Saturday, March 07, 2020

Whipping 'old he-devil': A Federal's vivid Mill Springs account

War-time illustration in Harper's Weekly of the Battle of Mill Springs. 

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For a Northern public eager for good news from the front, a Federal soldier's vivid account of an impressive Union victory in the hills of southern Kentucky was especially welcome.

"The route [sic]" was "complete and total," wrote "Felix" about the Battle of Mill Springs on Jan. 19, 1862 -- the first significant Union victory of the war. It was the "most overwhelming, total overthrow the Secession army has yet met with in this rebellion," the Union soldier boasted in the account, published in The New York Times and other Northern newspapers.

Felix Zollicover, a former Tennessee congressman
and newspaper editor from Nashville, was killed
at the Battle of Mill Springs (or Fishing Creek)
on Jan. 19, 1862. The Confederate general was

 buried in Nashville. (The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Commanded by Virginia-born Brigadier General George Thomas, roughly 4,400 mostly inexperienced Federals overwhelmed 5,900 soldiers under George Crittenden and his subordinates, generals Felix Zollicoffer and William Carroll. The 49-year-old Zollicoffer, derisively called "Snollegoster" and a "he-devil" by the Yankees, was killed early in the fighting on the cold, rainy winter day.

After the battered Confederates escaped across the rain-swollen Cumberland River, Union soldiers discovered 1,000 mules and horses running loose in their abandoned fortifications at Beech Grove. "Zollie's Den," a Northern newspaper reporter called the camp near the river.

"It seems as though there was a perfect panic among them, " wrote "Felix," whose full name was not included in his published account, "their tents having been left standing; and their blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, letters, papers, etc, all left behind." The Confederates retreated in such haste that some of them left documents behind, eagerly read by "Felix," perhaps an Ohioan.

Below is the complete account by "Felix," first published in the Cincinnati Commercial. "I considered it my duty to do my best in an attempt to describe it," he wrote of the battle, which resulted in the deaths of 552 Confederate and 252 Union soldiers, "but it was hurriedly written, with a willing but weary hand ..."

Zollicoffer's (late) Encampment

January 20, 1862

Here I sit, in a cedar log cabin, inside the entrenchments of the wonderful position of old "Zolly," to write you a letter on contraband paper, with a contraband pen, and contraband ink. Where shall I begin -- what shall I write first? There are incidents enough, if all recounted, to fill a volume; things that took place in this, the most complete victory, and most overwhelming, total overthrow the Secession army has yet met with in this rebellion. To begin at the beginning, and tell the story straight:

Just at daybreak on Sunday morning, the 19th of January, sharp firing commenced with the pickets in the same spot where the firing was last Friday night; the long roll beat in the Indiana Tenth, and they formed instantly and marched to the support of their pickets. The Tenth and Kinney's battery were close together, and half a mile in advance of everything. The battery got ready for action on the instant, and awaited order. By the way, Stannard's [Captain William Standart's] battery and [Captain Henry] Wetmore's four-gun battery were both in park, one on each side of Kinney's battery. [actually Captain Dennis Kenny, 1st Ohio Artillery]  The First Tennessee was about a quarter of a mile in the rear of these batteries, in the woods. The Fourth Kentucky, Col. [Speed S.]Fry, was the next on the road, half a mile in the rear of the batteries: it was forming as I ran past, getting to my own regiment, (for I slept in Kinney's battery;) the Second Tennessee another quarter of a mile in the rear of the Fourth Kentucky. (See Union order of battle here.)

          PANORAMA: Union pickets fought stubbornly here at Timmy's Creek, delaying
                a Confederate advance. (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

By this time the cavalry were running their horses all over the country in every direction -- except towards the firing, which still continued at intervals. The Second was "just getting breakfast, and supposing it to be only a picket fight, kept on cooking and eating, though very few had eaten anything when the column of our force appeared coming on in our rear. Lieut. Colonel [Daniel] Trewhit promptly got us into line and double-quickened us into the road ahead of the advancing column; the. Fourth Kentucky had gone when we reached their encampment. The firing still continued and very briskly; we kept on at double quick, all hoping and believing that we would have a chance to smell burnt powder, But when opposite the encampment of the Tenth Indiana, up rode the Colonel, and halted us for further orders; we all thought if we didn't say it -- d - -n further orders.

