The border state of Kentucky had divided loyalties in the Civil War. It was a slave state and had a large faction that favored secession, but there were also many who were ardent supporters of the Union. In May 1861, Governor Beriah Magoffin declared the state to be neutral and refused requests from both the Federal government and the Confederate government furnish troops for the war effort. Given Kentucky’s location, neutrality couldn’t last and was soon violated as armies moved into and throughout the state. Those regiments of soldiers that Magoffin refused to raise were recruited anyway, and the state furnished thousands of volunteers to both sides.
Late in 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer established a fortified winter camp on the north side of the Cumberland River near the town of Mill Springs. In January of 1862, Union Brigadier General George Thomas marched his 4000 man army (including several Kentucky regiments fighting to keep their state in the Union) towards Zollicoffer’s camp with orders to drive Confederate forces across the Cumberland. As he was doing so. Zollicoffer’s commanding officer, Major General George Crittenden arrived and assumed command. With Thomas at his front and the Cumberland River at his back (and not enough boats to make a river crossing), Crittenden decided his best option given Zollicoffer’s location was to attack Thomas first before the Union commander could concentrate his army.
Crittenden’s southerners attacked on the morning of January 19th, and had some initial success, but were stopped; a follow up attack was repulsed. Union counterattacks finally drove the Rebels from the field, forcing them to leave behind artillery, small arms, horses, and supplies as they retreated into Tennessee.
Here’s some excerpts from Thomas’ after action report on the Battle of Mill Springs.
HDQRS. FIRST DIVISION DEPARTMENT OF THE OHIO
Somerset, Ky., January 31, 1862
I have the honor to report that in carrying out the instructions of the general commanding the department, contained in his communication of the 29th of December, I reached Logan’s Cross-Roads, about 10 miles north of the intrenched camp of the enemy on the Cumberland River, on the 17th instant, with a portion of the Second and Third Brigades, Kenny’s battery of artillery, and a battalion of Wolford’s cavalry. The Fourth and Tenth Kentucky, Fourteenth Ohio, and the Eighteenth U.S. Infantry being still in rear, detained by the almost impassable condition of the roads, I determined to halt at this point, to await their arrival and to communicate with General Schoepf.
The Tenth Indiana, Wolford’s cavalry, and Kenny’s battery took position on the road leading to the enemy’s camp. The Ninth Ohio and Second Minnesota (part of Colonel McCook’s brigade) encamped three-fourths of a mile to the right, on the Robertsport road. Strong pickets were thrown out in the direction of the enemy beyond where the Somerset and Mill Springs road comes into the main road from my camp to Mill Springs, and a picket of cavalry some distance in advance of the infantry
General Schoepf visited me on the day of my arrival, and, after consultation, I directed him to send to my camp Standart’s battery, the Twelfth Kentucky, and the First and Second Tennessee Regiments, to remain until the arrival of the regiments in rear.
Having received information on the evening of the 17th that a large train of wagons with its escort were encamped on the Robertsport and Danville road, about 6 miles from Colonel Steedman’s camp, I sent an order to him to send his wagons forward under a strong guard, and to march with his regiment (the Fourteenth Ohio) and the Tenth Kentucky (Colonel Harlan), with one day’s rations in their haversacks, to the point where the enemy were said to be encamped, and either capture or disperse them.
Nothing of importance occurred from the time of our arrival until the morning of the 19th, except a picket skirmish on the night of the 17th. The Fourth Kentucky, the battalion of Michigan Engineers, and Wetmore’s battery joined on the 18th.
About 6.30 o’clock on the morning of the 19th the pickets from Wolford’s cavalry encountered the enemy advancing on our camp, retired slowly, and reported their advance to Col. M.D. Manson, commanding the Second Brigade. He immediately formed his regiment (the Tenth Indiana) and took a position on the road to await the attack, ordering the Fourth Kentucky (Col. S.S. Fry) to support him, and then informed me in person that the enemy were advancing in force and what disposition he had made to resist them. I directed him to join his brigade immediately and hold the enemy in check until I could order up the other troops, which were ordered to form immediately and were marching to the field in ten minutes afterwards. The battalion of Michigan Engineers and Company A, Thirty-eighth Ohio (Captain Greenwood), were ordered to remain as guard to the camp.
Upon my arrival on the field soon afterwards I found the Tenth Indiana formed in front of their encampment, apparently awaiting orders, and ordered them forward to the support of the Fourth Kentucky, which was the only entire regiment then engaged. I then rode forward myself to see the enemy’s position, so that I could determine what disposition to make of my troops as they arrived. On reaching the position held by the Fourth Kentucky, Tenth Indiana, and Wolford’s cavalry, at a point where the roads fork leading to Somerset, I found the enemy advancing through a corn field and evidently endeavoring to gain the left of the Fourth Kentucky Regiment, which was maintaining its position in a most determined manner. I directed one of my aides to ride back and order up a section of artillery and the Tennessee brigade to advance on the enemy’s right, and sent orders for Colonel McCook to advance with his two regiments (the Ninth Ohio and Second Minnesota) to the support of the Fourth Kentucky and Tenth Indiana.
