Battle of Mill Springs III

Jan 19, 2019 1:15 AM

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. 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.]



To the Union troops, the placement of regiments for bivouac may have seemed incidental. In fact, their arrangement shows that Thomas had given thought to the best lineup should Crittenden try to stage a surprise attack. He may not have believed it would come, but he clearly was wary in case it did. One of his most highly trained regiments, the 10th Indiana, was set in the most forward position, and a strong picket line perimeter was set up covering all the roads. One company each from the 1st and 2nd East Tennessee occupied the Robertsport Road, and two companies from the 10th Indiana blocked the Mill Springs Road while a squadron from the 1st Kentucky Cavalry was sent further down to guard the road at Timmy’s Branch, a small shallow tributary to Fishing Creek. Thomas’s troop deployment would be crucial to the course and outcome of the battle.

Sunday, January 19. After a night and a day of cold, wet weather, it was a miserable night to walk picket, and no less miserable to try to sleep. The rain was incessant, and the men of Carter’s brigade had no tents for shelter. Even if they could start a fire and keep it going, the coffee that was their only comfort on a night like this was hard to find. A Minnesota soldier called it “the darkest night and the coldest and motst pitiless and persistent rain we ever knew,” and a Hoosier wrote, “We sleep on our arms prepared for work at show notice.”[1]

Dawn doesn’t really break on a day like this, but only lightens the sky from iron black to dull pewter gray. The Tennessee men were  beginning to stir, starting to prepare breakfast as they could, breaking up their hardtack and mixing it with the rainwater falling into their tin plates to make an edible mush. About 7 o’clock the morning quiet was broken by the long roll, the drummer's summons to get weapons and prepare for battle. The attack had actually begun almost an hour earlier, but the thick woods had muffled the musket fire and shouts of men a mile down the road. First shots were fired about 10 minutes after 6 A.M.. when Crittenden’s advance cavalry ran into the first picket line set by Thomas's 1st Kentucky Cavalry at Timmy’s Branch.

Crittenden’s plan of attack was simple and direct: Two columns totaling about 5,000 men would advance in order from Beech Grove north on the Mill Springs Road and engage the enemy as soon as he was reached. The first column was led by Felix Zollicoffer, the second by William Carroll. Crittenden counted on surprise, shock, and force of numbers to roll back the Federal line, which he supposed to comprise two or three regiments. That it was a night maneuver added its own degree of difficulty, but the pelting rains that began about the same time as the march—midnight—turned it into a brutal slog that reduced the pace to one mile per hour. Yet when the Confederates hit the Union lines they did so with astonishing spirit and energy. 

They were met, however, with far more resistance than their commanders had anticipated. After the first shots were fired, the Kentucky cavalry squadron, about 20 men, fell back to a strong point on higher ground and dismounted, preparing to repel what they thought was a similar squad such as they had driven back the previous morning. Felix Zollicoffer, at the head of the first column, ordered his infantry forward, led by the 15th Mississippi—the only Confederate regiment that carried rifled muskets. (Most were armed with smoothbore muskets, and many of those were old flintlocks.)The Kentuckians continued to resist the Rebel advance even as it became clear that they were hopelessly outnumbered. Before they could be surrounded they retreated to the first infantry picket line of the 10th Indiana, which then withdrew to fuse a line with the second some 300 yards up the hill. The time was 6:40 A.M. Thinking that this firing line was the front of the main Federal force (which was still more than a mile away), Zollicoffer halted the advance to bring up his brigade in force to form a line of battle. 

The delay allowed time for couriers to alert first the commander of the 10th Indiana. In turn, Col. Mahlon Manson, new to brigade command, rather than sending an aide,  personally mounted his horse and alerted the army, arriving at last at Thomas’s tent hatless, breathless, and disheveled. Thomas reportedly interrupted him, “Damn you, sir, go back to your command and fight with it."

Meanwhile the fighting intensified as the rest of the 10th Indiana moved forward to join their comrades. Pressed by two Confederate regiments, the 10th held firm. The increase in visibility from the morning light was offset by the smoke from the black powder weapons that added to the rain and fog to make it hard for both sides—although the defenders doubtless had the greater advantage. Bolstering the 10th’s line, Col. Speed Fry ordered his 4th Kentucky Infantry forward.

Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Carter

Still in their camp, the men of the 2nd Tennessee were struggling to get into formation and there was considerable confusion.  It was taking too long.  There was a question whether they would be ready to meet the Rebel attack.  The pressure increased the disorder. Private Calvin Greenwood later wrote: “The Second was just getting breakfast and supposing it to be just a picket fight kept on cooking and eating—though very few had eaten anything when Liet-Colonel Trewhitt promptly got us in line and double-quicked us into the road.”[2]

Around 7:50 A.M., S. P. Carter received orders from Thomas to move his brigade to the far left to watch the Somerset Road, and by 8:00 they were on the move. It is unknown whether Thomas anticipated an attack from that direction (which was unlikely) or whether it was to have them prepared as a reserve unit.

Suddenly a powerful rifle column in blue overcoats came up behind them, and without slowing their quickstep swept past them, heading down the road and toward the sound of battle. Their sergeants called out the cadence in German.  It was the Ninth Ohio.  So swift and purposeful was their stride that the Tennessee men had the impression they had marched all night and didn’t stop until they hit the line. Years later Jack Snow still felt the surprise—and relief—of their arrival. “We didn’t know they were there, but we sure were glad to see them.”  In fact this unit of European-trained, German immigrant veterans had arrived yesterday and their camp was just up the road.  Battle-tested, better equipped, and drier and better rested since they had slept in tents, the Ninth was also at hand when Thomas first heard of the attack, and he immediately ordered that regiment forward.

The 2nd marched a little over a half mile to reach the intersection of the Somerset and Mill Springs roads and were placed in a line in open ground just south of the camp of the 9th Ohio Battery. Their sister regiment, the 1st, was deployed in a wooded area to their left. The third regiment of the brigade, the 12th Kentucky, stretched the left flank further. A Confederate battery apparently got a bead on their position and began shooting in their direction, but their aim was off and no damage was done. Col. Manson of the Indiana 10th tried to pull the 1st into his own line in the woods but Carter caught them before they could go too far and ordered them back. He did not want his brigade broken up without orders from Thomas.


The fighting below was furious, although often disorganized. The broken terrain, ridden with clefts, ravines, and thickets, along with the fog, made it difficult if not impossible for either side to keep a battle formation. It was harder on the attacking force, however. It did not help that their commanding general, Zollicoffer, acted like the regimental colonel for the 19th Tennessee rather than the coordinator of the whole brigade. Also, the rain rendered many of the flintlocks worthless—although after-battle reports probably exaggerated the number of misfires.[3]

After three hours of fierce combat, punctuated by periodic brief lulls as Zollicoffer continued to try to figure out what was in front of him, his attack had stalled. On his right the 15th Mississippi and the 20th Tennessee faced the 4th Kentucky Infantry crouched behind a rail fence at the top of a hill with a deep ravine between them. On his left the 19th Tennessee was still faced by stubborn resistance from the battered Indiana 10th. Zollicoffer realized he had lost connection with half his force and called a cease fire while he reconnoitered. 

Accompanied by aides, he spurred his horse up the Mill Springs Road toward the fence where he apparently assumed his right wing should have arrived. Wearing a white rubberized coat, blue trousers and blue cap, he was not immediately recognizable in the rain and fog and smoke as a Confederate officer by Col. Speed Fry of the 4th Kentucky who met him on the road within a yards of the Union line. Supposing him to be a Union officer, Fry road toward him. Zollicoffer, nearsighted and not comprehending his position, thought he had reached the extremity of his own line and called out to Fry, “We mustn’t fire on our own men,” indicating the Tennesseans at the bottom of the ravine. At that moment, Zollicoffer’s aides came into view and Fry, realizing this was the enemy, drew his pistol and called on his men to open fire. Too late he tried to wheel his horse and cried out, “It is the enemy! Charge them!” and fell having been struck by bullets fired by Fry and two of his riflemen. Only one of his three aides escaped. It was 9:20 A.M.

