The Rebels Escape Across the Cumberland, Abandon Eastern Kentucky

January 20, 1862 (Monday)

Unknown to Union General Thomas, the Rebels under General Crittenden had escaped under darkness, across the Cumberland River, into southern Kentucky. In the lonely moments before dawn, the last of the Confederates landed on the southern banks and burned the steamer used to ferry them across.

As the morning broke, Thomas arrayed his division to take what he believed were 4,000 well-entrenched Rebels. They advanced in good order with the 10th Kentucky in front, skirmishers deployed. The skirmishers were the first to see that the Rebels had fled across the river.

As the rest of the division entered the Confederate works, Company A of the 10th Kentucky made it to the ferry site just in time to see a band of Rebels on a hill across the river. A few shots were exchanged, and one of the Union soldiers believed he killed a Confederate, but at that range, there was little danger.1

The spoils of the battle were hastily left behind by Crittenden’s flight. Eleven or twelve pieces of artillery, a wagon of ammunition, a thousand horses, commissary stores and camp equipment all fell into Thomas’ hands. Though he could not cross the river, as the Rebels had burned the boats, he realized the extent of his victory.2

General Crittenden was also realizing its extent. The loss of artillery and ammunition, while dear, was not an immediate threat to life. Even the horses and wagons could be replaced. The commissary stores, however, were a disastrous loss. In winter, living off the land was simply impossible. To survive, he would have to march his army eighty miles down the river to Gainesborough, Tennessee, abandoning Kentucky to the Federals. By the evening of this date, the Rebels had made it to Monticello, Kentucky, ten miles from their camp.3

Meanwhile, nine miles north, where the Battle of Mill Springs raged for three bloody hours the previous day, over 200 dead bodies were strewn about the fields and woodlots. The Union dead were gathered and buried inside their camps in individual graves, while the Rebels were buried in unmarked, shallow pits near where they fell.

The body of General Felix Zollicoffer, who led his Rebels into battle, had been placed by a tree. Several Union soldiers had cut buttons from his jacket and pulled hair from his head as ghoulish mementos of the officer. When General Thomas learned of the desecration, he placed armed guards by the body. Eventually, Zollicoffer’s body was embalmed and sent back through the lines.4

The road to Eastern Tennessee, the objective that both Lincoln and McClellan so desperately urged, was now open with few Rebels standing in their way.


Halleck Waxes Strategical to McClellan

Having been down with the measles for nearly a week, General Henry Halleck, commander of Union troops in Missouri (and of Grant in Kentucky), must have had a lot on his mind as he laid sick in bed. On this date, he penned a long letter to General McClellan in Washington, explaining all that had happened and all that he hoped to happen soon in his department.

First, Halleck explained the situation in Missouri. General Curtis was being reinforced at Rolla, prior to an advance upon General Sterling Price near Springfield, 100 or so miles southwest. The reinforcements came from General John Pope’s division, still near Sedalia, 100 or so miles northwest of Rolla. Curtis now commanded 15,000.

For the northern part of the state, Halleck was less optimistic. He feared that the strategy for Missouri was one of political, rather than military, origin. He warned against the “pepper-box strategy,” which scattered the troops across wide swaths of ground, “so as to render them inferior in numbers in any place where they can meet the enemy.”

“The division of our force upon so many lines and points seems to me a fatal policy,” continued Halleck. While he (at least on paper) excused McClellan of any blame, he wondered if he (McClellan) might not be able to convince the new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton “to introduce a different policy and to make our future movements in accordance with military principles.”

On that point, Halleck had a few ideas. Prior to the Civil War, he had been known as “Old Brains” due to his scholarship on military strategy. In 1846, he published Elements of Military Art and Science, and though it was a glorified translation of Antoine-Henri Jomini’s Art of War, it won him great esteem throughout the army. It was of little surprise to anyone that Halleck was urging a military strategy.

Halleck warned that steaming down the Mississippi was not a proper line of operation. Instead, he wanted to see an attempt be made up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. This would draw the Rebels from the Mississippi and from Bowling Green, Kentucky (giving Kentucky almost entirely to the Union). The objective would be Nashville.

Still, he had not heard from General Buell in Kentucky. What the Union war effort in the West needed most was for Halleck and Buell to work together. If Buell, who had been told to move on Eastern Tennessee for weeks now, was to move on Nashville, it would render Halleck’s idea redundantly dangerous, as the two armies would be moving “on converging exterior lines with the enemy inside of the angle — always a most hazardous operation, unless each of the exterior forces is superior to the enemy.”

For the time being, Halleck would focus upon General Curtis at Rolla. Once Price was cleared out of Missouri, Rebel recruitment was certain to settle down. It was clear that Union strategy in the West was still very fluid. This fluidity bothered Halleck, who hoped for a more concrete plan very shortly.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p89. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p81. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p110; 103. []
  4. “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. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p508-511. []
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The Rebels Escape Across the Cumberland, Abandon Eastern Kentucky by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “The Rebels Escape Across the Cumberland, Abandon Eastern Kentucky

  1. resounding victory -road open into east tennessee -bad roads stop thomas who withdraws back i believe to lebanon ky ,thomas is responsible or commands at three battles where the csa are routed no wonder his sisters were mad at him

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