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January 19, 1862: Battle of Mill Springs

On January 19, 1862, Union troops experienced their first significant Civil War victory during the Battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky. The battle, also known as the Battle of Logan’s Cross-Roads (in Union terminology), and the Battle of Fishing Creek (in Confederate terminology), occurred in Pulaski and Wayne Counties near present-day Nancy, Kentucky. It resulted in Union troops breaking through the Confederate defensive line and opening access into Middle Tennessee.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Kentucky declared neutrality, refusing to align with either the North or the South. By late 1861, the Confederacy had established a long defensive line, running from Cumberland Gap across the southern part of Kentucky to the Mississippi River. After a failed attempt by the Confederacy to take control of the state, Kentucky threw out its neutral status and aligned with the Union. Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky native, was reputed to have said, I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” 

Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer

In November 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer wanted to extend the Confederate strategic defensive line by moving north and establishing his winter headquarters near Mill Springs. He hoped to shore up defenses to prevent Union troops from advancing into Middle Tennessee.

At about the same time, Union Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas was advancing towards Somerset, Kentucky (about eight miles from Mill Springs) with roughly 4,400 Union soldiers. His goal was to rendezvous with reinforcements and push the Confederates out of Kentucky.

Union Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas

Hoping to attack before reinforcements arrived, General George B. Crittenden, area commander for the Confederate army, ordered Zollicoffer and roughly 5,900 Confederate troops to advance. They started marching towards Logan’s Cross-Roads just after midnight on January 19th. Heavy rain, deep mud, and cold temperatures made the six-hour journey difficult.

At 6:00 a.m. on January 19th, with driving rain, dense fog, and limited visibility, Confederate forces attacked. Fighting was fierce and the weather added to the chaos. The Confederates achieved early success but were repelled by Union forces who had far superior weapons. During a lull in the fighting, Zollicoffer approached a Union company. Assuming they were his men, he ordered them to cease their fire. Union troops recognized his Confederate officer’s uniform and shot and killed him.

After the loss of their leader, Confederate troops became disorganized and fell back from the center of their line. As Union troops surged forward, the Confederates were defeated and forced to retreat across the Cumberland River.

The Union victory at Mill Springs resulted in an estimated 262 Union casualties (including 55 killed) and 552 Confederate casualties (including 148 killed). The battle created the first break in the Confederate defensive line that would ultimately lead to Union operations in Tennessee and Mississippi. To learn more about the Battle of Mill Springs and other Civil War battles, search Fold3 today!

52 Comments

  1. Thanks for your research. Well worth the read.

  2. F Cramer says:

    Read this with interest. At one time I lived quite close to the house where a wounded Zollicoffer was taken and where he died. this was Somerset, KY. Mills Springs is not far away and there is a gristmill there that is worth a visit.

    • Keith Deaton says:

      My Deaton Grandparents were from this area. William and Rhoda Burton Deaton. They eventually settled in Washington State in 1907. That is where I live. Grampa Deaton was born in 1865.
      I would be interested lf that name is familiar to you? I have very little history of their time there .
      Thanks!

  3. Allen George Crittenden says:

    Very interesting. I read about this battle and its importance in the outcome of our Civil War. It should rate up in importance with Gettysburg. I had not known or read about of the Union officers involved. I will take more interest now.

    • Karen Sarraga says:

      This was fascinating to read and the addition of the map was interesting too. My great great uncle was part of the 17th regiment Tennessee and I was just recently researching his military service. This helped really bring it to life. Thank you!

    • Stan says:

      Agreed! Opening Kentucky and Tennessee would lead to Vicksburg and Atlanta. At the cost of much time and blood. May we avoid any comparable misunderstandings today…

  4. Sheryl Faust says:

    Very well researched, Thank You! I always look forward to reading these blogs and learning from these History lessons – again, Thank You!

  5. Harvey Versteeg says:

    And I thought I was an historian. I do not recall anything about this little but critical battle.

  6. Michael Davis says:

    Thank you for the information about this battle. Two of my gg-uncles were there with the Second Minnesota (and later at Chickamauga and Chattanooga). Their brother, my G-grandpa, was with the Fourth Minn. along with their brother-in-law – another of my gg-uncles. Another g- grandpa served late in the war with the Fourth, while the father of my Grandpa’s first wife, also served with the First later in the war. At least two other gg-uncles served with with the Seventh Minnesota, including at the Battle of Nashville, and one was with an Illinois cavalry regiment. So I enjoy reading about the engagements they were in – and survived.

