Battle of Mill Springs II

Jan 17, 2019 11:29 AM

Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer

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, 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.]



At Beech Grove Zollicoffer began to fortify and make winter camp.  He was confident of his decision. "From this camp as a base of operations, I hope in mild weather to penetrate the country toward London or Danville," he wrote Johnston, apparently unaware that he had just made a terrible blunder.  He had violated not only his orders, but also every sound military doctrine of deployment.  With the river at his own back and with limited exit routes he risked being cornered.  Moreover, he assumed that the river would be a channel of ready supply, but the unusually heavy early-winter rains soon brought the river to flood stage and made it impassible.  Cut off from their supply line, Zollicoffer’s troops soon had to scavenge for food.  That did not endear them to the locals, whose livestock, laid-up stores, and miscellaneous tools and supplies were taken.  The neighbor folk also did not appreciate the preachy propaganda sent out by the former newspaper editor from Nashville.

Why Zollicoffer made his decision has been the subject of a good deal of speculation.  Some have suggested that he was still stung by “Zollie’s Folly”—the Wilderness Road invasion that was stopped at Wildcat—and had something to prove.  Others speculate that he resented the promotion over him of someone he probably regarded as a drunkard and wanted to make his own move before Brig. Gen. George S. Crittendon arrived to countermand him.  Still others observe that he had little experience as a soldier, let alone as commander, and despite his zeal was out of his depth.  There is perhaps some truth in all of these points.  Certainly, his decision to cross was consistent with the aggressive character he had already shown in his months-long career as a general.  Crittendon heard about the move in Knoxville while in transit to his new commission and was appalled.  He ordered Zollicoffer to withdraw back across the Cumberland to Mill Springs, but Zollicoffer decided to wait until he arrived so he could talk him out of it.  By that time the river flooding had hugely raised the risks of evacuation making that option much less desirable.

The generals opposing him were unable to capitalize quickly on Zollie’s new folly for a number of reasons, inclement weather chief among them.  It rained almost every day and on some days it stormed, and that impeded not only the movement of the army but also communications and intelligence gathering.  It took several days and multiple reports to convince Buell of the size and seriousness of Zollicoffer’s threat.  Meanwhile Buell was still tinkering with his command structure.  George Thomas’s 1st Division was not even a week old when on December 5 Buell issued a special order, detaching Samuel P. Carter’s 12th Brigade from Thomas with instructions to report directly to Buell’s headquarters. 

Albin Schoepf, however, continued to send pleas for reinforcements to Thomas.  Reverting to the former chain of command, Schoepf directly ordered Carter to come from Lebanon.  Carter, however, under orders from Buell to stay put in London, prudently waited to be released before he moved.  Due to the difficulty of communications, there was confusion between the commanders regarding who was moving and who was not.  Adding to the confusion were rumors that a large Confederate force was massing at the Cumberland Gap preparing for a major invasion of eastern Kentucky.[1] 

Wires passed between Thomas and Buell, and finally Buell permitted Thomas to release Carter’s brigade to Somerset, but to send no more “until you report to me; [Schoepf’s] force was sufficient at first.”  Reversing the previous day’s directive, the 12th Brigade (which included the 2nd Tennessee) was re-attached to the 1st Division of the Army of the Ohio under Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas. Adding to the confusion, Carter did not receive the original order detaching the 12th until a full week later, well after he had deployed to Somerset.  Then the brigade was detached again on December 19! It is not clear if that last order went through, or when the 12th Brigade was finally reattached to the 1st Division. These were paper issues of little concern to the troops, but there is always a trickle-down effect when their officers are not sure from whom they are taking their orders. 

By Saturday, December 7 the Tennesseans started out on the muddy westward road to Somerset, a march of about thirty-five miles.  Thomas had also previously ordered the 31st Ohio to Schoepf’s aid, but Buell held them up and they remained at Camp Dick Robinson.  He still did not regard Zollicoffer as a serious threat, just one of many “roving bugbears.”  His message to Thomas was, “The affairs at Somerset are annoying, but I do not intend to be diverted more than necessary from more important purposes,” namely the massing of his forces for a major offensive focused on Nashville.

