Summary of the Battle of Mill Springs
In November 1861, General Felix Zollicoffer led Confederate forces into Kentucky to strengthen the Rebel garrison at Bowling Green. The Confederates advanced to the Cumberland River near Somerset and crossed to the north side. Union General Don Carlos Buell countered by sending troops to drive the Confederates back across the river. On January 19, 1862, the Confederates launched a surprise attack against the Union at Mill Springs. Despite giving ground initially, the Union halted the Confederate attack and killed Zollicoffer. Following a second failed assault, the Union counterattacked and drove the Confederates from the field.
This illustration depicts the moment when Felix Zollicoffer was shot during the Battle of Mill Springs. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Images.
5 Key Facts About the Battle of Mill Springs
- Date Started: The Battle of Middle Creek started on Sunday, January 19, 1862.
- Date Ended: The fighting ended on January 19, 1862.
- Location: The battle took place in Pulaski and Wayne counties, near Nancy, Kentucky.
- Who Won: The United States of America won the Battle of Mill Springs.
- Civil War Campaign: The Battle of Mill Springs was part of the Offensive in Eastern Kentucky.
Overview of the Battle of Mill Springs
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.
Confederate Lines 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.
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 Union 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 Attack by Confederates
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 Confederates 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 Confederates from the field in a retreat that ended at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Important Facts About the Battle of Mill Springs
Facts about the Battle of Mill Springs, including dates, casualties, participants, who won, and more interesting details you might not know. This section provides a quick overview of the battle and is for kids doing research and students preparing for the AP U.S. History (APUSH) exam.
The Battle of Mill Springs was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America on January 19, 1862, during the American Civil War.
Also Known As
The Battle of Mill Springs is also called the “Battle of Fishing Creek” and the “Battle of Logan’s Cross Roads.”
Commanders and Regiments — United States of America
- Brigadier General George H. Thomas
- 1st Division, Army of the Ohio
- Brigadier General. A. Schoepf’s Brigade
Commanders and Regiments — Confederate States of America
- Major General George B. Crittenden
- Zollicoffer’s Brigade (District of East Tennessee
- Carroll’s Brigade (District of East Tennessee)
Results of the Battle of Mill Springs Creek
- The outcome of the Battle of Middle Creek was a Union victory.
- The Confederates also abandoned all of their artillery pieces, wagons, and most of their horses and camp equipment.
- The victory helped the Union launch an offensive into Tennessee.
Casualties and Statistics
Union Soldiers and Casualties
- Roughly 4,400 troops were involved.
- 250 (killed, wounded, and missing/captured).
- 39 Union soldiers were killed during the Battle of Mill Springs.
Confederate Soldiers and Casualties
- Roughly 5,900 troops were involved.
- 525 (killed, wounded, and missing/captured).
- 125 Confederate soldiers were killed during the Battle of Mill Springs.
Interesting Facts About the Battle of Mill Springs
- The Battle of Mill Springs was the second largest Civil War Battle fought in Kentucky.
- It was the first significant Union victory of the American Civil War.
Significance of the Battle of Mill Springs
The Battle of Mill Springs was important because it was the first significant Union victory of the war. 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 helped pave the way for a Union offensive into Tennessee.
Timeline of the Battle of Mill Springs
This list shows the main battles and events that took place before and after the Battle of Mill Spring, and how it fits into the chronological order of the Union Offensive in Eastern Kentucky.
- January 10, 1862 — Battle of Middle Creek
- January 19, 1862 — Battle of Mill Springs