Future President James A. Garfield’s Report on the Battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky

General James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield was a Republican Ohio state senator at the onset of the Civil War, and helped organize the 42nd Ohio Infantry in the summer of 1861. In December, he was promoted to Colonel of the 42nd; that same month, his regiment was assigned to Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell’s army in Kentucky. Kentucky was a slave state that did not secede, but it’s citizens had loyalties to both sides, and troops from the state served in both armies. The Lincoln Administration made the control of the border state a high priority early on in the war.

On the 17th of December, Buell gave Garfield command of a brigade that included his 42nd Ohio, the 40th Ohio, 14th Kentucky, and 22nd Kentucky infantry regiments, plus squadrons of cavalry from the 1st Ohio, 2nd Virginia (Union), and 1st Kentucky Cavalry regiments. Buell’s orders to Garfield were for his brigade to “operate against the rebel force threatening, and indeed actually committing, depredations in Kentucky, through the valley of the Big Sandy”. The Big Sandy River empties into the Ohio River and forms part of the border between Kentucky and West Virginia, though at that time it was still part of Virginia.

The Confederate forces operating in the Big Sandy Valley were under the command of Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall and consisted of the 5th Kentucky and 54th Virginia infantry regiments as

Gen. Humphrey Marshall, CSA

well as several companies of cavalry and one battery of artillery. (Garfield had no artillery; Buell’s adjutant general reported to Garfield that the general decided not to send a pair of mountain howitzers to him as he was “under the impression that from the nature of the country and the season of the year you would find them more of an incumbrance than an advantage” curiously ignoring the fact that mountain howitzers were designed to be taken apart and carried on pack animals to areas where wheeled artillery would have difficulty reaching).

Garfield assembled his forces at Louisa, Kentucky, on the Big Sandy River, on December 23rd, and moved south towards the town of Paintsville, where Marshall’s Confederates were camped. The advance over poor and muddy roads was slow; supplies were brought up on boats. On January 5th, 1862, Garfield’s brigade had closed to within a few miles of the Paintsville camp, and skirmishing occurred between Confederate pickets and cavalry and advancing Union forces on the 5th and 6th. Marshall decided to fall back to Middle Creek, an east west running tributary of the Big Sandy. There, he deployed his infantry and artillery on high ground around the creek.

At 4 a.m. on the morning of January 10th, Garfield cautiously advanced and reached the mouth of Middle Creek around 8 a.m. , skirmishing with Confederate cavalry as they advanced up the creek. About noon, Garfield’s forces, moving mostly uphill, attacked the Confederate positions. The Rebels responded with musket and artillery fire. Most of the fighting was done on foot, as the terrain was unsuitable for cavalry. As the fighting continued over the course of the afternoon, the Federals slowly pushed the Rebel defenders uphill. At 4 p.m., 1200 Union reinforcements under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Sheldon of the 42nd Ohio arrived. With darkness, and more Union troops, closing in, Marshall withdrew. Garfield elected not to pursue in the dark; overnight, Marshall burned many of his wagons and supplies that he could not take with him, and withdrew.

Garfield filed this report on the Battle of Middle Creek:

Camp Buell, Paintsville, January 14, 1862.

DEAR SIR: At the date of my last report (January 8) I was preparing to pursue the enemy. The transportation of my stores from George’s Creek had been a work of so great difficulty that I had not enough provisions here to give my whole command three days’ rations before starting. One small boat had come up from below, but I found it had only enough provisions here for three days’ rations of hard bread for 1,500 men. Having issued that amount, I sent 450 of Colonel Wolford’s and Major McLaughlin’s cavalry, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Letcher, to advance up Jennie’s Creek, and harass the enemy’s rear if still retreating. At the same time I took 1,100 of the best men from the Fortieth and Forty-second Ohio and the Fourteenth and Twenty-second Kentucky (three companies of Colonel Lindsey’s regiment, the Twenty-second Kentucky, had arrived the evening before), and at noon started up the Big Sandy towards Prestonburg. After advancing 10 miles the enemy’s pickets fired on our advance and retreated.

At 8 o’clock we reached the mouth of Abbott’s Creek, 1 mile below Prestonburg. I then found that the enemy was encamped on the creek 3 miles above, and had been supplying himself with meal at a steam-mill in the vicinity. I sent back an order to Paintsville to move forward all our available force, having learned that another boat load of stores had arrived. I then encamped on the crest of a wooded hill, where we slept on our arms in the rain till 4 o’clock in the morning, when I moved up Abbott’s Creek 1 mile and crossed over to the mouth of Middle Creek, which empties into the Big Sandy opposite Prestonburg. Supposing the enemy to be encamped on Abbott’s Creek, it was my intention to advance up Middle Creek and cut off his retreat, while the cavalry should attack his rear. I advanced slowly, throwing out flankers and feeling my way cautiously among the hills. At 8 o’clock in the morning we reached the mouth of Middle Creek, where my advance began a brisk skirmishing with the enemy’s cavalry, which continued till we had advanced 2½ miles up the stream to within 1,000 yards of the forks of the creek, which I had learned the enemy were then occupying.

I drew up my force on the sloping point of a semicircular hill, and at 12 o’clock sent forward 20 mounted men to make a dash across the plain. This drew the enemy’s fire, and in part disclosed his position. The Fifty-fourth Virginia Regiment (Colonel Trigg) was posted behind the farther point of the same ridge which I occupied. I immediately sent forward two Kentucky companies to pass along this crest of the ridge, and one company Forty-second Ohio, under command of Capt. F. A. Williams, together with one under Captain Jones, Fortieth Ohio, to cross the creek, which was nearly waist-deep, and occupy a spur of the high rocky ridge in front and to the left of my position.