According to Jack Snow the 2nd Tennessee’s A Company was one of the advance units of the brigade, so the road Alvis and Will Hicks trod was not as spoiled as it might have been for those further back in the column.   It was not a pleasant march, but neither was it totally miserable.  The weather was cloudy and chilly, but the rain had let up and the road, though muddy, was passable.  There were some steep and rough hills to cross, but they were hardly comparable to the arduous ascent to Wildcat.  The only real delay was crossing the Rockcastle River, whose swift flow and narrow ford made crossing slow and hazardous and stacked up the column for many hours. On Monday afternoon Carter’s Tennesseans arrived at their destination and made camp about three miles east of Somerset.  Schoepf was not satisfied, believing that he was still outnumbered by as much as two-to-one.

Zollcoffer, meanwhile, spent the days building a secure winter camp with breastworks on the perimeter, and with sturdy log cabin barracks for the men.  His pickets regularly tested Shoepf’s and there were small skirmishes, but no major movements.  Communication and supply became acute problems for Schoepf, partly because of weather and road conditions, and partly because of interference from enemy patrols.  Messages sent to Thomas took up to four days.

Among the problems for the Federal commanders was the issue of “contraband,” i.e., fugitive slaves.  Occasionally one came in who supplied intelligence regarding enemy numbers and position, but most were simply supplicants for shelter.  Sensitive to the fact that Kentucky was a slave state, Thomas’s standing order was to forbid receiving fugitive slaves into a Union camp.  Carter appealed. Some who had escaped from secessionists and Rebel officers were being employed as servants by his own officers.  He sent for and received clearance from Buell’s headquarters for “exceptions.”  It was not emancipation so much as confiscation, but it foreshadowed Lincoln’s proclamation in that the exception only applied to slaves escaped from rebels.

After many conflicting reports of Confederate numbers and position, on December 18 Schoepf determined to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force, with his own brigade taking one road and Carter’s taking another.  Both columns had clashes with cavalry pickets about 2 ½ miles from the Rebel camp, but no tactical advantage was gained.  The exercise was not totally without worth:  Schoepf and Carter learned that the terrain greatly limited the usefulness of artillery and saw firsthand that Zollicoffer was well-fortified and could not be easily dislodged.  Also, the Tennessee volunteers got to participate in a maneuver with a potential for battle—although the long day of marching out and back with no engagement probably did little to relieve their pent-up frustrations.


The week leading up to Christmas was quiet in the Somerset area. There were occasional visual contacts with the enemy on scouting rounds, but little or no shooting.  Two days before Christmas Carter wrote to Thomas concerning a still-absent company commander from the 2nd Tennessee, Captain David Fry,

… detailed for special service in October last, by your orders, and left for Tennessee in company with my brother, Rev. W. B. Carter. I fear that he has been captured by the rebels, and if not, that he is so enveloped by them as to leave but little hope of his being able to return to his regiment. His company is of course still without a captain. I wish your advice as to whether it will or will not be advisable, under the circumstances, to have the position filled by a new appointment. I write at the request of the colonel of the Second Regiment [viz., James P. T. Carter].

The 2nd Tennessee celebrated Christmas at their camp near Somerset.  On this first Christmas of the war the mood was melancholy, but not terribly tense.  The camp was not on high alert and the men not on duty wandered about the neighborhood more or less freely.  Paul Grogger retained a vivid memory of that day.

On Christmas day I felt somewhat lonesome, as I had always enjoyed myself at home with my friends before. So to pass time I went to town, where I saw a great crowd of soldiers thronged at the whiskey cellar. They demanded the owner to open it, to which he did not comply but reported the impetuosity of the soldiers to the officers, upon which they immediately ordered the liquor to be poured out. So I saw nineteen barrels of whiskey emptied and running down the streets like a branch in wet weather, and the soldiers was again knocked out of their Christmas treats, only what few filled their canteens as it run down the streets. [sic]

He wryly adds, “I myself didn’t fall short by it, as I got what I wanted from a citizen who had just come in from the country.”

