Stormy Days of Battle
Civilians at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentuckyby Susan Lyons Hughes As Civil War broke out in 1861, the state of Kentucky occupied an unenviable position. With commercial, social, family, and economic ties to both North and South, Kentucky's geographic location also made conflict within its borders inevitable. So important was Kentucky that a New York newspaper reporter is said to have written that "Lincoln would like to have God on his side, but he must have Kentucky." Lincoln himself said, "I think to lose Kentucky would be . . . to lose the whole game." Kentucky was strategically important for the new Confederate States as well. The state's long northern border on the Ohio River was an ideal defensive line for the Confederate nation.
With both its citizenry and its politicians divided on the course that should be followed, Kentucky first determined that neutrality would be its policy. Remarkably enough, both Union and Confederate leaders respected that neutrality through the summer of 1861. Neither side wanted to force Kentucky into the other's camp. But under the surface, neutrality worked in favor of the Unionist leaders, allowing them to consolidate their power and gain an important legislative victory in August, 1861. By September it was clear that Kentucky's state government would not pass an ordinance of secession, and President Lincoln felt certain enough of Union support within the state to establish a recruiting and training camp south of Lexington. The establishment of Camp Dick Robinson was the only excuse Confederate officials required to place their own troops within Kentucky's borders. They quickly established a defensive line that ran from Columbus, on the Mississippi River, through Forts Henry and Donelson just below Kentucky's border in Tennessee, into Bowling Green, and through southeastern Kentucky with an anchor at the Cumberland Gap.
Through the fall of 1861 Confederate forces under a Tennessee newspaperman, Felix Zollicoffer, established a number of posts in the mountainous southeastern counties of Kentucky. His position had considerable strategic significance. The Cumberland Gap provided the easiest means of access through the mountains into areas of Virginia, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. The old "Wilderness Trail" from Cumberland Gap led right into the more prosperous central Kentucky bluegrass region, and, not coincidentally, through Camp Dick Robinson, where Unionist Kentuckians were learning how to be soldiers. Sentiment in southeastern Kentucky leaned toward the Union, but there were also strong pockets of pro-Confederate sympathy. Important resources were found in the region's salt works and farms. Zollicoffer sent raiding parties into several towns, including Manchester, where they captured the Goose Creek Salt Works and removed fifty wagon-loads of salt, and "pulled down the flag, tore it up, and in addition, placed theirs on the same pole." (1) London and Barbourville suffered from similar raids.
In response to this threat, General George H. Thomas, now commanding at Camp Dick Robinson, sent troops to occupy a position in the Rockcastle Hills to defend against an attack from the Confederates. On October 21, 1861, Zollicoffer's troops attacked an entrenched force of Federals at Camp Wildcat and were driven off. Taking this threat seriously, Thomas ordered a general movement of troops south toward London and Barbourville, establishing a supply depot at Crab Orchard. New levies of Federal troops supplemented the Kentuckians and East Tennesseans who had held off Zollicoffer's troops at Wildcat. In January, 1862, Zollicoffer moved troops north of the Cumberland River near the town of Somerset, Kentucky and General George Crittenden, now commanding the Confederate troops, ordered his men to attack the Federals under Thomas. In a cold, driving rain on January 19, Federal troops finally drove back the Confederates, who were forced to abandon their camps and stores, as well as their dead, and retreat back into Tennessee. In the confusion of battle, Confederate General Zollicoffer was giving orders to Federal soldiers and was killed when the mistake was recognized by Union Colonel Speed S. Fry.
In comparison with the battles that would come later in the Western theatre, the battle of Mill Springs, also called the battle of Logan's Crossroads or Fishing Creek, was small - the combined forces for both armies was somewhere around ten thousand men, but its effects were long-reaching. The battle marked the loss of the eastern end of the Confederate defensive line in Kentucky, and a bare month later the western end was lost when Forts Henry and Donelson surrendered to Federal forces. The loss of Kentucky by the Confederates cemented the pro-Union stance of Kentucky's state government.
