Felix Kirk Zollicoffer at the Battle of Mill Springs

A sepia toned image of Zollicoffer in suit.
A sepia toned image of Felix Kirk Zollicoffer as a U.S. Representative in 1859.

Library of Congress.

Felix Kirk Zollicoffer was born in Maury County, Tennessee on May 19th, 1812. After studying for a year at Jackson College, Zollicoffer entered newspaper work at the age of sixteen in Henry County. When that paper failed, Zollicoffer became a journeyman printer in Knoxville. In 1834, he became the editor and partner owner of the Columbia Observer, along with helping to edit several other newspapers. In 1841, Zollicoffer would become editor of the Nashville Republican Banner, which was a powerful paper that supported the Whig party. Zollicoffer also saw brief service in the Seminole War of 1836. Zollicoffer also served as the State Printer of Tennessee, Adjunct General, State Comptroller, representative in the state legislature, Tennessee Representative in the U.S. Congress, and he was a delegate to the peace convention at Washington D.C. in January 1861.

Zollicoffer was strongly opposed to secession but chose to remain loyal to his state of Tennessee when it seceded. He was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Provisional Army of Tennessee. He was first assigned to help set up factories to produce small arms and cannons, and then to help train new recruits. In July 1861, the Provisional Army of Tennessee was turned over to the Confederate Government, and Zollicoffer was given the same rank of Brigadier General in the regular Confederate army.

Zollicoffer was ordered to East Tennessee to take command and preserve the peace, protect the railroad, and repel invasion by U.S. troops. After his arrival in East Tennessee, Zollicoffer became aware of the organizing of troops at Camp Dick Robinson in Kentucky. He decided to establish a chain of infantry posts that stretched from the Cumberland Gap to Livingston, Tennessee, to repel a possible invasion. Because Kentucky was officially neutral in the conflict, Zollicoffer did not yet cross in the state. After Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded Kentucky in September 1861, Kentucky’s neutrality crumbled. A few days later, Zollicoffer ordered three regiments into Kentucky.

After a small victory at Barboursville against an ill-equipped home guard group, Zollicoffer’s advance into Kentucky along the wilderness road was halted on October 21st, 1861 at the Battle of Camp Wildcat near London, Kentucky. After realizing that he would have little success in advancing into Kentucky on the wilderness road, Zollicoffer ordered his command back into Tennessee.

In late November, Zollicoffer left Jamestown Tennessee and began heading north into Kentucky. Captain Victor Sheliha, whom Zollicoffer had sent to scout for a good location for a base of operations, reported that Mill Springs in Wayne County, Kentucky would be a good palce. Mill Springs sat upon a high bluff overlooking the Cumberland River, and had a large saw and gristmill, a small store, and the Thompson Brown house, as well as a few other small buildings and a ferry. Upon arriving at Mill Springs, Zollicoffer’s men began constructing a winter encampment. Beginning on December 4th, Zollicoffer began moving a large portion of his command to the north bank of the Cumberland River. On the north bank, they would begin construction on a fortified winter encampment known as Beech Grove.

On November 9th, 1861, George Bibb Crittenden was promoted to Major-General and ordered to assume command of the Eastern District of Kentucky and was now in command of Zollicoffer. Before reaching Mill Springs, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer to re-cross to the south bank of the river. Nealy two weeks later when Crittenden arrived at Mill Springs, he was surprised to find that Zollicoffer had remained on the north bank. Zollicoffer blamed recent rains that flooded the river, as well as his small and unfit boats, for his failure to comply with an order to re-cross. On January 17th, U.S. General George H. Thomas arrived from Columbia at Logan’s Crossroads with two brigades, and was soon joined by another sent by General Albin Schoepf.

On the Night of January 18th, 1862, Crittenden, Zollicoffer, and their council of war decided to attack Thomas’ force. They believed that Thomas had only a few regiments at Logans Crossroads, and that the flooded waters of Fishing Creek would prevent him from receiving reinforcements from Schoepf. They were unaware that Thomas had brought 2 brigades with him from Columbia and had already received another from Schoepf in Somerset. At about midnight on January 19th, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer and William H. Carroll to begin marching with their brigades towards Logan’s Crossroads, about ten miles north. A large cavalry force and artillery were also sent to attack Thomas. Crittenden followed and the battle commenced at about 6:10 a.m. when the cavalry advance ran into federal pickets at Timmy’s Branch. Crittenden’s troops continued to push forward, meeting more resistance as they advanced further. During the fight, Zollicoffer became convinced that two of his regiments were firing on each other.

The weather was poor this day, with rain and thick fog on the battlefield. Some soldiers later wrote that they could not see past the end of their guns. Zollicoffer, who was convinced that his men were firing at each other, rode his horse north along the Mill Springs Road with three of his aides and unknowingly passed through Federal lines. Unable to find his men, he turned around and began heading south along the road.

Seeing an officer approaching from the direction of the Federal camp, Colonel Speed S. Fry, commanding the 4th KY infantry (U.S.) rode to meet Zollicoffer. Because Zollicoffer was wearing a white or green rubber overcoat that covered nearly all his uniform, Fry assumed that he was a federal officer. Now likely realizing the situation that he was in, Zollicoffer decided to bluff his way out. He told Fry that he was firing on his own men. Fry replied to Zollicoffer that he would not do so intentionally. Before Zollicoffer could ride away his aide, Henry Fogg, rode out from behind a tree and shouted “General, they are the enemy!”. Fogg then leveled his pistol at Colonel Fry and fired, probably hitting Fry’s Horse. Fry then drew his pistol and fired at Zollicoffer, with several nearby men of the 4th KY Infantry, 10th IN Infantry, and 1st KY Cavalry also firing at both Zollicoffer and Fogg. Zollicoffer fell from his horse dead, hit with several bullets. While accounts differ, most state that Zollicoffer was hit with one pistol ball and two rifle bullets. His aide, Henry Fogg, was mortally wounded.

Crittenden, who up to that point had been allowing Zollicoffer to command much of the battle, then ordered a general advance. Many of the Confederates were armed with old flintlock muskets, which began to misfire in the rain that fell during the battle. As more Federal troops began to arrive at the front, the Confederates began to waver. Eventually, the Confederate right was flanked by Acting Brig. Gen. Samuel Carters twelfth brigade, and the Confederate left was pushed from the field by a daring bayonet charge from the 9th Ohio Infantry regiment. The Confederates began a disorderly retreat to Beech Grove, which soon became a rout, with many of Confederates throwing down their guns, blankets, and anything else they were carrying to get away faster.

Federal troops pursued the Confederates to Beech Grove and shelled the camp until dark. General Crittenden decided that he could not stay here and ordered his army to cross back to the south bank of the river and retreat into Tennessee. The army ran their small steamboat all night and burned it after they were done crossing so that General Thomas could not follow. Zollicoffer’s body was embalmed and sent back to Tennessee where he was buries in the Old City Cemetery in Nashville. A large oak tree, held by local tradition to be the tree that Zollicoffer’s body was laid against after he fell during the battle, became known as the Zollie Tree, and was decorated each Memorial Day. The area where he was killed was later made into a county park and named Zollicoffer Park. It is now part of Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument.

Adkins, Ray. Battle of Barboursville, Kentucky: September 19, 1861. (Ray Atkins, 2005).

Hafendorfer, Kenneth A. Mill Springs: Campaign and Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky. (KH Press, 2001).

Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument

Last updated: October 17, 2023