Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky; Edwin M. Stanton Named Secretary of War: January 1862
150 Years Ago in the Civil War
As the second year of the Civil War began, the main armies on both sides remained inactive for the most part. In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln continued to press for movement by the Federal armies under Major Generals Don Carlos Buel and Henry Halleck in Kentucky and Missouri, and Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac near the Capitol, but the generals were in no hurry. It didn’t help matters that McClellan was seriously ill throughout the latter part of December and into January.
Although the larger armies were inactive, there were several movements by smaller forces on both sides. One general who did not remain in winter quarters was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. On New Year’s Day, Jackson and his Confederates departed Winchester, Virginia and proceeded into the western part of the state. Jackson drove the Federals out of Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia) but was hampered by bad weather throughout this campaign that lasted most of the month. Far to the west, the approximately 2500 strong Confederate Army of New Mexico under the command of Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley left Fort Bliss, Texas, in the first week in January and assembled at Fort Thorn, New Mexico Territory. This was the beginning of an ambitious plan to expand the Confederacy and drive U.S. troops out of the southwest.
On January 11th, a fleet of 100 ships under the command of Commodore Louis Goldsborough set sail for Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. On board were 15,000 Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside. Upon arrival, Burnside assumed command of the Department of North Carolina and prepared to invade that state’s coast.
The most significant fighting of the month occurred near Mill Springs in eastern Kentucky. Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer had established an entrenched camp north of the Cumberland River. With Union forces to his front and the Cumberland River to his back, Zollicoffer was in an untenable position. If attacked, he was unable to withdraw as he had insufficient boats for a river crossing. Zollicoffer was ordered to reform on the south side of the river, but did not do so.
Zollicoffer’s commanding officer, Major General George Crittenden, arrived in mid January and assumed command. Upon learning that Union Brigadier General George Thomas was assembling an attack force a few miles away, Crittenden decided to attack the Federals first before they could concentrate. It was probably the best option available given the poor defensive position that Zollicoffer had chosen.
Early in the morning of the 19th, Crittenden ordered his two brigades forward. The march was miserable, through the rain on muddy roads. Crittenden’s cavalry encountered Union cavalry at about dawn and the battle was on.
Crittenden’s cavalry drove back the Federals until addiional cavalry and infantry reinforcements went into position. Zollicoffer’s infantry initially pushed back the Union troops until more arrived and Federal resistance stiffened. Zollicoffer, who was leading from the front, became confused in the poor visibility due to the smoke of battle and the rain. Mistaking Union troops for his own men, Zollicoffer was shot and killed.
After Zollicoffer’s death, Crittenden ordered his other brigade forward and pressed the attack. The 4th Kentucky and 10th Indiana regiments bore the brunt of the attack in the center of the line, and as their ammunition ran low, they were relieved by the 2nd Minnesota. The 12th Kentucky Infantry and the 1st and 2nd Tennessee regiments (unionists from eastern Tennessee) held back the Confederate right flank, and the 9th Ohio Infantry attacked Crittenden’s left. The 9th Ohio finally made a bayonet charge, caving in the Confederate left flank and causing the entire line to retreat in disorder. The Rebel force left behind arms, ammunition, wagons and all manner of supplies and withdrew all the way Tennessee.
Thomas listed 39 killed and 207 Federals wounded in action, while Crittenden reported 125 killed, 309 wounded, and 99 missing. The Battle of Mill Springs, or Logan’s Cross Roads, was a significant victory for the Union. Confederate forces were driven out of eastern Kentucky, making it easier for Federal forces to attack middle Tennessee.
Edwin M. Stanton Named Secretary of War
Lincoln did make one extremely significant political move in January, replacing Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Cameron was a powerful Pennsylvania politician who was given the cabinet post as part of a political deal. Cameron and his War Department administration were widely criticized for corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement. On January 11th, Cameron heeded the widespread calls for his dismissal by resigning his cabinet post to accept appointment as U.S. minister to Russia.
Lincoln chose attorney Edwin M. Stanton to succeed Cameron as Secretary of War, and the appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 15th. Stanton had served as Attorney General under President James Buchanan and knew his way around Washington. Early on, Stanton did not have a very high opinion of Lincoln, but as the two developed a working relationship, he became a strong supporter of the President. Stanton could be inflexible and irascible, he did not suffer fools gladly, and one did not want to get on his bad side. However, he turned around the war department and provided very strong leadership at a time when the nation needed it the most and played a key role in the eventual Federal victory.
On January 30th, a crowd gathered on Long Island, New York to watch the launching of a new type of warship unlike anything ever constructed. In response to reports that the Confederates were converting the abandoned and burned U.S.S. Merrimack into an iron plated warship, the Union Navy authorized the construction of iron clad ships . Designed by Swedish born engineer John Ericsson, it sat low in the water and had a revolutionary armored revolving turret housing two eleven inch guns. The vessel was named the U.S.S. Monitor.
After a few months of relatively limited action, fighting was about to ramp up considerably in the late winter and spring of the year. Much of the Union war effort in the next few months would focus on Tennessee, and the Federals would start that effort in February.