That same Christmas Day the commander of the Confederate army, Albert Sidney Johnston, wrote with evident chagrin, "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." His best hope was that Crittendon would find some way to remedy Zollicoffer’s mistake, perhaps by exploiting the sluggish consolidation of Union forces.

 Schoepf continued trying by various moves and probes to draw Zollicoffer out of his fortified position and into an open engagement, but without success.  Buell was not impressed with the Polish-born general’s performance and confided to McClellan, “Schoepf is not incompetent, but has not shown much enterprise at Somerset. I must reserve my judgment about him.” Schoepf had proposed a plan about two weeks earlier, and had Buell permitted Thomas to move they might have had success and Buell might have developed a more favorable impression of the brigade commander.  The plan, however, would have required the participation of the full division, and Buell was not then ready to commit to that.

John Hunt Morgan’s mid-December cavalry raids and bridge-burning deep inside Federal lines helped change his mind regarding the seriousness of the Rebel encroachment in that sector. Buell finally decided that Zollicoffer had led himself into a trap and that it would be a shame to let him wriggle out of it.  He released Thomas to move, but then also handed his division commander a pre-drawn plan of attack. It included the advice that “the move should be made rapidly and secretly” and “without any tarrying on the road.” He was looking for a way to make Thomas’s attack on Zollicoffer the beginning of a concealed coordinated movement.

Such plans made so remotely from the action invariably run into trouble as soon as they reach the place of battle, but in this case Buell’s plan had problems even making it to the battlefield.    Thomas set out from Lebanon on New Year’s Day.  The bone-chilling rain seemed to have no letup. The weather and the awful road conditions conspired with the enemy to turn a march of a few days into a slog that consumed half a month. 

Even an experienced army would have had a difficult time making that march, but many of the troops and even the animal teams were “raw” according to Thomas’s own description, and it would have been difficult to move them under good conditions.  Wagons and cannons sank up to their axles.  Supplies could not catch up to the infantry and the men often suffered through cold days and nights without rations. A pot of hot coffee was precious treasure. The men could not help but notice that the gray mud they scraped off their shoes was the same color as the soap they were issued, and the common joke was that they were marching to protect the army’s supply of soap. One forty-mile stretch alone took eight grueling days.  On the 13th Thomas wrote to Buell, “The road, which has been represented as good, is the worst I ever saw, and the recent rains have made it one continuous quagmire.”  The road ahead, he added, “is represented by my scouts as much worse than the roads the command has already passed over.”


Toward the end of that week Thomas’s army at last drew near its objective.  S. P. Carter was not satisfied to sit still in Somerset. The men had been frustrated too long and they needed to see action. The naval officer-turned brigadier wanted to make sure his volunteers did not miss out on this fight. On Friday morning around 10 o’clock, January 17, the 2nd Tennessee and its companion regiments broke camp in Somerset to march up the Columbia road, halting for a rest on the east bank of Fishing Creek. The weather was fair.

About one o’clock that afternoon Thomas finally reached the crossroads near the Logan house and made camp, about eight miles both from Schoepf’s camp to the east and Zollicoffer’s to the south. He arrived with his vanguard, consisting of the 10th Indiana, the 9th Ohio, the 2nd Minnesota, Wolford’s cavalry, and one battery. Four regiments, including one of regular infantry, were still bogged down on the road from Columbia a day or two behind.  He quickly set up headquarters and a base camp, sent out aggressive pickets of infantry and cavalry, and summoned his field commanders.

Carter’s brigade was in the advance position on the Columbia road so Schoepf took his staff and a cavalry escort up to travel with him, and on receiving Thomas’s summons they rode ahead to meet him.  On that overcast afternoon Thomas convened a meeting with his commanding officers to discuss plans to dislodge the Confederates.  He wanted Schoepf’s force to unite with his as soon as possible, but that brigade was a day’s march away.  Thomas took approving note of the forward position of Carter’s troops and gave orders for them to join him right away at Logan’s Crossroads.