The Tenth Indiana went into the woods about a quarter of a mile in advance of their tents, to the "support of their pickets; and bravely did they support them, too, for over half an hour, against the whole rebel force led against them; and never retreated a step nor gave an inch of ground, until nearly surrounded by overwhelming numbers; then, to save themselves from being entirely surrounded, they unwillingly gave way, Here was a crisis; and yell on yell went up from the lantern-jawed Secessionists; they thought the day was all their own. But, happily, any disastrous consequence was prevented by the arrival of the Fourth Kentucky and Ninth Ohio to the support of the gallant Tenth.

A war-time illustration in Harper's Weekly depicts a picket
of 10th Indiana soldiers spying approaching Confederates 
on the morning of Jan. 18, 1862.
Again our men made a stand; now there was fighting in good earnest, and the Second Minnesota joined in with the Tenth and the Fourth and the Ninth Ohio to the support of the gallant Tenth. Volley after volley rattled in quick succession, and sometimes it seemed as though there was only one continuous volley, interrupted now and then by the growling of the "yellow pups," which had been brought to bear on the enemy; and when they once commenced, they distributed their favors freely in all directions, in the shape of shot and shell, and, gentlemen, excuse me from being the recipient of any such favors.

There were only two or three shots from cannon fired by the enemy, and they were either badly aimed or the pieces were out of range, for the shot did not disturb anybody. Once they threw a shell into the air, which burst when some four or five hundred feet high. No damage was done by it, and their artillery seemed to be of no use to them whatever, while, on the contrary, ours seemed to be of immense use to us; and it was most ably and effectually handled.

               PANORAMA: Fierce, close-quarters fighting occurred at the fence line.
                                    (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

After a little more than two hours of hard fighting, a most tremendous volley of musketry, followed by a ringing shout from our side, seemed to have decided the battle in our favor, for from that time although firing was kept up at intervals, the Secessionists, whipped and cowed, began their retreat, which, in about twenty minutes more, became a total rout and from the indications along the road, which we afterwards passed over, the flight appeared to have been a regular race from that point back to their entrenchments, to see who could get their first, and the devil take the hindmost.

All the credit and honor of this battle is due to the 10th Indiana, the 9th Ohio, the 4th Kentucky, and 2d Minnesota, for they did all the fighting, as it were, single-handed, with the exception of what support they received from the artillery. They all ought nobly, and judging from the sound of the musketry, they never wavered from a fixed determination to gain the victory. The combatants were so near to each other at one time, that the powder burned their faces in the discharge of their pieces; but the underbrush was so thick that the bayonets were of but little use, and a charge could hardly have been made.

          PANORAMA: View from "Last Stand Hill," where Confederates were routed. 
         In the field at left (across road), Confederates fled in disarray during a bayonet 
                    charge by the 9th Ohio. (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The most important event of the day was the death of [Felix] Zollicoffer. Col. Fry, of the 4th Kentucky, charged up a hill by himself upon a group of mounted officers, and fired at the one he conceived to be the chief among them; he fired two shots; both of them took effect, and Zollicoffer, one of the master spirits of the rebellion, fell  off his horse dead. Col. Fry was, luckily, unhurt, but his horse was shot through the body, the bullet entering only a few inches behind the Colonel's leg. This must have been a deadener to all the hopes the Secessionists had for victory, as from this moment began the retreat; and so closely did our forces push upon them that they were obliged to leave their illustrious leader where he fell, by the side of the road.

Our course was now steadily forward to the main road that led to Zollicoffer's encampment on the Cumberland. I shall not attempt to describe the battle field, the dead or the dying. Of course, in all battles, somebody must be killed, and somebody must be wounded; this was no exception to the general rule. I shall mention only one of the dead -- that one Zollicoffer.

