Planned Surprised Along the Cumberland River

January 18, 1862 (Saturday)

Through December and early January, Union General Don Carlos Buell had been urged, poked, prodded, begged, implored and beseeched by both President Lincoln and General McClellan to advance into Eastern Tennessee from his base in Kentucky. Buell, however, always had an excuse as to why he couldn’t. For a time, it bordered on insubordination, as he “from the beginning attached little to no importance to a move in East Tennessee.”

And though he saw little point in it, many of his men, especially the soldiers from Eastern Tennessee, were chomping at the bit to return with the Union army to defend their homes. It was probably because of their actions, and the actions of their commander, General George Thomas, that any movement towards Eastern Tennessee was happening at all.

As the late fall and early winter passed, Thomas inched south from Lebanon, Kentucky, while another brigade, under General Albin Schoepf, set up camp at Somerset. Schoepf was to keep an eye upon the Rebels, under General Felix Zollicoffer, at Mill Springs, across the Cumberland River.

Zollicoffer commanded a brigade under General George Crittenden, who was responsible for holding Cumberland Gap, the right flank of the Rebel army under General Albert Sidney Johnston. While Crittenden held Johnston’s right, Generals Simon Bolivar Buckner and Lloyd Tilghman held the center at Bowling Green and Forts Henry and Donelson, respectively. The left was at Columbus, Kentucky, along the Mississippi River, held by General Leonidas Polk.

The (more or less) Rebel-occupied portions of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Union General Grant had made a demonstration towards Polk’s and Tilghman’s positions to prohibit them from reinforcing Crittenden on Johnston’s right, so that Union troops under Buell could invade Eastern Tennessee. And though Grant’s demonstration was a success, it was a pointless one. Buell never invaded.

Near Mill Springs, General Zollicoffer had pushed his men across the Cumberland, surprising the Union troops as well as General Johnston, who ordered him to cross back over, keeping the river as a defensive barrier against the Federal forces. Zollicoffer refused, and so Johnston ordered Crittenden, Zollicoffer’s immediate commander, to personally take charge of Zollicoffer’s brigade.

When Crittenden arrived, he was surprised to see that Zollicoffer was still on the north side of the river. He also noticed that the river was now uncrossable as the winter storms had destroyed all of the vessels used to cross it in the first place. He then realized that Zollicoffer’s entrenchments were poorly constructed and useless, and ordered them to be improved. By this date, the work was just being finished up.

Union General Thomas, upon realizing that Zollicoffer was cut off, determined to fall upon him. He order General Schoepf’s brigade to join him at Logan’s Crossroads, nine miles north of the Confederate camp.

Just as Zollicoffer was refinishing his entrenchments, Thomas’ two brigades arrived at the crossroads and waited for Schoepf to join them. There was, of course, a problem. Nearby Fishing Creek had been swollen by the rains and was, for the time being, uncrossable. This threatened to delay Thomas’ plans.

Meanwhile, Confederate General Crittenden was trying to decide what to do. By the morning of this date, he was leaning towards retreating back across the Cumberland River. He knew that Thomas was close and that Schoepf was en route, both determined to destroy his command. But then the news that Schoepf was unable to cross Fishing Creek came to him through a messenger. Now, it seemed, it was Thomas who was isolated. He immediately began making plans to attack, destroying the Union force in detail.

To make the attack, Crittenden divided his small army of 4,000 into two brigades. The first, commanded by Zollicoffer, the second by General William Carroll, a former Tennessee governor. It was rumored that both Crittenden and Carroll were drunk during the council of war. By midnight, the column was marching north, through a violent thunder storm, to surprise the Union camp.

There was, unfortunately for Crittenden, a hitch. General Schoepf had managed to brave the rapids of Fishing Creek and cross a brigade, arriving at Logan’s Crossroads and Thomas’ camp towards evening. The rest of his force was ordered to cross as soon as possible. Together, Thomas and Schoepf formulated a plan to assail the Rebel position along the Cumberland.

But with Crittenden marching north to attack, all their planning was soon rendered pointless.1

  1. The Civil War in Kentucky edited by Kent Masterson Brown, Savas Publishing, 2000. The article used was “Mill Springs: The First Battle for Kentucky” by Ron Nicholas. Also, the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, came in handy for clarification. []
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2 thoughts on “Planned Surprised Along the Cumberland River

  1. This is interesting how Grant’s taking of Forts Henry and Donelson begin with his troops being a diversionary movement. Movement may have been ‘piontless’ today, but are the beginning of the end in the Western campaign. US Grant always seemed ahead of his commanders.

    1. He really did. Both he and Sherman had a rocky start before coming into their own. The movement was pointless, but it was made so by Buell’s refusal to move or even communicate with Halleck. I’m not sure who first had the idea to sack the forts, but whether it was Lincoln, Foote, Grant or Halleck, it was Grant’s foray that got the ball rolling.

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