In a few minutes the enemy opened a fire from one 6 and one 12 pounder. A shell from the battery fell in the midst of my skirmishers on the right, but did not explode. Soon after the detachment on the left engaged the enemy, who was concealed in large force behind the ridge. I sent forward a re-enforcement of two companies to the right, under Major Burke, of the Fourteenth Kentucky, and 90 men, under Major Pardee, of the Forty-second Ohio, to support Captain Williams. The enemy withdrew his Fifty-fourth Virginia across the creek, and sent strong re-enforcements to the hills on the left. About 2 o’clock I ordered Colonel Cranor, with 150 men from the Fortieth and Forty-second Ohio and Twenty-second Kentucky, to re-enforce Major Pardee.

The 42nd Ohio Infantry in 1864

Meantime the enemy had occupied the main ridge to a point nearly opposite the right of my position, and opened a heavy fire on my reserve, which was returned with good effect. In order more effectually to prevent his attempt to outflank me I sent Lieutenant-Colonel Monroe, of the Twenty-second Kentucky, with 120 of his own and the Fourteenth Regiment, to cross the creek a short distance below the point I occupied, and drive back the enemy from his position. This he did in gallant style, killing 15 or 20. Inch by inch the enemy, with more than three times our number, were driven up the steep ridge nearest the creek by Colonel Cranor and Major Pardee.

Lt. Col. Lionel Sheldon, 42nd Ohio Infantry

At 4 o’clock the re-enforcement under Lieutenant-Colonel Sheldon, of the Forty-second Ohio, came in sight, which enabled me to send forward the remainder of my reserve, under Lieutenant-Colonel Brown, to pass around to the right and endeavor to capture the enemy’s guns, which he had been using against us for three hours, but without effect. During the fight he had fired 30 rounds from his guns, but they were badly served, as only one of his shells exploded, and none of his shot, not even his canister, took effect. At 4.30 he ordered a retreat. My men drove him down the slopes of the hills, and at 5 o’clock he had been driven from every point. Many of my men had fired 30 rounds. It was growing dark, and I deemed it unsafe to pursue him, lest my men on the different hills should fire on each other in the darkness. The firing had scarcely ceased when a brilliant light streamed up from the valley to which the enemy had retreated. He was burning his stores and fleeing in great disorder. Twenty-five of his dead were left on the field, and 60 more were found next day thrown into a gorge in the hills. He has acknowledged 125 killed and a still larger number wounded. A field officer and 2 captains were found among the dead. Our loss was 1 killed and 20 wounded, 2 of whom have since died. We took 25 prisoners, among whom was a rebel captain. Not more than 900 of my force were actually engaged, and the enemy had not less than 3,500 men.

Map of Battle of Middle Creek Kentucky

Special mention would be invidious when almost every officer and man did his duty. A majority of them fought for five hours without cessation. The cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Letcher, did not reach me until the next morning, when I started them in pursuit. They followed 6 miles and took a few prisoners, but, their provisions being exhausted, they returned. A few howitzers would have added greatly to our success.

On the 11th I crossed the river and occupied Prestonburg. The place was almost deserted. I took several horses, 18 boxes quartermaster’s stores, and 25 flint-lock muskets. I found the whole community in the vicinity of Prestonburg had been stripped of everything like supplies for an army. I could not find enough forage for my horses for over one day, and 80 sent them back to Paintsville. I had ordered the first boat that arrived at Paintsville to push on up to Prestonburg, but I found it would be impossible to bring up our tents and supplies until more provisions could be brought up the river. I therefore moved down to this place on the 12th and 13th, bringing my sick and foot-sore men on boats. I am hurrying our supplies up to this point. The marches over these exceedingly bad roads and the night exposures have been borne with great cheerfulness by my men, but they are greatly in need of rest and good care.

I cannot close this communication without making honorable mention of Lieut. J.D. Stubbs, quartermaster of the Forty-second Ohio, and senior quartermaster of the brigade. He has pushed forward the transportation of our stores with an energy and determination which have enabled him to overcome very many and great obstacles, and his efforts have contributed greatly to the success of the expedition and the health and comfort of my command.

In a subsequent report, I will communicate some facts relative to my command and also in regard to the situation of the country through which the enemy has been operating.

Very truly, your obedient servant,
Colonel, Commanding Brigade.

Capt. J. B. FRY,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

As with many Civil War battles, the numbers engaged and casualty figures can vary and were sometimes exaggerated. Marshall reported he had 1500 engaged, with 11 killed and 15 wounded. However, the Federals found 27 dead on the field, plus they captured 25 prisoners; the wounded and perhaps other dead were carried off the field by the retreating Rebels. Marshall estimated he opposed 5000 Union troops while Garfield estimated 3500 Rebels.

While the numbers are uncertain, the battle was a Union victory that helped drive Confederate forces out of Eastern Kentucky, which was solidified at the much larger Battle of Logan’s Crossroads, or Mill Creek, later in the month. The victory also got Garfield noticed, and he received a promotion to Brigadier General. James A. Garfield would be elected the 20th President of the United States in 1880.


The Forty Second Ohio Infantry: A History by F.H. Mason

Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner

“Marshall and Garfield in Eastern Kentucky” by Edward O. Guerrant. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 7.

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