Born on May 19, 1812, Felix Kirk Zollicoffer was the son of John Jacob and Martha (Kirk) Zollicoffer. He was born on his family’s plantation near Bigbyville, Tennessee (just south of Columbia, in Maury County). His grandfather, George Zollicoffer, had received the site of the plantation in return for his service as a captain during the American Revolution.
Zollicoffer barely knew his mother, who died in June 1815, when he was just three years old. During his youth, Zollicoffer worked on the family plantation, attended local schools, and studied for one year at nearby Jackson College.
At age sixteen, Zollicoffer left school to become an apprentice printer at a newspaper in Paris, Tennessee. In 1831, he moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and worked as a printer for the Knoxville Register. Later, Zollicoffer briefly lived in Alabama, where he edited the Huntsville Mercury. In 1834, he returned to the Columbia area and became the part-owner and editor of the Columbia Observer. In 1835, he secured the position of the state printer of Tennessee.
On September 24, 1835, Zollicoffer married Louisa Pocahontas Gordon, the daughter of a prominent local plantation owner, John Gordon. The marriage produced six children who survived to adulthood. Zollicoffer’s wife died on July 13, 1857.
In 1836, Zollicoffer joined the Tennessee volunteers and served as a lieutenant in the Second Seminole War (December 23, 1835-August 14, 1842) in Florida. When Zollicoffer returned to Tennessee, he became editor of the Republican Banner, the state publication of the Whig Party, in 1843. During the late 1840s, Zollicoffer served as the comptroller of the state treasury and adjutant general of Tennessee. From 1849 until 1851, he represented Davidson County in the state senate. In 1852, Zollicoffer served as a delegate to the Whig National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland and supported General Winfield Scott’s nomination as a candidate for the U.S. presidency.
U. S. Congressman
Although Scott did not win the presidential election that fall, voters of Tennessee’s Eighth District elected Zollicoffer to represent them in the United States Congress. Voters subsequently reelected him two times, with Zollicoffer serving as a Whig in the 33rd Congress (1853-1855), and as a member of the American Party (also known as the Know-Nothing Party) in the 34th and 35th Congresses (1855-1859). During his years in Congress, Zollicoffer championed the states’ rights cause. Zollicoffer chose not to run for reelection in 1858, returning to private life.
Washington Peace Conference Delegate
In the pivotal presidential election of 1860, Zollicoffer supported Constitutional Unionist John Bell’s failed candidacy. When the Union started disintegrating after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Zollicoffer represented Tennessee at the Washington Peace Conference, an unsuccessful eleventh-hour attempt to avoid the American Civil War, in February 1861.
Confederate Army Officer
Although Zollicoffer opposed disunion, he cast his lot with Tennessee, as his home state prepared for war. On May 9, 1861, Governor Isham Harris commissioned Zollicoffer as a brigadier general in the Provisional Army of Tennessee. When the Volunteer State seceded on June 8, its provisional army came under the jurisdiction of the Confederacy, and Zollicoffer received a commission as brigadier general in the Confederate Army on the next day.
On July 9, 1861, officials sent Zollicoffer’s command to Knoxville to suppress anti-secessionist sympathizers in Eastern Tennessee. On August 1, 1861, authorities assigned Zollicoffer to command of the District of East Tennessee, Department #2. Although he dealt fairly with peaceful Union partisans, he treated guerillas harshly.
Invasion of Kentucky
Zollicoffer redefined his role from overseer to aggressor when he led his command into the neutral border state of Kentucky on September 17, 1861, to support Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk’s invasion of Western Kentucky two weeks earlier. Zollicoffer’s goal was to seize a federal recruiting camp near Barbourville in the south-central area of the Bluegrass State. On September 19, Zollicoffer’s men captured the nearly vacated camp in a minor skirmish that resulted in the death of one Union defender and seven Confederate soldiers. The Battle of Barbourville was the first Confederate victory in Kentucky. Alarmed by the rebel offensive, Union General George S. Thomas sent reinforcements to the area and defeated Zollicoffer at the Battle of Wildcat Camp on October 21. The reversal forced Zollicoffer to retreat to Tennessee.
Zollicoffer reentered Kentucky in November and 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, he crossed to the north side. When alerted of Zollicoffer’s error, General George B. Crittenden, Zollicoffer’s superior, ordered Zollicoffer to re-cross the river and to hold the more defensible position on the south side. Zollicoffer did not comply.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell dispatched a Union force commanded by Brigadier General George H. Thomas to drive Zollicoffer back across the Cumberland River. Aware of the Union movement, Crittenden traveled to Mill Springs. Upon discovering that Zollicoffer had not complied with his orders to re-cross the river, Crittenden took direct command of the Rebel troops in the area. With the swollen river at his back and the threat of Thomas’ force at his front, Crittenden attacked the Federals rather than trying to defend the position Zollicoffer had chosen.
Death and Burial
During the Battle of Mill Springs, Zollicoffer inadvertently approached a group of Union soldiers, commanded by Colonel Speed S. Fry. The Bluecoats opened fire and mortally wounded the Confederate general. Union surgeons embalmed the body the next day and returned it across Rebel lines.
Zollicoffer was buried at Nashville City Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.