Mill Springs Battlefield National Historical Landmark

Location: Nancy, Kentucky

Webpage: National Historical Landmark

General Description: The Battle of Mill Springs was the first significant victory for the Union in the Civil War.  In January, 1862, the Civil War was still less than a year old.  The declared neutrality of Kentucky in the Civil War was violated when General Pillow occupied Columbus on September 3 and two days later General Grant captured Paducah.  Henceforth, the buffer state of Kentucky would no longer be a defense for the Confederacy.  By January, General Johnston commanded a thin defensive line spread from Arkansas to the Cumberland Gap that went through Bowling Green, Kentucky.  The center consisted of two forts commanded by General Tilghman at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry on the important Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively.  Guarding the Cumberland Gap fell to Major General George Crittenden.Crittenden’s First Brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer whose main responsibility was the Cumberland Gap.  Believing the Gap was well fortified he advanced west to Kentucky to be closer to the forces in Bowling Green and to strengthen the area around Somerset.  While the southern bank of the Cumberland River was dominated by bluffs that were defensible, he was ordered by Crittenden to establish camp there.  However, Zollicoffer believed that a peninsula on the northern bank, with the river on three sides would be more defensible and establish his winter camp, called Beech Grove.  His army of about 6500 soldiers built a fortified camp with over a mile of earthen breastwork and three redoubts.  Between the breastwork and river the soldiers constructed over 3000 log huts to serve as winter quarters.  In early January, General Crittenden arrived to take command and although he still disagreed with the location on the northern bank, he did not change it.  Meanwhile the Union were concentrating under General Schoepf at Somerset and Brigadier General George Thomas at Lebannon, Kentucky.  Fearing Crittenden forces would attack and overwhelm Schoepf, these two forces were commanded to relocate to Fishing Creek west of Somerset.  However, poor weather and bad roads delayed Thomas from reaching the area until January 17, at which time they camped at Logan’s Crossroads (today Nancy, Kentucky).  This put them nine miles north of the Confederate camp at Beech Grove.  Aware of this, Crittenden decided to attack this position at Logan’s Crossroads before Schoepf could join them as Fishing Creek was deemed to be impassable.  However, Schoept had managed to move his entire army across the swollen creek and was moving into position by January 18.  At just after midnight on January 19, the Confederate army began their advance towards Logan’s Crossroads, however, the heavy rain and mud slowed their advance so it took them 6.5 hours to make the 9 mile journey.   Near a small creek called Timmy’s Branch, 2.5 miles from Logan’s Crossroads, the advance Confederate cavalry met a strong Union picket force.  Far from being surprised, the Federals were anticipating the move and stubbornly resisted the Confederate advance.  After being slowly pushed back, the Federal pickets were reinforced by the rest of the 10th Indiana about a mile south of the crossroads.  The battle slowly grew from this point as more fresh troops for both sides arrived and entered the battle.  At this point in the Civil War, very few of the soldiers on either side had ever seen combat, so combined with the fog, rain, and smoke there was a lot of confusion on both sides.  On the Confederate right flank, they tried to advance through a deep gulley to attack the Federal troops at a fence line.  While the gully provided excellent cover for the advance, moving out of the gully to attack the Federals at the fence line was nearly impossible.  Especially on this flank, the battle often degenerated into small Confederate units storming the fence line with hand to hand combat before being repulsed.  Of course, the older muskets being used by the Confederates simply would not fire in the wet conditions which added to the lack of organized strategy.  General Zollicoffer became convinced that his soldiers were firing upon each other, however, when he moved up to order them to quit firing at their own men, he discovered they were Federal reinforcements.  After initially accepting the order in the fog and smoke, Colonel Fry turned to relay the order only to realize it was the enemy when a Confederate staff officer rode out of the woods shouting “General, it is the enemy.” Colonel Fry then pulled his pistol and shot General Zollicoffer who died on the battlefield leaning against an old white oak tree, thereafter named the “Zollie Tree.”  The dense fog and smoke also limited the use of artillery by both sides in fear of hitting their own troops.  From this point, the battle began to turn against the Confederates and finally broke when the 9th Ohio made up of veteran German soldiers, bayonet charge the Confederate left flank that crumpled the line from left to right.  The entire Federal line advanced forcing the remaining Confederate army to the top of the hill where the 16th Alabama and 17th and 25th Tennessee regiments made a last stand allowing the shattered Confederates to retreat to their fortified camp.  Although they rallied at Beach Grove, the Federal forces had them pinned and set up cannons to bombard the camp and landing through the late afternoon and all night.  General Crittenden ordered his men to withdraw across the river during the bombardment using the steamboat Noble Ellis.  Before daylight the last Confederate troops had made the crossing, but they had to leave all their supplies, wagons, and cannons behind.   The Federals found the camp abandoned the following morning and since they had burned the steamboat, they had no way to cross the swollen river to give chase.  This Federal victory broke the Confederate defensive line across Kentucky and placed pro-Union eastern Kentucky into Federal hands.  This also opened up eastern pro-Union Tennessee for invasion.  Most importantly, this weakened the Confederate positions at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry which fell to General Grant in the spring, leading to the Confederate defeat at Shiloh.  While the press coverage at the time was huge, this battle has been largely forgotten over time.  Even the name of the battle has become confused.  The Federals called it the Battle of Mill Springs for the small village on the southern bank of the Cumberland River.  The Confederates called it the Battle of Fishing Creek, which was to the north of the battle.  It is also referred to as the Battle of Logan’s Crossroads, Somerset, Clifty Creek, and Old Fields.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center for the Mills Springs Battlefield is a new and beautiful building on the northern edge of Nancy, Kentucky.  They have a very good video about the battle and a well laid out exhibit room that leads visitors through the history leading up to the battle to the aftermath.  Their use of mannequins in realistic scenes is very well done.  Especially their reconstruction of the wooden huts that dotted Beech Grove.  Be sure to pick up the brochure of the battlefield which contains a driving tour.

