This Day in History: the Battle of Mill Springs

Today, January 19th, is the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Mill Springs, fought between Union and Confederate forces in south-central Kentucky in 1862. It was the first important Federal victory of the war after the terrible defeat at the (First) Battle of Bull Run the previous July.

One of the things this particular battle is famous for (at least among historians) is that it has had a lot of different names.  It is generally recognized now as the Battle of Mill Springs, but it was also called the Battle of Logan’s Crossroads or the Battle of Fishing Creek for some time.  Other names for it include the Battle for the Cumberland and the Battle of Somerset.

It was also the first victory for a Southern Unionist officer by the name of George Henry Thomas, who would eventually command a major Federal army, the Army of the Cumberland.  And just as the battle boosted Thomas’ reputation, it demolished the reputation of the Confederate commander, Major General George Bibb Crittenden.  Crittenden was the son of Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden, the brother of Union general Thomas Leonidas Crittenden and the cousin of Union general Thomas Turpin Crittenden.

Ironically, the Confederate officer whose reputation soared after the battle was Brigadier General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer, who was killed during the battle.  The person most often given credit for killing Zollicoffer (and portrayed shooting him in the engraving below) was Colonel Speed Smith Fry, commander of the 4th Kentucky Infantry Regiment (U.S.).

death of zollicoffer
The Death of BG Felix Zollicoffer

The battle began when the Confederate forces under Crittenden attacked the Union forces under Thomas, which had been divided by a rain-swollen creek.  The weather impeded the Confederates’ march and they lost the element of surprise.  But they still managed to push part of the Union army back, until Union reinforcements arrived.  One of the fresh Union regiments, the 9th Ohio (made up largely of German immigrants and the sons of German immigrants) made a bayonet charge that turned the left flank of the Confederates, causing many of the Confederate troops to flee the battlefield in confusion. Assisted by other Union regiments from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Union forces drove the Confederates from the field.  The rebels left behind all of their dead and wounded, plus 12 artillery pieces, 100 to 150 wagons, some 1,200 horses and mules, and considerable military and camp equipment.  For the Union, casualties came to 39 killed and 207 wounded.  The Confederates lost 125 killed, 308 wounded, and some 95 missing, many of whom were captured by the Federals.

The Union victory broke the Confederate line across southern Kentucky, and helped make possible the taking of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River by Union forces the following month.

The Mill Springs Battlefield is now a preserved historic site, that will (hopefully) one day become part of the National Park Service.

~Geoff

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