A section of Captain Kenny’s battery took a position on the edge of the field to the left of the Fourth Kentucky and opened an efficient fire on a regiment of Alabamians, which were advancing on the Fourth Kentucky. Soon afterwards the Second Minnesota (Col. H. P. Van Cleve) arrived, the colonel reporting to me for instructions. I directed him to take the position of the Fourth Kentucky and Tenth Indiana, which regiments were nearly out of ammunition. The Ninth Ohio, under the immediate command of Major Kammerling, came into position on the right of the road at the same time.
Immediately after these regiments had gained their position the enemy opened a most determined and galling fire, which was returned by our troops in the same spirit, and for nearly half an hour the contest was maintained on both sides in the most obstinate manner. At this time the Twelfth Kentucky (Col. W. A. Hoskins) and the Tennessee brigade reached the field to the left of the Minnesota regiment, and opened fire on the right flank of the enemy, who then began to fall back. The Second Minnesota kept up a most galling fire in front, and the Ninth Ohio charged the enemy on the right with bayonets fixed, turned their flank, and drove them from the field, the whole line giving way and retreating in the utmost disorder and confusion.
As soon as the regiments could be formed and refill their cartridge-boxes I ordered the whole force to advance. A few miles in rear of the battle-field a small force of cavalry was drawn up near the road, but a few shots from our artillery (a section of Standart’s battery) dispersed them, and none of the enemy were seen again until we arrived in front of their intrenchments. As we approached their intrenchments the division was deployed in line of battle and steadily advanced to the summit of the hill at Moulden’s. From this point I directed their intrenchments to be cannonaded, which was done until dark by Standart’s and Wetmore’s batteries. Kenny’s battery was placed in position on the extreme left at Russell’s house, from which point he was directed to fire on their ferry, to deter them from attempting to cross. On the following morning Captain Wetmore’s battery was ordered to Russell’s house, and assisted with his Parrott guns in firing upon the ferry. Colonel Manson’s brigade took position on the left near Kenny’s battery, and every preparation was made to assault their intrenchments on the following morning. The Fourteenth Ohio (Colonel Steedman) and the Tenth Kentucky (Colonel Harlan) having joined from detached service soon after the repulse of the enemy, continued with their brigade in the pursuit, although they could not get up in time to join in the fight. These two regiments were placed in front in my advance on the intrenchments the next morning and entered first. General Schoepf also joined me the evening of the 19th with the Seventeenth, Thirty-first, and Thirty-eighth Ohio. His entire brigade entered with the other troops.
On reaching the intrenchments we found the enemy had abandoned everything and retired during the night. Twelve pieces of artillery, with their caissons packed with ammunition; one battery wagon and two forges; a large amount of ammunition; a large number of small-arms, mostly the old flint-lock muskets; 150 or 160 wagons, and upwards of 1,000 horses and mules; a large amount of commissary stores, intrenching tools, and camp and garrison equipage, fell into our hands. A correct list of all the captured property will be forwarded as soon as it can be made up and the property secured.
The steam and ferry boats having been burned by the enemy in their retreat, it was found impossible to cross the river and pursue them; besides, their command was completely demoralized, and retreated with great haste and in all directions, making their capture in any numbers quite doubtful if pursued. There is no doubt but what the moral effect produced by their complete dispersion will have a more decided effect in re-establishing Union sentiments than though they had been captured.
It affords me much pleasure to be able to testify to the uniform steadiness and good conduct of both officers and men during the battle, and I respectfully refer to the accompanying reports of the different commanders for the names of those officers and men whose good conduct was particularly noticed by them….
I am sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Geo. H. Thomas,
Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers, Commanding
From Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 7.
During the battle, Zollicoffer mistakenly rode into the Union lines in the confusion and was killed. The 4th Kentucky’s Colonel Speed S. Fry is generally credited as the soldier who killed Zollicoffer. However, Fry did not mention the incident in his official report. Fry did fire at Zollicoffer, as did several other Federals. The General was hit three times, and one or more of those shots may have come from Fry’s pistol.
Union losses were 40 killed, 207 wounded, and 15 missing or captured. The Confederates had 125 killed, 309 wounded, and 99 missing or captured.
The Battle of Mill Springs, or Logan’s Crossroads as it is also known, was the first significant victory for the Union in the Civil War. This action was a significant step in maintaining Kentucky as a Union state. Although he is often overlooked and underrated, George H. Thomas would prove to be one of the Union Army’s best commanders.
“Holding Kentucky for the Union” by R. M. Kelly. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1.