that road leading to Crab Orchard. They had oft the impression we were returning to Camp Robinson to winter, but after I spoke a few words to them they obeyed the order to march.[1]

What Carter calls “a few words” was actually a prolonged brigade meeting in which he stood before his men and brought to bear all his skills of persuasion to keep his regiments from falling apart then and there. Even after their brigadier prevailed upon their patience, an eyewitness account says, “hundreds of them wept as they turned their backs on their homes.”[2]  Carter’s account continues:

Many fell out during the night and some deserted. Our losses amount to about 40 to 45. We were without transportation, and were forced to leave almost the entire camp standing and every one of our tents behind. The roads were in a terrible state, and large numbers of men from the various regiments fell out on the way from sheer exhaustion. When I reached Dr. Josslin's I learned for the first time we were to return to this place.[3]

Carter made sure Maynard understood that the unhappiness of his men had less to do with hardship than with the continuing frustration of not being permitted to march back to their home territory.  It was a frustration that Carter himself shared.

Our men are most anxious to return to Eastern Tennessee, not so much to see their families as to drive the rebels from the country. We are all inclined to think that help will be deferred until it is too late to save our people. This ought not to be so.[4]

For several days the confusion and frustration continued, made worse by the sluggishness of communications.  The roads were so battered by rain and traffic that soon even lightly traveling couriers couldn’t get messages from one point to another earlier than the following day—and sometimes the day after that.

No sooner did the brigade arrive back at Camp Calvert than Carter received an alarm from Barboursville that a 5000-strong rebel force had advanced to Flat Lick, a mere thirty-two miles away.  Surveying his own force—barely 2000 able men occupying a vulnerable position with no artillery—he put the men on alert and determined to move toward Somerset before an attack came.  On the morning of November 19, he sent an urgent dispatch to Thomas informing him of the situation and his decision to withdraw.  On the 20th Thomas replied that he could give no support, explaining with suppressed chagrin that he was under Buell’s orders to fall back all the way to Lebanon and consolidate his command there. At this point all Thomas could give him was a measure of liberty to act: “You must exercise your best judgment.”

Later in the afternoon of the 20th, Carter received more accurate reports of the enemy force and advance and concluded that earlier alarms were “much exaggerated.” In his update he assured Thomas that he was no longer under duress and it would probably not now be necessary to withdraw immediately.  Even a more timely and orderly withdrawal, however, would require the destruction of food and supplies that could not be transported for lack of wagons.  He added this reminder for Thomas:

Recruits are arriving almost every day from East Tennessee. We have no arms to put into their hands. The Union men coming to us represent the arrival of the Federal forces. They are all ready to join them and do their part towards the deliverance of their native land. Union camps are already forming in some of the counties, and unless help soon reaches them, as they have but little ammunition, they will be scattered or destroyed.[5]

Carter closed his letter expressing “the hope of seeing you soon here.”  Thomas, however, was occupied with fulfilling Buell’s orders—orders that seemed to have little to do with the situation on the ground.  He had planned to go by way of Columbia, but that route proved impractical.  Going north was not much easier, and he had only been able to make it as far as Stanford.  As of the 21st he was still expecting Carter to evacuate London by Saturday the 23rd, informing Buell that delays in their withdrawal were aggravated because roads were “in wretched condition, and the animals are very much reduced.” 

On Thursday the 21st Carter sent a detachment of more than 600 men from the 1st Tennessee under Lt. Col. James Spears down the road toward Flat Lick to do reconnaissance, and if possible to intercept horse-mounted raiders on their “thieving expeditions.” He also took time that evening to write to Horace Maynard the above-referenced letter in which he described the near-mutiny of the previous week.  “General Thomas has left Crab Orchard, and we are here to look out for ourselves,” he wrote forlornly.  “I have no information as to the plans of General Buell,” but he predicted they would soon be marching to Somerset, which means he already had some indication of Zollicoffer’s movements.  Always mindful of time slipping away from the patriots in East Tennessee, he pleaded, “Can you not get those in power to give us a few more men and permission to make at least an effort to save our people? It is our duty.”  Later that evening Spears returned with the report that the enemy had withdrawn from this section of Kentucky leaving only a token force at Cumberland Gap, the bulk of them having apparently moved west toward Jamestown, Tennessee.

