Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
January 12, 2012
Note: 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the 1862 battles of the American Civil War. This article marks the first installment in the series that begins with the Battle of Mill Springs January 19, 1862 and ends with the Battles of Murfreesboro and Fredericksburg in December 1862.
In the early months of the American civil war, Kentucky stood as the Union gateway to the South. Though the state had officially declared neutrality in 1861, Kentucky contributed Soldiers to the armies of both the Union and Confederacy. As a critical border state, Kentucky served as a buffer zone between Tennessee and the Union states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
The overall Confederate commander in the West, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, recognized the likely avenues of approach presented by the rivers and railroads that crossed Kentucky. To counter possible Union incursions, he positioned his army in a line roughly paralleling the Tennessee/Kentucky border. To the west he placed the 11,000-man army of Maj. Gen. Leonidas K. Polk. From his position in Columbus, Ky, Polk’s fortifications could over watch the Mississippi River in order to deny Union movement on that vital waterway.
Johnston positioned Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner and his force of 4,000 in the vicinity of Bowling Green. West of Bowling Green two rivers plunged from the southern tip of Illinois south through Tennessee. The Cumberland River flowed directly to the Confederate capital of Nashville while the Tennessee River allowed rapid advance south through Tennessee to Mississippi and Alabama. Recognizing these rivers as likely invasion routes Johnston ordered the construction of two forts. Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland River whereas Fort Henry over watched the waters of the Tennessee. These forts would become scenes of pivotal engagements that would have strategic implications on the course of the war.
To the east 4,000 troops under command of Maj. Gen. George Crittenden were charged with defense of the Cumberland Gap, an Appalachian Mountain pass near the junction of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Since 1790, when the Gap was widened by a company of loggers led by Daniel Boone, the Cumberland Gap had facilitated rapid east-west movement. Finding the gap could be adequately held with a portion of his forces, Crittenden dispatched a brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer to advance west in support of Buckner’s forces. Zollicoffer had opposed the secession of his home state but when Tennessee joined the Confederacy he offered his services to Governor Isham Harris. While Harris may have been impressed by Zollicoffer’s brief combat experience as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Seminole War, he was perhaps more influenced by Zollicoffer’s experience as an antebellum U.S. Congressman and editor of the Columbia Observer. Long hours peering over printing presses may have contributed to Zollicoffer’s nearsightedness, a trait that would have tragic consequences in January 1862.
As Zollicoffer conducted reconnaissance of defensive positions in the vicinity of Somerset Ky, Union Brig. Gen. George Thomas was advancing toward him with an army of 4,400. Thomas was a Virginian by birth but had remained in the U.S. Army when his home state seceded. Thomas graduated from West Point in 1840 having roomed with William T. Sherman. He served as an artillery officer in the Mexican-American War and received the commendation of commanding general, and later, President Zachary Taylor. Thomas would serve as an instructor at his alma mater where he developed a close friendship with fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee. In his twenty-one years of military service Thomas had served in the cavalry, artillery, and infantry. By the evening of January 17, 1862, Thomas’s Soldiers arrived in the vicinity of Mill Springs.
While Thomas consolidated his forces, Maj. Gen. Crittenden surveyed the precarious position of his subordinate. Zollicoffer had eschewed the formidable defensive positions on the south bank of the Cumberland River and was instead positioned on the north bank. This position was on flat terrain with a Union Army to his front and a river to his back. Recognizing the precarious terrain and the threat of converging Union forces, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer to attack Thomas before Union forces could consolidate.
Marching through a pouring rain on the night of January 18, Zollicoffer’s exhausted men prepared for a dawn attack. Zollicoffer personally led the assault spearheaded by the 15th Mississippi and 20th Tennessee infantry regiments. Driving the union forces back, Zollicoffer, mounted, and in front of his army, continued to exhort his men to advance. As the attack progressed, visibility became obscured by smoke from thousands of muskets. A literal fog of battle had descended upon the contending armies as smoke, darkened woods, and mud-streaked uniforms contributed to the general confusion. Perceiving that his men were being taken under friendly fire, Zollicoffer attempted to intercede with the offending Soldiers. He rode to the commander of the unit and ordered him to cease his fire immediately. Unfortunately the officer to whom Zollicoffer spoke was the commander of the Union 4th Kentucky Infantry who had been firing on Zollicoffer’s men.
Almost immediately Zollicoffer was shot from his horse and killed.
As the Confederate Army was losing its command and control, Brig. Gen. Thomas arrived on the battlefield to personally direct the counterattack. At his direction, Col. Robert McCook’s brigade smashed into the demoralized Confederates. The Union lines overlapped the left flank of the Confederates and the 9th Ohio inflicted a devastating enfilade fire which induced a general panic. Routed, the Confederates fled for the Cumberland River casting aside muskets, supplies, and anything that would impede their rush to safety. Twelve cannon were abandoned on the field and the Confederates of Zollicoffer’s brigade retreated south into Tennessee.
Casualties had been light by civil war standards. The Union lost less than 250 killed and wounded whereas the Confederates had lost around 500. The battle ended the life of Brig. Gen. Zollicoffer and the career of Maj. Gen. Crittenden. Accused of incompetence and treason he was relieved of his command and demoted. Later that year he would resign his commission following a court of inquiry.
The battle also broke the Confederate defensive lines in Eastern Kentucky. The Confederates had lost the initiative in Kentucky and would not regain it, albeit briefly, until October of that year during Braxton Bragg’s ill-fated Perryville campaign. The battle would set in motion a series of events that would lead to General Sherman’s crushing capture of Atlanta and his subsequent march to the sea.
The Battle of Mill Springs was the first major Union victory of the war. Brig. Gen. Thomas would rise through the ranks, earn accolades as “the Rock of Chickamauga” and later receive the Thanks of Congress for his defense of Nashville in December, 1864. Mill Springs and Nashville were the only battles in which Thomas was in independent command and, in both, he annihilated attacking rebel forces. Throughout the war, Thomas played central roles as a subordinate commander notably at Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign.
With the Confederate lines staggered in eastern Kentucky, Union designs would soon focus on the two forts Johnston had ordered constructed on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. As the smoke cleared from Mill Springs, Union gunboats and fifteen thousand Union Soldiers under command of Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant were advancing against Fort Henry.
Next Month: Fort Henry and the road to Atlanta