January 19, 1862 – Federals and Confederates clashed to determine who would control the vital Cumberland Gap on the Confederacy’s fragile defensive line across Kentucky.
By this year, Confederate Major General George B. Crittenden commanded about 4,000 men in his District of East Tennessee. One of his brigades, led by Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer, was assigned to block a potential Federal drive into Tennessee by guarding Cumberland Gap.
In late 1861, Zollicoffer moved his troops north of the Cumberland River and camped at Beech Grove, near the hamlet of Mill Springs. He hoped to take firmer control of the Somerset area and move closer to Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederates at Bowling Green. Both Crittenden and General Albert Sidney Johnston, overall Confederate commander of the Western Theater, had ordered Zollicoffer to fall back to the more defensible southern bank, but rising waters made it too difficult for him to re-cross the river.
Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, reluctantly complied with directives from both President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief George B. McClellan to advance toward eastern Tennessee. He directed Brigadier General George H. Thomas to lead 4,000 troops in attacking the Confederates and driving them back across the Cumberland. Thomas left Lebanon and methodically advanced to Logan’s Crossroads, about nine miles from Mill Springs. Zollicoffer, his back still to the river, disregarded reports that Thomas was approaching.
Crittenden, as ordered by Johnston, arrived at Mill Springs on the 16th with reinforcements, raising the Confederate total to about 4,000 men. Crittenden was to bring Zollicoffer’s men back across the Cumberland, but winter storms had destroyed most of the vessels used to cross the river, making a return too difficult at that time. Thomas learned that Crittenden and Zollicoffer were isolated north of the Cumberland and ordered the brigade of Brigadier General Albin Schoepf to move from Somerset and reinforce him.
As Thomas rested his men and awaited the reinforcements, Crittenden learned of the Federals’ approach and weighed his options. Determining that his force was too weak to defend north of the Cumberland, Crittenden started arranging to try crossing the river. However, he then received intelligence that Thomas could not cross Fishing Creek, leaving part of his force isolated as well. Crittenden changed his plans and resolved to launch a preëmptive attack. He planned to destroy the Federal left at dawn on the 19th, and then confront the remaining force beyond the flooded creek.
Crittenden’s men advanced late on January 18 in heavy rain and sleet. The two brigades were commanded by Zollicoffer and Brigadier General William H. Carroll. They were unaware that some of Schoepf’s men had managed to cross Fishing Creek and join Thomas at Logan’s Crossroads. Thomas and Schoepf planned to attack the next day, unaware that the Confederates were advancing northward to assail them.
Slowed by the heavy rain and mud, the Confederates lost the element of surprise but attacked during a heavy morning storm nonetheless. The Federals were momentarily driven back, but they soon took up strong positions. When the 10th Indiana ran out of ammunition and fled, Thomas replaced them with the 4th Kentucky, which held their ground along the edge of a ravine with help from the rain and fog. The fighting raged back and forth, with the better-rested Federals eventually gaining the advantage.
Zollicoffer, nearsighted and easily identifiable in his white raincoat, rode upon a Unionist Kentucky unit that he believed was one of his to order them to stop firing into their own men. The Federals surrounded him and, when he tried to escape, shot him dead.
Crittenden directed Zollicoffer’s remaining men and Carroll’s brigade to launch a general frontal assault. However, Thomas employed Schoepf’s reinforcements and easily repelled the attack. This, along with the fact that the rain began rendering the Confederates’ old flintlock muskets useless, caused their line to waver. As Federals advanced to push back the enemy right, the 9th Ohio attacked the Confederate left with a bayonet charge, collapsing their line and compelling them to flee in a disorganized rout.
Thomas did not immediately pursue due to the foul weather and fatigue. This enabled the demoralized Confederates to return to their Beech Grove defenses on the Cumberland. The Federals reached these defenses before nightfall, but Thomas deemed them too strong to attack and instead bombarded them with artillery. That evening, Crittenden held a council of war and decided to cross the Cumberland as best they could before Thomas found out.
A steamboat and two makeshift barges ferried the Confederates across the river through the night. In their haste, they left 12 cannon and most of their sick and wounded, horses and mules, provisions, and equipment. Thomas did not realize that they had escaped until the next day, after they had destroyed their ferries and were on their way toward Gainesborough, Tennessee, 80 miles distant.
The Federals sustained 261 casualties (39 killed, 207 wounded, and 15 captured or missing), and the Confederates lost 533 (125 killed, 309 wounded, and 99 captured or missing). Federals buried their dead in individual graves and the Confederates in unmarked pits. Thomas posted a guard at Zollicoffer’s body to prevent soldiers from desecrating it. The body was later returned to the Confederates, who mourned his loss and buried him in Nashville.
Although the battle (alternately called Mill Springs, Logan’s Crossroads, or Fishing Creek) was relatively small, it marked the first significant Confederate defeat in the war. It also sparked charges of drunkenness and disloyalty against Crittenden that would persist in the coming months.
The virtual destruction of Crittenden’s army left the eastern flank of Johnston’s tenuous defensive line across Kentucky unprotected. However, the harsh mountainous terrain in that region, along with Buell’s contention that eastern Tennessee was strategically unimportant, kept the Federals from immediately exploiting the opening. Thomas ultimately withdrew, but the Federal victory emboldened Unionists in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.
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