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Reading 2: The Battle of Mill Springs

It was just after midnight on January 19, 1862, when 4,000 Confederate troops at Beech Grove started a nine-mile slog towards a Union army camped at Logan's Cross Roads. Fog shrouded the heavily wooded hills, and a cold, sleeting rain washed down the ravines that sliced across the landscape. A Union soldier later noted, "[i]f we had known...[the Confederates had] turned out of their comfortable tents and dry blankets and for the next six weary hours were sloshing along in the mud and storm and darkness, we could have much enjoyed the contemplation of their physical and spiritual condition. It was always some comfort to the soldier on a night such as this to think that his enemy over there, was at least as cold and wretched as he himself was."1

The South had decided to attack the Union Army in order to protect the defensive line it had set up across southern Kentucky. Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden, who commanded the Confederate Army in this part of the country, had learned that Federal forces under Maj. Gen. George Thomas were coming together at Logan's Cross Roads. Crittenden and his commanders decided their best strategy was to strike now, before additional Union troops arrived; if they waited, the Union would soon attack the defenses the South had set up near the community of Mill Springs. The Confederates desperately needed to hold their line, because a loss would allow the North to gain control of the Cumberland Gap, the main route into southwest Virginia, and have access to the heart of Tennessee.

After six hours of marching in the dark, the Confederate troops encountered Federal pickets and the Battle of Mill Springs began. For the next four hours fighting ranged across hilly farmland that still retained many patches of woods. Ravines cut across the battlefield, impeding the cavalry and artillery of both sides. This terrain was familiar to soldiers on each side, for both North and South included units made up of men from Kentucky.

At the start of fighting, the Southern troops drove their opponents back. After about an hour, however, the battle began to stabilize. More Union forces arrived, and it became difficult to see as black powder in the rifles produced smoke that mixed with the fog. The weather gradually had another effect on the Confederates, who used an old type of rifle that needed a spark to ignite its black powder, which lay exposed in an open pan. "The rain was descending in torrents and our flint lock muskets were in bad condition; not one in three would fire," wrote one Southern soldier. "We...did the best we could with our old flint locks. Mine went off once during the action, and although I wiped the 'pan' and primed a dozen times it would do so no more."2

It was in this confusion that General Zollicoffer rode up to the 19th Tennessee CSA, who held the Confederate center. He ordered them to cease fire, as he was convinced that they were shooting at other Southern units. The General then advanced toward the unit being fired on and began speaking with another officer, whom he ordered also to cease fire. Neither recognized the other's face, and both men wore rubberized canvas raincoats that made it impossible to see a uniform. The other officer had turned away to follow his orders when one of Zollicoffer's aides rode up and shouted for the General to get away--these were the enemy's troops! Zollicoffer had been mistaken: the 19th Tennessee had been firing at the 4th Kentucky US, who still stood close enough to hear the warning. They opened fire, and Zollicoffer and his aide were killed instantly.

Even after Zollicoffer's death, fighting continued for at least two more hours. The Confederates mounted one more significant attack, in which they advanced but were unable to break the Union lines. Then the tide of the battle turned against the Confederates, particularly after the 9th Ohio made one of the first and most effective bayonet charges of the Civil War. They broke the Confederate left and caused the entire army to retreat in confusion. The Federal forces pursued, but rear guard action by some Southern units slowed the Union enough to allow the Confederates to reach their fortified camps, nine miles to the rear, as night fell.

During the night, as the Federals prepared to attack the camp at dawn, the beaten Confederates retreated hastily across the Cumberland River. When the Union army approached in the morning, they found their opponents were gone, having abandoned their artillery, wagons, horses, food, and most of their personal possessions. In a scene repeated frequently on both sides throughout the war, Union troops then plundered the enemy's camp. "We have taken some of the nicest clothing I ever saw, broadcloth coats worth from five to twenty dollars a piece. I got a satin vest worth five dollars, a shirt worth a dollar and a half, and a silver-handled stiletto too," wrote one soldier from Ohio to his father.3

The South lost more than men at the Battle of Mill Springs. The defeat caused their defense line to collapse in eastern Kentucky, leaving the region itself under Federal control and eastern Tennessee open to invasion. The subsequent losses of Forts Henry and Donelson, both just over the border into Tennessee, forced all Confederate forces to retreat out of the state. Though the South would try to retake Kentucky later in 1862, the failure of this effort meant that the state remained firmly in control of the Union for the rest of the Civil War.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Describe the conditions after fighting had gone on for about an hour.

2. How did the weather contribute to Zollicoffer's death?

3. Do you think his death might have influenced the outcome of the battle? Why?

4. Why would the Union soldier write home about plundering the Confederate camp? What can you infer about his attitudes and beliefs?

1Judson W. Bishop, The Story of a Regiment -- Service of the Second Regiment, Minnesota Veteran Volunteer Infantry, (n.p., 1890) 38.
2James L. Cooper, "James L. Cooper's Diary," The Confederate Veteran 33, 16.
1James Baker to his father, 21 January 1862, published in History of Newaygo Co. Michigan Civil War Veterans, 80.

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