The Tennesseans, shocked and dismayed by the fall of their general, fell back. Zollicoffer’s death became an immediate sensation in the Union ranks, his body a curiosity and his paraphernalia the attraction of souvenir hunters. Even the 2nd Tennessee volunteers, half a mile removed from the spot, caught wind of the event. Jack Snow remembered soldiers trimming pieces of his clothes, “especially his buckskin jacket” (Snow assumed that his light colored rubberized coat was buckskin). “They had to take the body away to keep them from taking every piece of clothing he had on. I didn’t get any souvenir. I just went up and looked at him. He was already dead.”[4]

The lull in the fighting was short-lived. Crittenden had arrived on the scene (contrary to some reports that had him absent from the field) and the second column had finally made it up to the field. At 9:30 he was informed of Zollicoffer's death of the general he assigned the command of his brigade to the general’s senior regimental commander. And like Zollicoffer, having little knowledge of what force lay before him, probably assuming he only needed to break through the exhausted men atop the hill, ordered Carroll to renew the attack with his brigade, supported now by artillery that had been brought forward.


George Thomas was also on the field surveying the state of the battle and the condition of his line. He ordered the 2nd Minnesota to reinforce the main line and the 9th Ohio to extend it to the right to prevent flanking. Astride his horse and wearing his new general’s uniform for the first time, he was an impressive figure to the troops, calmly watching the action from a spot directly behind the main line of battle. At one point he gave an order to cease fire to let the smoke pass away so that poor visibility would not cause his men to fire on their own advancing comrades. The Confederates, thinking the cease fire indicated a retreat, charged up to the rail fence, now manned by the fresh Minnesotans, where they were met with a withering volley. Then came several minutes of savage close-on fighting where soldiers were attempting to bayonet their foes through the fence rails. By 10:20 the rail fence assault had worn itself out and the attackers fell back.

Now Thomas began to press the counter attack. In these later hours of the battle the rain had let up enough that it was not mentioned so much as a factor. The Hoosiers who had been fighting all morning to hold a line were let loose to push back the Tennesseans, followed by the Ohio troops. Now knowing that Schoepf was on his way from Somerset and would soon arrive, he ordered Carter’s brigade to move in on the Crittenden’s right flank. It was a difficult march through difficult terrain that delayed their arrival, but the arrival shortly after 10:30 of the 12th Kentucky, followed hard by the 1st East Tennessee, spelled the end of the 20th Tennessee’s and 15th Mississippi’s effort to continue to press their attack. The 2nd East Tennessee was now in the corn field just above the action, and the Confederates broke across the ravine for the woods.

Meanwhile he gave the word to the 9th, and the German troops from Cincinnati conducted a perfectly executed wheel movement that trapped the Rebel left. Crittenden had let his regiments be bunched together, and when pressed from both sides the battle turned into a rout. By noon the battle was over. The exhausted Confederate troops fell into a panic and fled in every path possible back to try to make it back to their fortified camp. The 2nd Tennessee, which had not seen much action at the front that day, now was part of the mop up action and the taking of prisoners.

Thomas paused long enough for his troops to replenish their ammunition and reform their lines—but not long enough to eat—then ordered pursuit. Carter’s brigade was assigned the west side of Mill Springs Road, and they proceeded in battle formation, as did the other units involved. Moving in battle formation across variable terrain was slow, but safe from ambush or counterattack. About 4:20 P.M. Carter’s men arrived at the foot of Moulden’s Hill where the Confederates had installed a redoubt.The weary, hungry men advanced up the hill expecting resistance. There was none. 

They were now in a postion overlooking the earthworks of the Beech Grove camp. Thomas brought up his artillery, and about 5 o’clock began shelling the Confederate fortifications and planning for an assault the following day. Carter’s brigade formed the right wing to the west of Mill Springs Road. Compounding the exhaustion of the past day was the dread of the next: all believed that the morning would see a bloody fight to the end. Jack Snow tells of how, having eaten nothing all day, broiled a piece of fatback pork over a fire and ate it without bread. “I got awful sick that night, as sick as I’ve ever been in my life, I think.”[5] 

Next: The End Game


[1] Quoted by Sanders, p. 40.

[2] Quoted by Hafendorfer, p. 252.

[3] Archeological recovery of musket balls suggests a ratio of one in ten misfires as opposed to reports of one in five or one in three or 50%. Still, it is clear that weapons failure played a roll in the Confederates’ inabillity to break the Union defense. Sanders, p. 72,73.

[4] Adventures of Jack Snow.

[5] Ibid.


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).