    • My g-g-grandfather was there with the 2nd MN, and wrote an extensive and lively description of the battle and follow-up in one of his 100 letters home to his family. These are available both in print and Kindle editions as “My Dear Wife and Children: Civil War Letters from a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer.” Would love to correspond with anyone!

      David Brainard Griffin was in Company F.
      Your relatives?
      I hope you check out my website, as his 100 weekly letters would closely reflect all their experiences!

    • Eilene L says:

      My 3rd great-grandfather also was in the 2nd Minnesota and fought at this battle. It was his first real taste of war.

    • Arthur E. Davis says:

      Hello, I am doing ancestry research on my line of Davis. Can I ask the names of your ancestries that served during the wars. My great grandfather was James Henry Davis. His father, My 2nd g-gpa was Steven Goldsby Davis, His father was Goldsby Rodney Davis, his father was my 4th g-gpa was George Washington Davis and his my my 5th g-grandpa was Steven Davis who all I know about so far was born in Wales in 1707. Any response would be great. Would not mind sharing if you are interested. Davis’ landed in Virginia and some migrated to Kentucky then to Illinois. Thank you, Arthur Davis

    • Please check out Civil-War-Letters.com

  7. Ron Anderson says:

    My wife & I have been to the battlefield several times and the museum with my dad, who lived in Somerset. He now rest in the Mill Springs National Cemetery. He severed in WWII and spent 40+ years in the Navy and Coast Guard Reserves.

    • Cheryl doyle says:

      Hi, my grandad was william black anderson, he lived in chicago illionois with wife janet rosi anderson… They had children who remained in usa.. Unfortunatly this is all i know about my dads family.. If anyone has any tips on how to help me please let me know [email protected]

  8. LORRAINE Hahn says:

    Being a Civil War buff, I always enjoy and appreciate reading any thing that has to do with that time period. I have ancestors that fought on both sides.

  9. Gene Daly says:

    Always good to see the updates from the Civil War enthusiasts. I had a Confederate relative who fought for the 20th Mississippi and Union relative who fought for the 50th Pennsylvania. Those regiments were on a number of battlefields fighting against each other. Both relatives survived the war. Had they not ……. I guess I would not be here at all.

  10. Patt Bader says:

    Very interesting to this native Kentuckian. Thanks for sharing this story.

  11. Susan Carol Boucher says:

    This was really an interesting snip-it of history. I especially enjoyed the map and the breakdown of where each side was at. in my research I have family that fought on both sides, also in laws that had the same. Thank you again. Susie Boucher

  12. Doug Noland says:

    There are several battles and strategies that are classified as turning points in the war. I have one that I’ve never heard mentioned. In the slow march by Sherman through North Georgia Confederate General Johnston deftly out maneuvered Sherman time and again. Johnston had half as many men as Sherman so a full on battle was not a good choice. When Johnston fell back to Adairsville Georgia he came to a crossroad when one road went to Kingston and one to Cassville. There was a road from Cassville to Kingston forming a triangle. Johnston set up a plan to lure part of Shermans troops to Cassville and the other part to Kingston so he configured evidence that the Confederates had gone to Kingston by making the road to Kingston look as if the Confederate army had actually gone there. Gen. Johnston sent his command to Cassville and set up a trap in Cassville as the road into Cassville came into a bowl of level ground surrounded by a rim of high hills. His thinking was that Sherman would split his troops sending half to Cassville and half to Kingston thinking he could trap the confederates in Kingston. It worked like a charm ! The confederates positioned themselves in the hills (we call them mountains) and when the union troops marched into the ground below they would have been destroyed and then Johnston was to march his troops at the double quick to Kingston some fifteen miles away and finish off what was left of Shermans army. As the union troops approached Cassville one of Johnstons generals John Bell Hood was positioned on the mountains and a union calvery patrol that was lost in the woods came up behind Gen. Hood and the fool panicked and rushed to Gen. Johnston saying “they have our rear !” So Gen. Johnston having only that to go on pulled his troops out and continued the retreat to Kennesaw Mountain. Had the fool Hood not panicked this would have eliminated Shermans army. Shermans capture of Atlanta was said to have given the election to Lincoln who up till then was losing. So Lincoln was elected by this little known strategy that was abandoned !
    My great great grandfather was a confederate soldier along with his three brothers. One of the brothers was in Wheelers Calvery but I do not know his history but he may well have participated in this plan.