2) The first stop of the tour is the Visitor Center itself, which includes the Mill Springs National Cemetery where all the Union soldiers were moved to in 1867.  The cemetery is only about 7 acres, making it the smallest of the active national cemeteries.

NationalCemetery

3) The second stop is the location of the Confederate Cemetery which includes the location of the Zollie Tree.  Unfortunately, the white oak was killed by lightning in 1995, so a seedling from the tree has been planted in the spot.  This is also the location of the most intense fighting of the battle where the Confederates attempted to use a steep gully to assault the Federal line at a fence line.  There is a short trail that circles around the gully with multiple interpretive signs about the battle in the area.  The Confederate gravestones are marker only as the Confederate soldiers were not reburied from the mass grave that is also on the site.

4) The next stop on the tour is the location of a small log cabin used by the Confederates as a field hospital during the battle.  All that remains today are a few foundation stones.

ConfederateHospital

5) The fifth stop is at Timmy’s Branch where the first shots of the battle occurred when the advancing Confederate cavalry encountered the Federal pickets.

6) The top of Maulden’s Hill is the next stop where the Confederates made a final stand to slow down the Federals, allowing the bulk of the army to retreat to Beech Grove.  This is also one of the locations where the Federals set up their cannon to bombard the camp and river landing through the night.

7) The next stop is the location of the Confederate fortified camp, Beech Grove.  There is a path leading through the camp so you can get a sense of its size.  However, there is not much remaining of the fortifications as the Federals destroyed them the day following the battle.  You can just make some of the depressions caused by the wooden huts which were commonly built slightly below ground for warmth.

BeechGrove

8) The next stop is the Ferry Landing where the Confederate troops boarded the steamship to escape during the night.

FerryLanding

9) The other two stops on the driving tour are on the other side of Lake Cumberland and require a 30 mile drive back through Somerset to access.  They are the Brown-Lanier House and grist mill that Zollicoffer used as his headquarters before moving to the northern bank of the river and the West-Metcalfe House that was the first brick house in the area in 1799.   After the war it was converted into a hospital for the wounded Confederates.