American Civil War: Battle of Mill Springs

Major General George H. Thomas. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

The Battle of Mill Springs - Conflict:

The Battle of Mill Springs was an early battle in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:



Battle of Mill Springs - Date:

Thomas defeated Crittenden on January 19, 1862.

Battle of Mill Springs - Background:

In early 1862, Confederate defenses in the West were led by General Albert Sidney Johnston and were thinly spread from Columbus, KY east to the Cumberland Gap. A vital pass, the gap was held by the brigade of Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer as part of Major General George B. Crittenden's Military District of Eastern Tennessee. Having secured the gap, Zollicoffer moved north in November 1861, to position his forces closer to Confederate troops in Bowling Green and to take control of the area around Somerset.

A military novice and former politician, Zollicoffer arrived at Mill Springs, KY and elected to move across the Cumberland River rather than fortify the heights around the town. Taking a position on the north bank, he believed that his brigade was in a better position to strike at Union troops in the area. Alerted to Zollicoffer's movement, both Johnston and Crittenden ordered him to recross the Cumberland and situate himself on the more defensible south bank. Zollicoffer refused to comply, believing that he lacked sufficient boats for the crossing and citing concerns that he could be attacked with his men divided.

Battle of Mill Springs - The Union Advances:

Aware of the Confederate presence in Mill Springs, the Union leadership directed Brigadier General George H. Thomas to move against Zollicoffer and Crittenden's forces. Arriving at Logan's Crossroads, approximately ten miles north of Mill Springs, with three brigades on January 17, Thomas paused to await the arrival of a fourth under Brigadier General Albin Schoepf. Alerted to the Union advance, Crittenden ordered Zollicoffer to attack Thomas before Schoepf could reach Logan's Crossroads. Departing on the evening of January 18, his men marched nine miles through rain and mud to reach the Union position by morning.

Battle of Mill Springs - Zollicoffer Killed:

Attacking at dawn, the tired Confederates first encountered Union pickets under Colonel Frank Wolford. Pressing his attack with the 15th Mississippi and 20th Tennessee, Zollicoffer soon encountered stubborn resistance from the 10th Indiana and 4th Kentucky. Taking a position in a ravine forward of the Union line, the Confederates made use of the protection it provided and maintained a heavy fire. As the fighting lulled, Zollicoffer, conspicuous in a white rain coat, moved to reconnoiter the lines. Becoming confused in smoke, he approached the 4th Kentucky's lines believing them to be Confederates.

Before he could realize his mistake, he was shot and killed, possibly by Colonel Speed Fry, commander of the 4th Kentucky. With their commander dead, the tide began to turn against the rebels. Arriving on the field, Thomas quickly took control of the situation and stabilized the Union line, while increasing pressure on the Confederates. Rallying Zollicoffer's men, Crittenden committed the brigade of Brigadier General William Carroll to the fight. As the fighting raged, Thomas ordered the 2nd Minnesota to maintain their fire and pushed forward the 9th Ohio.

Battle of Mill Springs - Union Victory:

Advancing, the 9th Ohio succeeded in turning the Confederate left flank. Their line collapsing from the Union attack, Crittenden's men began fleeing back towards Mill Springs. Frantically crossing the Cumberland, they abandoned 12 guns, 150 wagons, over 1,000 animals, and all of their wounded on the north bank. The retreat did not end until the men reached the area around Murfreesboro, TN.

Aftermath of the Battle of Mill Springs:

The Battle of Mill Springs cost Thomas 39 killed and 207 wounded, while Crittenden lost 125 killed and 404 wounded or missing. Believed to have been intoxicated during the fighting, Crittenden was relieved of his command. The victory at Mill Springs was one of the first triumphs for the Union and saw Thomas open a breach in the western Confederate defenses. This was quickly followed by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in February. Confederate forces would not control the Mill Springs area against until the weeks before the Battle of Perryville in autumn 1862.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Mill Springs." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 29). American Civil War: Battle of Mill Springs. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Mill Springs." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).