Re: [civilwarwest] FW: CIVIL WAR BUFF 140th Battle Anniversary Commemoration,...
- I recieved the following email from a good friend of mine. Since it does
pertain to Mill Springs and the opening of the new museum there, I thought
that I would share this beautiful description of the area as it is today.
During a recent weeklong business trip to Kentucky, I was fortunate enough to
fit in visits to several historically significant sites I had not seen
before, including Richmond, Perryville, Richmond, and Mill Springs. Late
October proved to be a great time to tour these places, which remain mostly
undeveloped and rural in their character. I'd like to tell you a little
about what I found at Mill Springs.
By September 1861, both sides had violated Kentucky's "armed neutrality".
While much is made of Leonidas Polk's incursion to Columbus, in reality, the
state had been a political battleground for months. Both sides had several
camps located just outside the state's borders, while the pro-Southern
governor and "State Guard" squabbled with the Unionist state legislature and
the newly formed "Home Guards". It was just a matter of time before the
military importance of the state overshadowed any political concern,
regardless of who jumped first.
A political appointee with scant military experience, Confederate BG Felix
Zollicoffer held the far right of Sidney Johnston's line, anchored in Bowling
Green. In October, Zollicoffer led his brigade from Knoxville through the
Cumberland Gap, advanced toward the Federal supply lines across the Bluegrass
region, but was repulsed at Camp Wildcat (near London) by a smaller Federal
force. After withdrawing back into Tennessee, in late November, Zollicoffer
then advanced into Kentucky by a more westerly route, taking him to Mill
Springs, on the south bank of the Cumberland River.
By early December, "Zollie" concluded that his position was weak, and
advanced his command to the north bank of the swelling river, entrenching at
Beech Grove. Orders from his department commander (Crittenden) to withdraw
to the safety of the south bank unheeded, Zollicoffer failed to recognize the
peril presented by Union troops moving toward the area. In early January,
Crittenden and another brigade arrived at Beech Grove to find the enemy
advancing in front, and the river level rising to his rear. Crittenden's
choices were limited, he elected to give battle where he was rather than risk
a river crossing in the face of the enemy. His hopes rested on hitting the
enemy before they could concentrate. On the cold, stormy night of January
18-19, Crittenden advanced toward Logan's Crossroads, with Zollicoffer's
brigade in the lead.
Logan's Crossroads (now known as the town of Nancy) is located nine miles
west of Somerset, KY. The terrain is quite hilly, with Fishing Creek located
in a gorge just east of Nancy on the way to Somerset. At the time of the
battle, Crittenden had thought the creek would be impassable due to the
rains, keeping additional Union troops from reaching George Thomas' division.
He was to be disappointed.
Mill Springs National Cemetery is a very small cemetery along the roadside in
Nancy, which contains the graves of US soldiers killed in that battle, and
since. It is located on a hill; looking south, the visitor can see much of
the battlefield area. A short mile south, Zollicoffer cemetery and monument
are located along KY 235. Here, early on the dark, rainy morning of battle,
Zollicoffer rode up to a party of mounted soldiers. He had ordered his own
troops to cease fire, thinking they were shooting at Confederates. He
proceeded to order the officers he encountered to also stop shooting. In the
dark, smoke, fog, rain, and confusion, he did not recognize that he was
giving orders to Union Colonel Speed Fry. Fry began to obey, and turned to
relay the order to his regiment, neither recognizing the other. But a
Confederate staff officer emerged from the woods, firing and shouting a
warning to Zollicoffer. Zollie went down in a hail of fire.
He was laid out and died with his head on the root of a white oak tree, which
stood on the spot until 1995, when it was hit by lightning. There is a
marker on the spot, and remnants of the tree are still present. It was known
as the "Zollie Tree", and decorated every Memorial Day for decades. Nearby
is a mass grave for the 148 Confederate fatalities of the battle. The
surrounding area was the site of an intense two-hour fight, the axis of the
Rebel attack being the highway, who also advanced up from a deep ravine to
the southeast. The threatened Federal line held along the north border of
this "Zollicoffer Park".
The Confederates were eventually driven back by a combination Union
reinforcements on their flanks and wet powder, and began a disorderly
withdrawal to the south toward the river. A quarter-mile south, Alabama and
Tennessee men attempted to form a defensive line on a hill known as Fairview
Cemetery, which allowed the remainder of their comrades to escape. The
battlefield tour refers to this stop as "Last Stand Hill". Even a casual
observer cannot fail to see how vulnerable this line was to flanking by the
A short distance further south, the remains of an old cabin used as a
Confederate field hospital can be seen. It was used until it was captured by
Union troops. Still further south from Fairview Cemetery is a small stream
known as "Timmy's Branch". Quite overgrown now, it was here that the
battle's first shots were fired as Zollicoffer's advance elements first
encountered Federal cavalry pickets, who put up a hell of a resistance while
sending back a warning to Thomas' main body.
The battlefield tour follows KY 235 another four miles south to a spot called
Moulden's Hill. After pursuing the retreating enemy all day, the Thomas'
command camped here and shelled the Confederate camp at Beech Grove about a
half a mile further south. It was at Beech Grove that Zollicoffer's men had
first set up camp, built shelters, and dug entrenchments. It must have
looked pretty good for a very short time as the cold, wet, and exhausted
Confederates fleeing south re-entered their old camp. Today, Beech Grove
stands isolated in what appears to be a flat surrounded by higher ground, on
a narrow neck of land between the Cumberland and a small nearby tributary. A
tall stone chimney rises up out of the weeds, a solitary sentinel left from
the cabin reportedly used as a headquarters by Zollicoffer.
The Yankees lobbed shells into Beech Grove all night, and prepared a morning
assault. But they found the Confederates gone, having withdrawn the final
short distance to the north bank of the Cumberland River. Through the night
and early morning, they were ferried across on a small steamer, the "Noble
Ellis" and a couple of rowboats, all of which were then destroyed at
daylight, January 20th.
Zollicoffer was buried in Nashville. Crittenden absorbed a great deal of the
blame for the embarrassing defeat and loss of his artillery and trains.
Thomas rose to the highest levels of Union command, and did not suffer the
sharp criticism for allowing his enemy to "escape across the river".
Mill Springs occurred long before the bloodbath at Shiloh. It was the first
decisive Federal victory of the war, and preceded the Henry and Donelson
campaign (on the other end of Johnston's line) by a few weeks. The smaller
casualty figures (260 Union/560 Confederate), and perhaps location, seem to
have left Mill Springs categorized as a backwater of the war. The Cumberland
River is now Cumberland Lake, a huge impoundment stretching for miles to the
west, and making the town of Mill Springs a long way from Beech Grove. But
aside from a wider body of water, I thought the Mill Springs Battlefield
National Historic Landmark well marked, easy to interpret, and a must see for
people like us.
Hope you liked it,