          PANORAMA: Marked by monument, the death site of General Felix Zollicover.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The march was now steadily but cautiously forward. Two pieces of artillery were taken; one was crippled in the woods near the battle ground, and the other was found stuck in the mud about a mile in the rear; also two wagons with ammunition. No incident worth mentioning occurred on the march, which was deliberately but steadily forward, with the artillery well up, until final halt was made, about half-past four, within a mile of the breastworks of the famous fortifications on the Cumberland which have been reported impregnable, Here the artillery was again planted, and set to work shelling the wonderful fortifications; and a continuous fire is kept on for nearly an hour. Every shell that was thrown we could hear burst distinctly. There was only one cannon that answered us from the breastworks, and that one sounded more like a potato pop-gun than anything else can liken it to, and did us no damage, as the shot never reached us. This one piece was only fired four times.

   PANORAMA: Union artillery positioned on hill at left shelled Zollicoffer's fortifications.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

Night closed in and the firing ceased. We all laid down on the wet ground, in perfect security, to rest our weary limbs, the distance we had come being over ten miles on the direct road, let alone the underbrush we went through, to say nothing about two or three dress parades of the 2d for somebody's amusement, but not our own, I can assure you. And then the roads and fields were awfully cut up, and mud was plenty, as it had rained a good part of the forenoon. Our men laid down to rest without a mouthful to eat, many of whom had eaten no breakfast; but as Captain Cross said, "the man who could not fast two days over Zollicoffer's scalp, was no man at all;" and there was no grumbling as there was necessity for it. However, the teams came up in the night with crackers and bacon.

Now here is the summary, so far as know, up to Sunday night: We are within a mile of Zollicoffer's encampment; Zollicoffer is killed and his forces have been whipped -- some two hundred of them being killed and a great many wounded; one of Crittenden's aids, a lieutenant colonel, and three surgeons are taken prisoners, but how many more I know not; two pieces of artillery and three wagons were left, and the road was strewed with guns, blankets, coats, haversacks, and everything else that impeded flight; on our side from 20 to 30 are killed, and from 80 to 100 wounded, having no prisoners that we know of.

On the morning of the 20th, soon after daylight, several of the regiments were moved forward toward the breastworks, and a cannon ball or two fired over into them but no answer was made, all was quiet The regiments moved steadily on and into their fortifications, it being ascertained that there was no one to oppose them. The enemy having crossed the river during the night, or early in the morning; the rout was complete. It seems as though there was a perfect panic among them, their tents having been left standing; and their blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, letters, papers, etc, all left behind.

    PANORAMA: Zollicoffer's fortifications at Beech Grove, near the Cumberland River. 
                                       (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

Site of Confederates' escape across the rain-swollen Cumberland River.
The position is a pretty strong one, but not near so much so as we had been led to suppose. Huts were built, nicely chinked with mud, many of them having windows in them for comfortable winter quarters. How much work the devils have done here, and how little it has profited them! I have been wandering around all day, and seeing and hearing what I could. The Cumberland makes one side of the encampment safe, by an abrupt bank 250 feet high. I went down to the river bottom, to which there is road on our side. Here were all or nearly all their wagons, some twelve or fifteen hundred horses and mules, harness, saddles, sabres, guns; in fact, everything. It was a complete stampede, and by far the most disastrous defeat the Southern Confederacy has yet met with. Ten pieces of cannon are also here. To all appearances, they seem to have completely lost their senses, having only one object in view, and that was to run somewhere and hide themselves.

Now, to account for the battle taking place as it did. There were eleven rebel regiments here, two being unarmed; and Zollicoffer, who was the presiding devil, although Crittenden had taken the command, thought the Tenth Indiana and Kinney's battery were just two regiments by themselves, and did not know that they were supported by the balance of the division, which was out of sight behind on account of the timber, and he conceived the happy idea of rushing upon and capturing the two regiments to get their arms to supply his own unarmed men. So he took all the available force he had -- some 8,000 or 9,000 men -- and made an attack with what result has already been shown.

This monument, dedicated in 1910, marks where Felix Zollicoffer 
was killed at Battle of Mill Springs.
Now this only goes to prove that, in order to put this rebellion down, we must do something. In this fight four of our regiments whipped and completely routed the great army that was under Zollicoffer, killed the old devil himself, and may be Crittenden too, for he has not been heard of since the battle. The prisoners we have taken estimate our force at 20,000. bah! we can take them at any time, and at any place, and giving them the odds three to one, and whip them every time. Their cause is a bad one; they know it; and the only way their men can be induced to fight at all is by their leaders getting in the very front of them.