Around the time they would ordinarily be thinking about preparing supper, the Tennessee and Kentucky boys got their orders to cross Fishing Creek and make the three-mile march to Logan’s Crossroads.  About that same time, it began to rain—again.  The already swollen creek was still crossable by the infantry, but the battery of two howitzers and two Parrott guns struggled hard against the swift current and the increasingly muddy road.  The supply wagons never made the crossing, which meant that there would be no hot food and no tents for the men for the next two nights and days.

The 2nd was again at the head of the column and marched around the bend where the Somerset Road met the Farmerstown Road, about a half-mile east of Gen. Thomas’s headquarters. Right behind them the 1st Tennessee and the 12th Kentucky made camp short of the bend on the north side of Somerset Road. They ate whatever rations they had carried—mainly hardtack—and huddled under shared coats and blankets for shelter from the bone chilling rain.  The rain let up during the night, but daybreak brought little cheer as the sun rose behind heavy clouds.  Adding to the heaviness were the feelings of dread and nervous excitement of impending battle. 

Jack Snow remembered a local woman driving a one-horse buggy through the camp, stopping at intervals to sell pies. He happily and hungrily bought one, but before a crowd could gather she whipped her horse and moved on up the road, sold another pie, then moved again. That was curious to him, because had she stayed at one spot she could have sold all her pies in minutes. “She was a Rebel spy,” he concluded, “and reported back to General Crittenden that the Union Army was out there with three parts of regiments. That accounts for the sending out of General Felix K. Zollicoffer to his doom the next day.”

There is some truth to his opinion. It seems that there were not one but two local widows who were feeding the Confederate general information, and that Crittenden was indeed at least somewhat dependent on them. Friday, January 17 he had learned of Thomas’s near approach.  He had been dithering since his arrival whether to attempt an evacuation of Zollicoffer’s camp, but the rookie general had finally prevailed on him that withdrawal across the river was impractical.  Zollicoffer was arguing that the divided and disorganized condition of the Union force opened a possibility for a real victory if the attack was made quickly and forcefully.  Beginning Saturday morning at daylight Crittenden managed to move two of his Tennessee infantry regiments from Mill Springs to the north side of the river, having at his disposal only a small stern-wheel steamboat and two flatboats.  Evening rains soon turned the Cumberland once again into a rushing torrent.

That evening he convened a council of war.  Crittenden’s official report indicates that he had made his decision to attack before the meeting.  Others, however, describe Crittenden as indecisive and Zollicoffer as vigorously pressing for an attack.  Later there were also rumors that Crittenden had been drinking heavily.  The decision was made to march, and a two-pronged assault was set and an order of battle assigned.  Around midnight two Confederate columns marched out into the incessant winter rain.  Their objective was to hit the Federal lines at first light, take them by surprise, and sweep over them before they could form a line of resistance.

Back at Logan’s Crossroads the objective of the men of the 2nd Tennessee was more basic: to try to stay warm enough and dry enough to get a little rest. They would remember the pouring rain of this night for the rest of their lives. It defied description. Diarist Paul Grogger wrote, “There is no use to say anything about the rainy, muddy times for the like was hardly ever seen.”

Next: The Day of Battle


[1] There actually was a brigade-strength force under Humphrey Marshall that threatened as far north as the Big Sandy River. To meet the threat Buell sent a brigade under an up-and-coming young colonel named James A. Garfield.  Garfield defeated Marshall in a small-scale action at Middle Creek on January 10, securing the left wing of Buell’s line.


The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies, Volume VII, p. 439ff.

"The Adventures of Jack Snow," transcribed from Civil War Centennial, 1861-1961 (Loudon, TN).

The Memoirs of Paul Grogger –2nd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry (USA): From All My Heart a Union Man (T. W. Moore, 2002)


Kenneth A. Hafendorfer, Mill Springs: Campaign and Battle of Mill Springs, KY (Louisville, KY: KH Press, 2001)

Stuart W. Sanders, The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013)

Christopher J. Einolf, George Thomas, Virginian for the Union (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).