January 10, 1862 – A skirmish erupted in the continuing Federal effort to secure southeastern Kentucky.
Following the Ivy Mountain engagement in November, Confederate Colonel John S. Williams had withdrawn from Kentucky into Virginia. Since then, Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall led another Confederate force into southeastern Kentucky and resumed volunteer recruitment. But by January 3, just 1,967 soldiers of Marshall’s 2,240-man force were fit for duty. In addition to dealing with disease and food shortages, the troops also lacked small arms and artillery.
Learning of Marshall’s efforts, Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, dispatched a brigade of about 1,110 infantry and 450 cavalry under Colonel (and future U.S. President) James A. Garfield to drive him back into Virginia. Garfield’s force left Louisa and began advancing southward toward the Confederates at Paintsville.
Garfield occupied Paintsville on the 6th as Marshall’s men withdrew southward to Middle Creek, about two and a half miles west of Prestonburg. Marshall reported that he sought to prevent Garfield from reaching Big Sandy’s west fork, where he could be supplied and reinforced by water. But the elements did more than Marshall to accomplish this goal, as creeks, bogs, and rough terrain slowed Garfield’s advance.
The Federals camped at Abbot’s Creek, which ran parallel to Middle Creek, on the night of the 9th. Garfield summoned reinforcements from Paintsville as he planned to continue southward to the mouth of Middle Creek the next day. From there he would turn west to confront Marshall. Garfield moved out at 4 a.m., reaching Middle Creek four hours later and clashing with enemy cavalry.
As the Federals pushed westward, Marshall deployed troops on the hills east and west of Middle Creek. Garfield directed attacks on both hills, seeking to turn the Confederate right. Poor ammunition rendered Confederate artillery ineffective. Confederates tried turning the Federal right, but neither side gained an advantage until 4 p.m., when Garfield received about 700 reinforcements.
Marshall disengaged and withdrew southward; both he and Garfield claimed victory and exaggerated their opponent’s losses. Garfield reported 21 casualties (one killed and 20 wounded) while Marshall reported 50 (10 killed, 15 wounded, and 25 captured). Buell commended Garfield by promoting him to brigadier general. The Federals occupied Prestonburg and then returned to Paintsville.
Six days later, Garfield’s Federals routed the rest of Marshall’s forces at Pound Gap. These victories at Middle Creek and Pound Gap earned Garfield the nickname “Hero of the Sandy Valley.” Marshall received orders to return to Virginia a week later, giving the Federals firm control of southeastern Kentucky with a path opened to eastern Tennessee.
Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 97; MiddleCreek.org; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 299; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491