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Battle of Mill Springs

January 19, 1862

The Battle of Mill Springs, also known as the Battle of Fishing Creek and the Battle of Logan's Crossroads, was the first major Union victory of the American Civil War. Fought in Pulaski and Wayne Counties, near the present-day city of Nancy, Kentucky, on January 19, 1862, Union forces, commanded by Brigadier General George H. Thomas, repulsed an early-morning attack, led by Major General George B. Crittenden, forcing the Confederates to abandon eastern Kentucky and to retreat into Tennessee.

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. By the end of the year, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston established a thin defensive line across Kentucky aimed at providing a buffer zone, protecting Tennessee. Johnston's line was anchored in the west by 12,000 soldiers, commanded by Major General Leonidas Polk, in Columbus. The center of the Confederate line was manned by 4,000 soldiers, commanded by Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, near the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Also near the center of the state were 4,000 soldiers at Bowling Green, commanded by Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. The eastern end of Johnston's line consisted of 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.

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 Schoeph, to converge near Somerset and drive Zollicoffer back across the Cumberland River. Thomas left Lebanon and marched through rain-soaked country, arriving at Logan's Crossroads on January 17. Despite bad weather, Schoeph's men crossed rain-swollen Fishing Creek and reinforced Thomas.

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.

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 Rebels 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 Rebels from the field in a retreat that ended at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Mill Springs included:

Infantry units:

  • 9th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 14th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 17th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (not engaged)
  • 35th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (not engaged)
  • 38th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (not engaged)

Artillery Units:

  • Battery B, 1st Ohio Artillery Regiment
  • Battery C, 1st Ohio Artillery Regiment
  • 9th Ohio Battery

By Civil War standards, casualties at the Battle of Mill Springs were relatively light. Union losses were 39 killed and 207 wounded. Confederate losses were 125 killed and 404 wounded or missing. The Rebels also abandoned all of their artillery pieces, wagons, and most of their horses and camp equipment. 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 gave the North its first major battlefield success of the war.

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