If the Confederate pullback quickened any hopes of being able to breach the Cumberland Gap and begin the liberation of East Tennessee, they were dashed the next morning on receipt of the order from Thomas dated November 20, directing Carter to break camp in London and proceed to Columbia.  If Carter was perturbed, however, he did not complain to his superior, and—aware of his men’s growing reputation for crankiness—made sure Thomas had no doubts that his men were ready to move “to any point where there is a prospect of meeting our common enemy.”

On Friday Buell changed his mind and issued a communiqué instructing Thomas to let Carter’s regiments stay put “if they have not started to move.”  Thomas received it on Saturday and immediately forwarded the command to Carter, accompanied by a note that “the order to break up camp was based upon orders received from department headquarters”— a rare and subtle indication of Thomas’s own irritation with Buell’s ever-changing orders.

At last on Monday the 25th Carter received the dispatch that Thomas had relayed on the 23rd, reversing the order to depart London.  “The order to remain was received with general satisfaction,” he reported to the general—another understatement by the acting-brigadier (elsewhere he says “all [were] elated”).  He added that most of the men who deserted on the night of the 13th were back in the ranks.  Hoping that there might still be an operation into Tennessee, he helpfully informed the general that the Cumberland Gap now had only a token force of rebels.  He also urged Thomas to hasten the paymaster forward—the single best way to restore troop morale.

Carter again mentioned the plight of the bridge burners.[6]  His concern for them was genuine and personal, and also reflected the heart of his Tennesseans.  On that same Monday he wrote to Horace Maynard:

If something is not done, and that speedily, our people will be cut up and ruined. A column should be ordered to move into Eastern Tennessee, one detailed for that purpose and no other, to go without reference to any other movement, with the specific object of relieving our people, simply on account of their loyalty and as though it were entirely disconnected with any military advantages.[7]

As for the men, “many would sooner perish in battle than turn their back towards the Tennessee line again.”

Their impatience for a move on East Tennessee was mirrored in Washington.  On the 27th Buell received a wire from a perplexed McClellan, demanding, “What is the reason for concentration of troops at Louisville? I urge movement at once on Eastern Tennessee, unless it is impossible.”  McClellan’s follow-up letters were more expansive, using every means short of preemptive command to urge Buell toward making this move.  He even included copies of the letters Carter had sent to Maynard—which he had received from the hand of Lincoln—with notes to “please read and consider.” (This could not have endeared the brigadier-in-waiting to his commanding general, but there is no direct evidence that Buell retaliated against his junior officer—or that he reacted at all).[8]

Buell, however, was a master at parrying pointed questions and advisory directives with long, foggy, detail-packed replies in which he led the challenger to believe he had won his point, while he continued to follow his own course regardless.  He had no intention of invading East Tennessee, but it was not politically expedient to say so explicitly. Instead he experimented with different ways of explaining his plans without actually saying that they didn’t include the immediate liberation of East Tennessee.  His eyes were firmly fixed on Nashville and he did not want to be sucked into letting his army be a mere support vehicle, whether for McClellan in the East or Halleck in the West.[9]


In the meantime, Felix Zollicoffer had regrouped from his setback the month before, and had shifted his attention westward.  The Wilderness Road was effectively blocked, so he would take a way that would bypass the wilderness altogether. Since Buell had pulled his command north of the Cumberland River, Zollicoffer could take his forces fairly deep into Kentucky west of the mountain ridge with little or no resistance.  From November 20 on there were steady reports of threatening movements, and as early as the 27th his advance cavalry had made camp in the neighborhood of Mill Springs.

