The Death of Zollicoffer, The Death of Rebel Kentucky

January 19, 1862 (Sunday)

They marched north through the night, through a January thunderstorm. The column, led by General Felix Zollicoffer, 4,000-strong, stumbled upon Federal cavalry at dawn, greeting the sun with the rapid crackle of musket fire.

For over a month, the Rebels had been on the north bank of the Cumberland River, near Mill Springs, Kentucky, cut off from their comrades. As the Federals began to move south to crush them, they too were cut off by a swollen river. Seeing the chance at hand, Confederate General George B. Crittenden wanted to surprise and defeat them in detail before the waters allowed the enemy to unite.

The Union horsemen fell back and Zollicoffer deployed skirmishers, moving forward through the brisk morning. Their advance was halted as the handful of Federals clung to a piece of ground near a log cabin, giving couriers time to spread the word that the Rebels were advancing in large force.1

To push the Federal skirmishers back into their camps, General Zollicoffer deployed his entire brigade. In the short amount of time it took him to form his four regiments, two Union regiments deployed to make a stand. For nearly an hour, the outnumbered Federals, soon joined by a third regiment, held back Zollicoffer’s Rebels.2

Zollicoffer took notice of the new Union regiment, but believed that they were men of his own brigade. Quickly, he rode over to the attacking regiment and ordered them to stop firing. As they obeyed the order, a hush fell over the battlefield. The commander of the opposite Union regiment, Col. Speed S. Fry, 4th Kentucky, took advantage of the lull to inspect his right flank.

At the same time, General Zollicoffer rode out towards the regiment he believed was friend, not foe. Col. He and Col. Fry saw each other and each believed the other to be on their side. They pulled close so they could hear each other speak.

“We must not shoot our own men,” said Zollicoffer to Speed.

“Of course not, I would not do so intensionally,” Speed replied.

Zollicoffer motioned towards something Speed could not see, saying, “those are our men.”

Both officers parted, still believing the other to be friendly. Fry rode back towards his regiment, but then turned around to see another officer, near where he had met Zollicoffer, level a pistol in his direction and fire. The ball struck Fry’s horse above the hip, but also convinced him that the officer he was just talking to was a Rebel. Fry, as well as he regiment, returned the fire. General Zollicoffer, pierced by three bullets, fell dead, as did the other officer. The Rebel regiment fled in confusion.3

As a Confederate reserve regiment was thrown forward to plug the gap left by the retreat, General Crittenden ordered part of his second brigade, under General William Carroll, to join the main line and advance.4

Seeing all of this was Union commander General George Thomas, who had been reinforced the night before by three regiments under General Schoepf. He ordered two fresh regiments to replace the Indiana and Kentucky regiments that had, thus far, held back the Rebel tide. He also saw that Crittenden’s new advance would flank him on the left, and sent three regiments and a battery of artillery to cut him off.5

One of the fresh regiments, the 2nd Minnesota, arrived just as the Rebel charge reached it crescendo. They met at a fence and the Confederates poured round after round into the Minnesota boys. The lines drew so close to each other that it quickly devolved into a thirty minute hand-to-hand brawl.6

The rain, which had tapered off in the early morning, began to fall heavier upon both sides of the conflict. The Confederates, most of whom were armed with antiquated flintlocks, were more or less disarmed by the torrents of water fouling their pieces. Perhaps one in three muskets were serviceable. The men, poorly drilled and trained, being unable to fire, simply walked off the field.7

General Thomas could see that the Rebels were breaking and ordered a general advance. The battle had lasted barely three hours. The Union right, led by the 9th Ohio, made up of many soldiers from the 1848 German revolution, sprang forth in a bayonet charge, shattering the Rebel left flank. The whole line gave way and was routed.

Crittenden still had a couple fresh regiments remaining, and threw them at the Union advance, holding them up long enough to drive his fleeing soldiers like cattle back towards their camp along the Cumberland River. Overcome by sheer volume, even the fresh Rebel regiments soon gave way.

But Thomas did not immediately pursue. The charges and victory had taken a toll on his men, who needed to be rested and resupplied. This pause allowed Crittenden’s Rebels to regroup behind their entrenchments along the Cumberland.8

Shortly before nightfall, Thomas’ troops arrived before the Confederate trenches. Seeing that they could not be easily taken, he ordered them to be bombarded with artillery, which was kept up until it was fully dark.9

Under that darkness, Crittenden and a few of his officers held a council of war, deciding to abandon the north bank of the Cumberland as quietly as possible. He wanted to pull it off without Thomas being any the wiser.

Throughout the night, a steamboat and two small ferries shuttled the Rebels to safety. While he could bring all of this men, including the sick and wounded, Crittenden had to leave behind eleven cannons, as well as horses, mules, wagons and nearly all of the army’s camp equipment.

By morning, all of the Confederates had crossed over. Thomas never suspected a thing.10

The Union suffered 39 killed, with 207 wounded, while the Rebels reported 125 killed, 309 wounded, and 95 captured or missing. In both cases, the figures are probably a little low.11

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p84. The OR is being used as much as possible, but also “Mill Springs: The First Battle for Kentucky” by Ron Nicholas, appearing in The Civil War in Kentucky edited by Kent Masterson Brown, Savas Publishing, 2000, was also used throughout this post. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p107. []
  3. Kentucky: A History of the State by J.H. Battle, 1887. The above comes specifically from a post-war letter written by Col. Fry. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p107. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p80. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p95. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p114. []
  8. “Mill Springs: The First Battle for Kentucky” by Ron Nicholas, appearing in The Civil War in Kentucky edited by Kent Masterson Brown, Savas Publishing, 2000. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p80. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p110. []
  11. “Mill Springs: The First Battle for Kentucky” by Ron Nicholas, appearing in The Civil War in Kentucky edited by Kent Masterson Brown, Savas Publishing, 2000. Based upon figures given by Thomas and Crittenden in the OR. []
Creative Commons License
The Death of Zollicoffer, The Death of Rebel Kentucky by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by