The Second Minnesota captured a banner from the Mississippi regiment, which had on it "the Mississippi Butchers.'' They may be good butchers, at home, but they made a mighty awkward fist at butchering Yankees. They had better go home and attend to their business. Nearly every man has a trophy of this victory; there are plenty to get, certain; and I sit writing this, now, with a Louisiana Zouave head-dress and tassel on my head, I give you a copy of two or three of the documents found in the camp. The following was found on a table, in one of the cabins:

"Colonel Spears: We fought you bravely and desperately, but misguidedly, We leave here under pressing circumstances, but do not feel that we are whipped. We will yet succeed, and --

Here the circumstances became so pressing that the writer did not wait to finish his epistle. Col. [James G.] Spears supposes the writer to be Major John W. Bridman, of the Tennessee cavalry.

The following was written on a piece of brown paper, with a pencil:

A post-war image of Abram Fulkerson,
 a Confederate officer who, in his army's
hasty retreat, left a document behind.

"Jan. 19, 1862. FISHING CREEK 

"The great battle at Fishing Creek took place. Our loss was great. Supposed to be eight hundred killed and wounded, and great many taken prisoners. We will try them again at our breast-works if they come to us."

At the bottom of the paper, up-side down, is a name I cannot make out, and then "Polasky."

Here is another paper, which is evidently the result "of a council of war, held before their force came across the north side of the Cumberland:

"The result of your crossing the river now will be that you will be repulsed and lose all the artillery taken over. "Dec. 4, '61. -- Estill."

"Another 'Wild Cat' disaster is all we can look forward to.


"We will cross over and find that the enemy has retired to a place that we will not deem advisable to attack, and then we will return to this encampment.


Estill is a Colonel from Middle Tennessee, [Abram] Fulkerson is a Major, and one of the big heads of the Secession party of Tennessee. It seems that there was opposition in the camp to the movement on this side of the river, but old Zollicoffer, the head devil of the army, ruled the roast and did come over. Some of these predictions proved to be strictly true; it did turn out to he a "Wild Cat" disaster, only worse, and they did lose all their artillery; and, more than all, the old he-devil Zollicoffer lost his life.

          PANORAMA: At left, memorial markers for Confederates killed at Mill Springs. 
                    The mass grave for Confederates is steps away on the battlefield. 
                                    (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The route {sic] has been complete and total; His whole force is entirely scattered, and if the victory is followed up across the river, they will never rally together again. It is now nearly 3 o'clock in the morning while I write, and, with a few reflections. this already long letter -- perhaps too long -- shall be closed.

What a lucky thing that Zollicoffer was bold enough to attack our forces; had he not done so, no battle would have been fought here for a long time. And this victory can not be credited to the skill of a brigadier-general. The battle was entirely accidental; the position was entirely a chance position, and the men themselves, led by their Colonels, fought the battle and won it. The Tenth Indiana got into the fight supporting their pickets, the Fourth Kentucky and Ninth Ohio rushed in, without orders, to support the Tenth. Whether the Second Minnesota had orders to go in or not I do not know. And these four regiments did all the fighting that was done, and that was enough to whip, the eight regiments Zollicoffer had in the engagement. If these Brigadier-Generals must be paid big wages by the Government, why just pay it to them and let them stay at home, for they are no earthly use among us. Let the men go ahead and wind up this war, it can be done in two months. Secret -- do something.

Would that some abler pen could give you a full and complete account of the rout. I considered it my duty to do my best in an attempt to describe it, but it was hurriedly written, with a willing but weary hand, so excuse the confused parts of the letter.


The Ninth Ohio, which some way I came very near omitting, deserves especial praise. Col. [Robert] McCook rushed his men up just about the time the Tenth Indiana was giving ground. And the Indiana boys say the Ninth fought like tigers, and are just such backers as they would always like to have.

A memorial at a mass grave for Confederates on the Mill Springs battlefield. Below, a close-up.

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