At this point there was only one regiment standing in his path, and it was by no means a crack unit: W. A. Hoskins’s 4th Kentucky Volunteers, encamped outside of Somerset.  Thomas asked for Buell’s permission to send Schoepf with a half brigade from Lebanon to reinforce Hoskins.  Buell obliged, including with his orders vague instructions to “be at all times ready to advance.”  Meanwhile Hoskins was feeling the urgency very much like Col. Garrard at Wildcat, only with not nearly as defensible a position. Not only did he send repeated requests to Thomas for artillery, but he also sent a request for reinforcements directly to Carter in London. Carter, of course, could not relieve Hoskins without orders, and relayed the request to Thomas.  Thomas, in turn, had to get permission from Buell for every move outside of the standing orders.

Buell got it fixed in his mind early on, however, that Zollicoffer was headed to Bowling Green to link up with Buckner, although he did acknowledge that the Confederates might “try by demonstrations to drive us from Somerset, or even attack there if we are not watchful.” He had placed Thomas in command of a division and a territory, but also forbidden him to move his forces without orders from Louisville.  For the time being his division was little more than a list of active units, widely scattered and lacking cohesion. 

In the midst of this, the Tennesseans’ situation could hardly have been more confusing. Although Carter’s brigade (now identified as the 12th Brigade and including the 31st Ohio and 6th Kentucky regiments along with his 1st and 2nd Tennessee Volunteers) was under Thomas’s command, yet as late as December 2 Buell was sending independent orders directly to Carter, essentially anchoring him as a sentry along the Wilderness Road, out of the way of any significant action. (Perhaps this was Buell’s disguised way of retaliating against Carter for going over his head and complaining to Lincoln and McClellan via Maynard. Even so, Carter did not mind because he still hoped to march from there into East Tennessee.)

Thomas commended Carter’s restraint and adherence to the chain of command and acknowledged Buell’s intention to keep the 12th Brigade at London for a while longer. He also assured Carter that if his men were moved it would not be to the rear, but laterally to Somerset, which was increasingly becoming a point under threat.  Meanwhile Carter wrote again to Thomas, who was now at Lebanon, this time requesting permission to move to Somerset—for a number of reasons.  The chief, of course, was the massing of Rebels in that zone, but there were others, including “the sickness of our men and the increased malignity of disease.”  Finding forage for animals in the exhausted region of London was also rapidly becoming a critical issue.

In the same letter he noted that earlier in the day (Wednesday, December 4) his brother Col. James P. T. Carter, the commanding officer of the 2nd Tennessee, had departed for headquarters at Louisville “to see if he can get arms for the recruits of his regiment.”  While there he sought a meeting with the commanding general regarding the status of the plan for East Tennessee.  On the 8th Buell acknowledged in a wire to Horace Maynard that he had personally met with Carter and hoped that the colonel was “satisfied” of his concern for the patriots of East Tennessee.  It is probable that the colonel’s hopes for his long ride to Louisville exceeded what he came away with.[10]

 At Camp Goggin southwest of Somerset, Albin Schoepf was on edge. The Confederates began shelling Hoskins’s camp from across the river at Somerset in a fairly obvious diversionary attack, and Schoepf realized they would not attempt a direct assault here but would cross further downstream. He now had reliable information that a large Confederate force was massing at Mill Springs, accumulating boats and barges, and was preparing to cross the river. As early as Monday December 2 he began taking steps to block such a move, dispatching a company from the 1st Kentucky Cavalry to a point opposite Mill Springs.  They were to monitor Zollicoffer and send a report immediately if a crossing should be attempted.  He then ordered a regiment of infantry, the 17th Ohio, and a battery of artillery to get a head start in that direction while he prepared to bring the 38th Ohio down to Somerset. The 38th, as it turned out, was woefully short of ammunition, so he began to look around for alternatives. 