    • William G. Osborne, Jr. says:

      My ggf, John B. Galloway, was captured by Union forces in Kingston in May 1864. He was sent to Rock Island, Il and ultimately to CO as a galvanized Yankee. He returned to MS, married, and raised a family, including my paternal grandmother.

  13. My g-g-grandfather was there with the 2nd MN, and wrote an extensive and lively description of the battle and follow-up in one of his 100 letters home to his family. These are available both in print and Kindle editions as “My Dear Wife and Children: Civil War Letters from a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer.” Would love to correspond with anyone!

  14. My GG Grandfather was wounded at the Battle of Mill Springs. Sgt. Isaac “Ike” Chrisman, Co. H, 1st Ky. Cav. was shot in the lower neck. Before he was wounded, some say he was the soldier in the woods that fired the fatal shot that killed Zollicoffer. After the war, Ike Chrisman spent some time in an asylum, he was hallucinating that Zollicoffers ghost was haunting him, asking Ike “why did you kill me”? It was actually his brain swelling causing the hallucinations.

    I am the cemetery manager for the City of Winfield Kansas, Buried in one of my cemeteries is John Brent Fishback, Captain, 1st Kentucky Cavalry. Ike Chrisman moved his family to Sedan, Kansas about 1880 45 miles from Winfield. Fishback and my GG Grandfather kept in touch over the years.

  15. Glola Krumel says:

    Thank you for the very interesting article. Well written with great detail. I thoroughly enjoy history and appreciate your research.

  16. Don says:

    Exactly 160 years ago today, at dawn on January 9, 1861, Citadel school cadets fired the first Southern shots against the Union — the federally flagged steamer “Star of the West.” The unarmed vessel carried 200 federal troops and supplies below decks as it sailed under orders of then President James Buchanan into Charleston Harbor. She was to relieve besieged Fort Sumter, under the command of Major Robert Anderson. The cadets’ artillery struck the ship (but did little damage). Nevertheless, the ship aborted the mission and returned to New York. Had Major Anderson not hesitated to return fire from Sumter on the cadets and their artillery, January 9 — not April 12 — would probably be remembered as the start of the Civil War. As it is, some few historians — as well as some at The Citadel — believe the first shots of the war were actually fired by the cadets that January morning. By the way, Anderson’s second in command was Captain Abner Doubleday, who would answer the Confederate artillery three months later on April 12. Doubleday, of course, is said to have invented baseball before the war — or so the tourists in Cooperstown are told 🙂

  17. Robert Coats says:

    Well written, post Civil war city of Elizabethtown Kentucky. George A. Custer was stationed there with 7th Calvary before Little Big Horn to protect the Blacks and Republicans from the Democrats and KKK. There is a Museum down town with all the History.

  18. Richard Reis says:

    Great short review of an important early battle in the West. It’s a great place to visit. North of the map is The National Cemetery and a newer visitors center and south of the River [ now a large Lake] is a Mill and house the reb’s used, part of the park.

  19. Richard May says:

    My great grandfather, Samuel Amasa Furman, and his brother, Jedediah Furman, were both members of the Second Minnesota Voluntary Infantry Regiment. Their commander was was colonel, then Brevit General, Judson Sade Bishop who wrote a narrative of the regiment. I have that book and “A Drummer-boy’s Diary” comprising four years of service with the Second Regiment. Fascinating writing.
    One nugget of information is that former Chief Judge of the US Supreme Court, Warren Burger’s grandfather, Joseph Burgher (later Burger) joined the Second at the age of fourteen, having lied about his age, of course. At the age of sixteen he became the youngest captain in the Union Army. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and later served in the state legislature.

  20. Robert Tillett says:

    My GG Grandfather, Heinrich Stamm, was there as a member of the Ohio (Cincinnati) 9th, or the “Dutch Devils” as it was sometimes called. It was an all German speaking regiment, training in Prussian tactics. The conclusion of the battle was a bayonet charge by Union troops against the “Secesh”. The 9th Ohio also distinguished itself in the battle at Chickamauga in 1863.
    There are two books, “We Were The Ninth” and “A German Hurrah!” about the adventures of the Regiment in the Civil War.