Civilians at the Battle of Mill Springs The white population of Wayne and Pulaski counties in 1860 was around 21,000, with about 1000 slaves and under 100 free black residents. (2) The region was one of small farms, and the rocky, hilly terrain provided little area for cultivation. The advent of Northern and Southern armies disrupted the lives of the populace. A company officer from the Second Minnesota wrote in his reminiscences of the battle:
As in the rest of Kentucky, sentiment was divided between support for the Union and support for the Confederacy. J.W. Bishop continued with his description of the area, noting that "regiments were being recruited in the same neighborhoods for both armies, and most of the men of military age had got into one or the other; in many cases sons of the same family enlisted in opposing regiments." (4)
John Simpson, a young boy living in the area at the time of the battle, wrote his reminiscences in his later years, and the unpublished manuscript was titled "A Boy's Story of the Battle of Fishing Creek and Other Incidents of The Civil War." Simpson noted that in November of 1861 Crittenden's regiments were encamped on the south side of the Cumberland River and that the 12th Kentucky Infantry, United States Army was camped on the north side of the river, twelve miles away by land but much closer by water. He described the pickets firing at each other across Stigalls Ferry in the days before the battle. Simpson was impressed with the behavior of the Confederate troops; he noted that "He (Zollicoffer) did not allow his troops to steal from citizens. One of his soldiers stole a goose at Mill Springs and he had him [the soldier] pay $50 for it." (5)
Not all of the area's citizens received such kind treatment. General Albin Schoepf wrote to General George Thomas from Camp Calvert in London that "This band of Zollicoffer's are said to be a hard set - plundering, violating women, and such other rascalities." (6) Bishop noted that soldiers on both sides were guilty of plunder: "The corn-cribs and hog-yards had been depleted in turn by Zollicoffer's foragers and Wolford's Union cavalry, until now there was, as an old farmer said 'nuthin' to feed the hogs and no hogs to feed'." (7)
John Simpson wrote that two widows living on Fishing Creek near Logan's Crossroads were informing General Zollicoffer as to the movements of Union troops, and on the night before the 19th of January they told Zollicoffer that two regiments of Federals were approaching Logan's Crossroads. The creek and the Cumberland River were rising on account of high rain, and Zollicoffer hoped to capture part of Thomas' army before it could be reinforced by troops coming from Somerset. (8) The report was inaccurate, and the Confederates found the Federals already in force on the north side of the river. The sharply fought battle lasted only a few hours, but was marked by confusion as soldiers could not distinguish between friends and enemies. As the Confederates streamed back across the Cumberland River and out of the area, wounded soldiers from the battle were taken in by local families. Several wounded were ferried across the river in a canoe, and some spent the night at J.S. Weaver's home five miles from Mill Springs. The next day Weaver carried them by wagon to Monticello. Rumors swept the local population that Federal soldiers were to be turned loose in the area to take retaliation against Southern sympathizers. A number of neighbors urged John Simpson's father to take his family South with the army, but an outbreak of measles in the family prevented them from leaving. Simpson noted that a widowed neighbor:
There were probably a few women associated with one or more of the military organizations involved in the battle of Mill Springs. Information on two of those women is documented.
Sarah Taylor was the stepdaughter of a captain in the 1st (Loyal) Tennessee Infantry. A reporter for the Cincinnati Times saw Miss Taylor at Camp Dick Robinson, and noted that she departed with the regiment when it left for Camp Wildcat on September 19, 1861. Her appearance was so striking as to provide this comment from the reporter:
Sarah Taylor remained with the 1st Tennessee for at least some part of their adventures, because she is reported as a prisoner of war in Memphis in July, 1863, suggesting that she was with the 1st Tennessee when they fought at Mill Springs. (11)
Following a more traditional role, Catherine Whitacre Brashear followed her husband, Dr. Brashear, to war when he enlisted as the Surgeon of the 19th Ohio Infantry. Joining her husband at Camp Goddard in Zanesville, Ohio, she was appointed matron of the 19th Ohio and approved by Colonel Beatty in May of 1861. When the 19th was mustered out sixty days later, Dr. and Mrs. Brashear transferred to the 16th Ohio, her appointment as matron being dated at Camp Tiffin on November 1, 1861. The regiment was forwarded first to Camp Dennison and then to Lexington, Kentucky in January, 1862. On January 12 the regiment moved toward the banks of the Cumberland River, but Mrs. Brashear remained behind in Lexington with a long sick list of soldiers. The 16th Ohio arrived near the scene of the battle the day after Mill Springs, and Mrs. Brashear joined them soon afterward. She remained with the regiment during the summer of 1862 at Cumberland Gap, and later took part in General George Morgan's disastrous and controversial evacuation of that strategic position. (12)
Unlike battles fought later in the war, and in more populous areas, the immediate aftereffects of the battle of Mill Springs on civilians were relatively minor. The Confederate forces which had occupied the area for nearly six months evacuated southeastern Kentucky, and Federal forces were quick to establish a presence in the area. Along with the Confederate defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson, the Confederate retreat from Mill Springs ensured that Kentucky would not secede. Peace did not come to the region after the battle, however. As in so many areas in Kentucky, civilians were victims of an increase in guerrilla activity between Union sympathizers and their pro-Confederate neighbors. The division in sympathies by residents of the area was felt for many years -- long after the Civil War ended in 1865. The few hours of battle in January would result in many years of unrest and violence among the residents of southeastern Kentucky.
NOTES 1. Colonel T.T. Garrard to General George H. Thomas, 30 September, 1861, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, 4: 282-83. (Hereafter referred to as OR.)
2. Census Records for Kentucky, Pulaski and Wayne counties, 1860. Collection of the Library of the Kentucky Historical Society.
3. J.W. Bishop, The Mill Springs Campaign: Some Observations and Experiences of a Company Officer (St. Paul, MN: St. Paul Book and Stationary Company, 1890), 59.
5. John Simpson, A Boy's Story of the Battle of Fishing Creek and Other Incidents of the Civil War (Unpublished, undated, Bronston, Kentucky), transcribed by Joe Brent.
6. Brigadier-General Albin Schoepf to General George H. Thomas, 31 October 1861, OR, Series I, 4: 325.
8. Sergeant Eastham Tarrant, Wild Riders of the First Kentucky Cavalry (Louisville: Press of R.H. Carothers, 1894); Geoffrey R. Walden, The Battle of Mill Springs website: http://www.oocities.com/pentagon/quarters/1864/Default.htm.
10. A Member of the G.A.R., The Picket Line and Camp Fire Stories (NY: Hurst & Co., no date), 95-96.
11. Memphis Daily Appeal, 18 July 1863, p. 1, c. 6.
12. S.M. Fleischmann, The Memorial Tablet (Ohio: Published by G.A.R, 1883), 25-28.
(from The Citizens Companion, August-September 1998, used by kind permission of the author and editor)