Confederate Major General George B. Crittenden commanded the highly volatile 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. This was the right (i.e., eastern) flank of the Confederate line running across Kentucky through Bowling Green in the center and Columbus on the Mississippi River to the left.
In late 1861, Zollicoffer had camped his troops at Beech Grove, near the hamlet of Mill Springs, with his back to the Cumberland River. He hoped to take firmer control of the Somerset area and move closer to the 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 of the Cumberland, but rising waters prevented him from re-crossing the river.
Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio, reluctantly complied with directives to advance toward eastern Tennessee by sending 4,000 troops under Brigadier General George H. Thomas in that direction. 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 January 16 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 boats needed 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 waited for Schoepf, Crittenden learned of the Federals’ approach and weighed his options. His force was too weak to hold its defenses on the north bank of the Cumberland, so he started looking into ways he might be able to cross. However, he then received word that Thomas could not cross Fishing Creek, thereby leaving part of his force isolated as well. Crittenden changed plans and opted to launch a preemptive attack. He would 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 the 18th 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 anyway. The Federals were initially 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 firm 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 deployed 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 night, 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 a dozen 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. The Confederates fell back to Monticello, 10 miles away. Unable to live off the land in winter, Crittenden was ultimately compelled to withdraw to Gainesborough, Tennessee, 80 miles distant.
The Federals sustained 261 casualties (39 killed, 207 wounded, and 15 captured or missing), while 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 to prevent soldiers from desecrating Zollicoffer’s body. His remains were 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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