  21. Karl Broom says:

    Excellent article about a battle I wasn’t aware of. Thank you!
    Be sure to click on the map and page through the other maps and diagrams behind it. Good stuff!

  22. Janet Betts Dean says:

    OOOOOOOOOHHHHH, my, do I have much to share and will do so tomorrow. My gr gr grandfather’s cousin was VP under Buchanan and ran against Lincoln, Douglas, and Ford. He came in second and swept the Southern States. John C. Breckinridge. He became a very successful General during the Civil War and ultimately was named the Secretary of War under the Confederacy. My Gr Gr Grandfather, on the other hand, was captured by the Union. He was charged with protecting Pres. Jefferson Davis when he was escaping Richmond VA. My Gr Gr Grandfather was with him when Union Troops caught up with them and they told my Gr Gr Grandfather to go on home. And so he did.

  23. Leslie Moore says:

    Thank you for your interesting research and article. It was so well written. (Sometimes I get lost in reading about battles) Most of my ancestors were in Tennessee and Kentucky but I haven’t done Civil War research on the western Kentucky branches of CROUCH and JACKSON. I wasn’t aware that Kentucky ended up joining the Union until this article.

    • Carolyn Moran De Palma says:

      Dear Leslie, Kentucky was the fifteenth state and only missed being fourteenth because Vermont joined the thirteen original colonies before Kentucky could get messages across the mountains.

      Kentucky was never out of the Union, although there was a significant component who wished for secession. My Kentucky ancestors were in both Armies.

      I lived for a while near Mill Springs and have visited it many times. I knew a descendant of the owner at Mill Springs, and he described his ancestor as a Confederate Officer. The mill is still there. All is worth a visit.

  24. C. Daniel Clemente says:

    Americans killing Americans. I hope and pray that never happens again. Sorry to say this is a time where Americans are divided. Let’s gather and mend and not forget the carnage of the Civil War.

    • V Chuck Bice says:

      I’m thinking that the times we live in are eerily similar to the 1760’s and similar to the 1850’s. I am concerned for our countries future, but that being said: we cannot continue as we are now.

    • Don says:

      Indeed, there is a direct line from the treasonous acts of Robert E. Lee’s army and the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol on January 6, both under the very same battle flag. As I type this now, I am watching on TV the funeral procession for CP Officer Brian Sicknick — a National Guard veteran — who laid down his life defending the Union, just as his predecessors who defended Cemetery Ridge.

  25. Very interesting information. I lived in Crittenden many years ago so curious about the name.

  26. Andrew Preziosi says:

    It’s a shame that MG George H. Thomas would live most of his career in the Shadow of Grant and Sherman, especially Sherman.

    Fortunately that all began to change in the early 60’s when the first of a slew of biographies of this Great Man, Gentleman and Warrior started to be published.

    Today he is considered the equal, if not better than Grant and Sherman and that is praise enough indeed.

    If we do change the names of US Army bases from Confederate Generals, this LOYAL Virginian should be first on the list to fill a vacancy…preferrably Fort Hood or Bragg.

    • Don says:

      The names WILL change. The Senate recently passed the legislation into law, overriding the president’s veto by a vote of 81-13, requiring the change within 3 years, for the good of the service. Thus righting a vestige of Jim Crow in the South. Huzzah! BTW, I think the names of Black heroes would be far more appropriate. E.g., Fort Douglass or Fort Tubman, perhaps?

  27. Actually, I would petition Fold3 not to overlook an earlier battle fought in Kentucky that has a relationship to Mill Springs, but was fought just over a month before near Munfordville, Kentucky. This battle, long viewed by historians as an insignificant clash, had far-reaching consequences for the theater and to the American public at the time, was a significant victory over the Confederate forces occupying Bowling Green, Kentucky under the command of General Simon Bolivar Buckner.

