Combined with the Union victory at the Battle of Mill Spring a week later, Colonel James A. Garfield's triumph at the Battle of Middle Creek, also known as the Battle of Big Sandy River, on January 10, 1862 cracked the eastern end of the Confederate defensive line in Kentucky, opening the way for a Northern offensive into middle Tennessee.
Shortly after the outbreak of the American Civil War (April 12, 1861), the Kentucky Legislature enacted a Declaration of Neutrality (May 16, 1861), intended to keep Kentucky out of the conflict. By September, both the Confederacy and the Union violated Kentucky’s neutrality and had soldiers stationed in the border state.
Confederates in Kentucky
By the end of the year, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston established a thin defensive line across Kentucky to serve as a buffer zone to protect Tennessee. Johnston anchored his line in the west with 12,000 soldiers, commanded by Major General Leonidas Polk, in Columbus. Roughly 4,000 soldiers, commanded by Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, near the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers manned the center of the Confederate line. About 4,000 soldiers at Bowling Green, commanded by Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner, also secured the center of the state. The eastern end of Johnston’s line comprised 4,000 soldiers, commanded by Major General George B. Crittenden, stationed near the Cumberland Gap.
Rebels Move Deeper into Kentucky
In December 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall and a brigade of Kentucky and Virginia volunteers set out for Kentucky to recruit new soldiers for the Rebel cause. Colonel John S. Williams’ 5th Kentucky Infantry reinforced them when they reached Pound Gap on the Virginia-Kentucky border. The combined force then marched down the valley of the Big Sandy River and established a camp near Paintsville.
Garfield Ordered to Stop Confederates
When word of Marshall’s movements reached Major General Don Carlos Buell, Union commander of the Army of the Ohio, he ordered Colonel James A. Garfield, commanding the 18th Brigade, to move against Marshall and drive him back to Virginia. In early January 1862, Garfield organized his troops and advanced from several locations in the north toward Paintsville.
January 7, 1862 – Skirmishing Forces Rebel Withdrawal
On the morning of January 7, Garfield’s cavalry skirmished with Marshall’s cavalry near a Rebel camp at the mouth of Jenny’s Creek, forcing the Confederates to abandon Paintsville and to fall back to Prestonsburg.
January 9 – Garfield in Pursuit
Garfield pursued and caught his adversary on January 9.
January 10 – Garfield Leads Successful Attack
At 4 a.m. on January 10, Garfield’s soldiers broke camp, poised to attack the Rebel force. Their assault began shortly after noon and continued for several hours. When Union reinforcements arrived, Marshall withdrew to the south. On January 24, he and his soldiers retreated to Virginia.
Estimated casualties at the Battle of Middle Creek were twenty-seven for the Federals and sixty-five for the Rebels. Combined with the Union victory at the Battle of Mill Spring a week later, Garfield’s triumph at Middle Creek cracked the eastern end of the Confederate defensive line in Kentucky, opening the way for a Northern offensive into middle Tennessee.