Fought in Pulaski and Wayne Counties, near the present-day city of Nancy, Kentucky, on January 19, 1862, the Battle of Mill Springs, also known as the Battle of Fishing Creek and the Battle of Logan's Crossroads, was the first major Union victory of the American Civil War.
Kentucky Neutrality Violated
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.
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.
In November 1861, Crittenden’s 1st Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer, left the area around the Cumberland Gap and advanced west in Kentucky to strengthen Buckner’s position at Bowling Green. Zollicoffer advanced as far as the Cumberland River near Somerset. Rather than establishing a position on the high bluffs on the south side of the river, Zollicoffer crossed to the north side. When alerted to Zollicoffer’s error, Crittenden and Johnston ordered Zollicoffer to re-cross the river and hold the more defensible position on the south side. Zollicoffer did not comply.
Buell Deploys Federal Troops
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell countered Zollicoffer’s advance by mobilizing two forces to confront the Confederates. Buell ordered the 1st Division of the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Brigadier General George H. Thomas, and one brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Albin Francisco Schoepf, to converge near Somerset and drive Zollicoffer back across the Cumberland River. Thomas left Lebanon and marched through the rain-soaked country, arriving at Logan’s Crossroads on January 17. Despite the bad weather, Schoepf’s men crossed rain-swollen Fishing Creek and reinforced Thomas.
Crittenden Forced to Attack at Mill Springs
Aware of the Union movement, Crittenden traveled to Mill Springs and discovered that Zollicoffer had not complied with his orders to re-cross the river. With the swollen river at his back and the threat of Thomas’ force at his front, Crittenden decided to attack the Federals rather than trying to defend the position Zollicoffer had chosen.
Zollicoffer Killed During Surprise Rebel Attack
Around midnight on January 18, 1862, Crittenden’s forces began a nine-mile march through cold rain and a sea of mud toward Thomas’s troops encamped at Logan’s Crossroads. The Rebels arrived just before dawn on January 19 and launched an assault, hoping to surprise the Federals. Thomas’s troops were alert, however, and despite giving ground initially, they halted the Confederate attack and killed Zollicoffer.
A second frontal assault and attacks on both Union flanks also failed, and the Federals forced the Rebels from the field in a retreat that ended at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
By Civil War standards, casualties at the Battle of Mill Springs were relatively light. Union losses were thirty-nine killed and 207 wounded. Confederate losses were 125 killed and 404 wounded or missing. The Rebels also abandoned all of their artillery pieces, wagons, and most of their horses and camp equipment.
Combined with an earlier Union victory at the Battle of Middle Creek on January 10, 1862, the federal triumph at Mill Spring cracked the eastern end of the Confederate defensive line in Kentucky and gave the North one of its first major battlefield successes of the war.