George Bibb Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs

A black and white image of Crittenden with superimposed uniform.
A black and white image of George B. Crittenden in uniform.

University of Kentucky

George Bibb Crittenden was born in Russellville, Kentucky on March 20, 1812. The son of John J. Crittenden, a U.S. Representative and Senator from Kentucky who was a former United States Attorney General. John J. Crittenden secured an appointed to the Military Academy at West Point for George where he graduated in 1832. George saw active duty in the Black Hawk War, then completed a law degree in late 1833, and began practicing in Kentucky.

Crittenden later moved to Texas, and participated in the Mier Expedition where he was captured along with 176 other Texans by the Mexican Army under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna approved the order execute 1 out of 10 of his prisoners by drawing beans from a container. A white bean meant they would live while a black bean meant death. While it is known that George was there and survived, a story was shared that he drew a white bean and gave it to a comrade with a wife and children. George’s second attempt drew another white bean and was then spared. Either way, John J. Crittenden’s political connections ensured his son was released, and Crittenden returned to Kentucky and resumed practicing law.

When the Mexican American War began, Crittenden was appointed as a captain and served in Lieutenant Colonel William Wing Loring’s Mounted Rifle regiment. Over the next two years, he was arrested on three separate occasions for drunkenness on duty, with the final incident resulting in being court martialed and removed from service. His father’s political connections again saved George’s reputation and career when he was restored to duty in 1849.

George B. Crittenden remained in the US Army until his resignation in June 1861 choosing to side with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. Crittenden’s family was fractured in the fratricidal war as his father remained a strong supporter of the United States government, and his brother Thomas and half-brother Eugene would serve in the U.S. Army. He was promoted to Brigadier General serving briefly in Virginia.

On November 9, 1861, Crittenden was promoted to Major-General and ordered to assume command of the District of East Tennessee. Previous to Crittenden’s arrival, former district commander Brigadier General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer had crossed his command to the north side of the Cumberland River and began constructing fortified winter encampments at Beech Grove and on the southside at Mill Springs, 10 miles south of present-day Nancy, KY.

Before reaching Mill Springs, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer to re-cross to the south bank of the river, however when Crittenden arrived at Mill Springs two weeks later, he was surprised to find that Zollicoffer’s force was still on the north bank. Zollicoffer blamed recent rains that flooded the river as well as inadequate means of crossing for his failure to comply with Crittenden’s order.

On January 17, 1862, U.S. General George H. Thomas arrived at Logan’s Crossroads with two brigades and was soon joined by another sent by General Albin Schoepf. On the night of January 18, 1862, Crittenden called a council of war. Information was gathered from local spies that Thomas had only a few regiments at Logan’s Crossroads, and that the flooded waters of Fishing Creek would prevent him from receiving reinforcements from Schoepf. Unaware that Thomas had brought two brigades and had already received another from Schoepf in Somerset, the council voted to attack.

Early in the night of January 19, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer and William H. Carroll to begin marching with their respective brigades towards Logan’s Crossroads, about ten miles north with a large cavalry force and artillery. 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.

Due to the rain and heavy fog, Zollicoffer mistook federal troops for his own and was killed after riding up to their lines. Crittenden, who up to that point had been allowing Zollicoffer to command much of the battle, then ordered a general advance. Many of Crittenden’s men 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 Confederate assault stalled, and they began to waver.

The arrival of fresh US troops and a bold bayonet charge pushed Crittenden’s command to the brink, and they began a disorderly retreat back to Beech Grove. Soon the retreat became a rout with many of Crittenden’s men throwing down their guns, blankets, and anything else they were carrying to get away faster.

Federal troops pursued Crittenden to Beech Grove and shelled the camp until dark. Realizing the dire situation his command was in, Crittenden decided that he could not stay there and ordered his army to cross the Cumberland River on a steamboat. The survivors continued their retreat into Tennessee, burning the steamboat after so that Thomas’ force could not follow.

The following night rumors began to circulate that Crittenden had been drunk during the battle. His old reputation once again caught up to him, and he requested an official court of inquiry in February. On April 11th, 1862, Crittenden was again arrested for being drunk on duty and a court recommended a court martial.

Ultimately, Crittenden resigned. In 1863, Crittenden resumed active duty and served in a variety of roles for the rest of the war. In May 1865, Crittenden was paroled and returned to Kentucky where he had been indicted for treason in federal court. He was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1867 and served as the Kentucky State Librarian from 1867 to 1874. He died in Danville, KY in 1880 and was buried near his father in Frankfort.

Allardice, Bruce S., Hewitt, Lawrence L. and Prichard, James M. Kentuckians in Gray: Confederate generals and field officers of the Bluegrass State. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008).

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