    Union General Alexander McDowell McCook’s command, posted at Camp Nevin near Nolin, Kentucky along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, was ordered to advance on Munfordville, Kentucky by Department of the Ohio commander General Don Carlos Buell on December 9, 1861. Brig. Gen. Richard W Johnson’s 6th Brigade of McCook’s Army of the Ohio departed Camp Nevin the following day and the advanced element from the 1st German, 32nd Regiment Indiana Infantry entered Munfordville early in the morning of December 11, followed by the remainder of the brigade later that day. A second brigade from McCook’s command arrived the next day. During the next five days, the Union soldiers secured the town, established bivouacs along the northern bank, initiated patrols on the south side of Green River and began clearing the debris of a demolished stone support pillar and approximately a 100 foot section of the vital rail bridge that crossed the river a few hundred yards west of town.

    On December 17, 1861, two companies of the 32nd Indiana, about 1 mile distance from each other, were engaged in patrols on the south side of the river. Company B, under the command of Capt. Jacob Glass, was suddenly fired on by Confederate skirmishers about a mile south of the railroad bridge and west of the rail line near Rowlett’s Station. Glass ordered the company to fire a volley that brushed off the skirmishers, but he prudently ordered a defensive withdrawal with the appearance of cavalry. The opening shots of the Battle of Rowlett’s Station opened pitting five companies of the 32nd Indiana against the 8th Regiment Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers, supported by Mississippi artillery and Arkansas Infantry all under the command of Gen. Thomas C. Hindman under orders from Buckner to to complete the destruction of the Green River bridge.

    The hour-long battle led to a general Confederate retreat after General Henman viewed the arrival another brigade arriving into the town and control of the field fell in Union hands with the casualties of both sides scattered over a wide expanse making recovery and accountability difficult. Buell later reported that the Confederates lost 33 dead and at least 50 wounded. One of those killed was Colonel Benjamin F. Terry, killed just west of the railroad while leading the last charge against the Union right. Col. August Willich reported that the 32nd Indiana had one officer and 10 men killed in action, with 22 wounded. Two of those wounded would later die.

    The news of this battle spread nation wide and was viewed as a significant Union victory, especially given that infantry, caught in the open, successfully defended themselves against several assaults by overwhelming numbers of cavalrymen. This battle also paved the way to forcing the Confederates to retreat out of Kentucky when Buell began the advance on Bowling Green, Kentucky and it also ensured that the Army of the Ohio would make a timely arrival on the fields of Shiloh in April 1862. The commander of the German 32nd Indiana shared in the accolades that were heaped on the regiment following the battle south of Munfordville, and he would have additional reason to feel great pride and accomplishment. On January 19, 1862, the Willich-trained 9th Regiment Ohio Infantry, Die Neuner, gained renown at the battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky after their stout bayonet charge against the Confederate left escalated into a total enemy rout.

    • Gretchen Theus says:

      Wowza! Thank you so much for posting such detailed information. I find it very interesting and helpful.

  28. Joe martin says:

    My grandfather fought there was in co.A of Wolfords First Kentucky Cavalry He also was at Perryville &Wildcat Mountain.

  29. Craig Weddle says:

    I live about a 1/2 mile as the crow flies from The Battle of Logan’s Crossroads. I highly recommend a visit to the Mill Springs Battlefield museum and surrounding community of Nancy Ky.

  30. I’m hoping to read as excellent information about the battle at Pea Ridge in NW Arkansas. Surely my ancestors fought on both sides. The Elkhorn Inn at that sight was built by a GG uncle Benjamin Marshall. It burned & was rebuilt & changed hands. It was on the Trail of Tears & also a stage coach stop. I used to dream about a house with a veranda & was surprised when I saw pictures of the Inn eventually. Same house. Intuitive!

  31. Dana Tischer says:

    It would be interesting to hear more about Kentucky’s Orphan Brigade. One of its commanders was Benjamin Hardin Helm, brother-in-law to Abraham Lincoln. Helm’s wife was Emilie Todd, was half-sister to Mary Todd Lincoln.

  32. Sid says:

    Native Americans have a completely different perspective on this history. Some of these “heroes” were involved in brutally wiping out their leaders and families, and taking their homelands.

  33. Scott Busenbark says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article. My 3rd great grandfather Zephaniah Crain was a member of the 10th Indiana. He was slightly wounded at Mill Springs. He would later loose an eye during the battle of Perryvile, KY.

  34. Janice says:

    My great-grandfather, George Taylor Wesley was in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry too. He had 2
    horses shot out from under him and had to come home to get fresh horses. He was also in
    Sherman’s march to the sea.
    J. Wesley