Zollicoffer was indeed determined to send his forces to make camp on the north bank of the Cumberland, much to the surprise of the Federals—and to the consternation of his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. George B. Crittendon.  Zollicoffer’s brigade had been consolidated with the division under the command of this hard-drinking Kentuckian, a West Point-graduate who was the elder son of a U.S.-loyal politician.  Zollicoffer had already marched his brigade up from Jamestown, Tennessee to the hamlet of Mill Springs.  Crittendon approved Zollicoffer’s position, directed other regiments his way, and ordered him to hold there.  His intention was to follow the pattern of A. S. Johnston’s strategy, drawing the Federals into making a first strike across the river so that he could trap them with the river at their back.  Mill Springs provided a commanding view and good lines of fire from a bluff overlooking the river. 

 The journalist-turned-general, however, disliked the hilly environs of Mill Springs.  He thought the more level ground on the north side of the Cumberland would provide a better winter camp, so he ignored the order and decided to cross anyway. 

Schoepf’s plan to intercept Zollicoffer and disrupt his river crossing was already behind the pace, but it was rendered completely hopeless by the cowardice of the captain in command of the advance cavalry.  After running into some scout pickets from the Rebel army, Captain Boston Dillon decided that his assignment was unreasonably hazardous and made camp barely two miles south of Fishing Creek, not less than six miles away from where he was supposed to go. Not only did he not fulfill his reconnaissance mission, he did not even set out security pickets.  The infantry caught up with them on the morning of the fifth, and Schoepf himself showed up before noon with his captain of engineers, intending to determine where he needed to set a battery to prevent the Rebels from crossing.  Instead he was shocked to see the 17th Ohio retreating across the creek without having fired a shot, with Zollicoffer already safely across the river and setting up a perimeter at Beech Grove. Furious, he blamed the cavalry officer for his predicament, put him under arrest, and sent him to Louisville for court martial.  He could not now attack Zollicoffer with the force at hand, however.  He would have to remain encamped at Somerset and wait for reinforcements.   

Next: From Somerset to Logan’s Crossroads

[1] Carter to Maynard (11/21): Frustration & Perplexities of the TN Brigade in The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies, Volume VII, p. 439, hereafter referred to as Official Record.

[2] R. M. Kelly, “Holding Kentucky for the Union” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

[3] Carter, op cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carter to Thomas (11/20): Fall back not necessary now; need wagons, etc., Official Record.

[6] In late October and November several persons from (or connected with) the 2nd Tennessee—including the commander’s clergyman brother—were involved in a failed plot by a resistance group to burn railroad bridges in East Tennessee. 

[7] Carter to Maynard, op cit.

[8] McClellan to Buell (11/25): Still wants prompt advance into E TN, Official Record.

[9] Buell to McClellan (11/27): Troop concentrations and the reason for them—strategic intentions, Official Record.

[10] It is also quite possible that Buell thought he had spoken to S. P. Carter and not his younger brother.  The idea is not farfetched.  Many generals kept a professional distance from their subordinates, but Buell engaged in that practice to an extreme.  He seldom saw anyone below his division commanders and kept such meetings as he had even with them cordial but brief.  If Buell and his staff did in fact confuse James P. T. Carter with Samuel P. Carter, it would explain a minor mystery.  The official records of the battle of Mill Springs that Buell sent to the War Department refer to “Col. Samuel P. Carter” as the commander of Thomas’s 12th Brigade.  S. P. Carter never held the rank of colonel, either officially or informally.  He entered the war as a U. S. Navy lieutenant on special duty, and in January 1862 was still awaiting official confirmation of his rank as brigadier general of volunteers.  In the meantime, he was acting presumptively in that rank, and was so recognized by his subordinates and peers, and by his immediate superior George Thomas.  It would seem that Buell and/or his staff was ignorant of his rank, to the point of ignoring statements in his reports and in those of others.  The most generous interpretation of this slight is that there must have been a misunderstanding somewhere in the Army of the Cumberland headquarters.