The Battle of Mill Springs

A colored lithograph of Union forces descending on foot toward Confederate soldiers on a grassy field.
Currier and Ives lithograph of the Battle of Mill Springs

Library of Congress

First Major US Victory in the West

On January 19, 1862, through foggy and mired conditions, federals under Brigadier General George H. Thomas defeated Brigadier General George B. Crittenden's attacking confederate forces. The battle resulted in the US's first major victory in the Western Theater of the American Civil War and the death of Confederate General Felix K. Zollicoffer.

The rout of the enemy was complete . . . They then threw away their arms and dispersed through the mountain byways in direction of Monticello, but are so completely demoralized that I don’t believe they will make a stand short of Tennessee.

Dispatch from US Brig. Gen. George Thomas to US Maj. Gen. George McClellan



Following the events at Fort Sumter, Kentucky declared neutrality in May 1861. President Lincoln, acknowledging its strategic importance, accepted this decision. However, tensions rose as the war progressed. After Confederate General Polk occupied Columbus, Kentucky, the state swung pro-Union and joined the war in September 1861.

Both sides then moved to secure positions and routes within the state. After several battles and skirmishes around the Cumberland Gap, Confederate General Zollicoffer established a camp at Beech Grove on the Cumberland River. Recognizing this as a threat, the Union sent General George Thomas to confront the position. As Thomas approached, Confederate General George Crittenden arrived at Beech Grove. Concerned about the impending attack and his own defenses, Crittenden decided to launch a preemptive strike. This set the stage for a crucial battle on Kentucky soil, known as the Battle of Mill Springs.


The Battle

In hopes of surprising the sleeping Federals, the Confederates trudged through a dark, rain-soaked night but were spotted by Federal pickets. Exchanging fire, the Confederates slowly advanced, forcing the Federals back until confusion stopped them. Believing friendly fire was occurring, Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer rode forward to stop it. However, what he had thought to be Confederate soldiers were, in fact, Federals. His mistake cost him his life. The Confederate attack faltered, and with the outcome in the balance, General Crittenden was forced to assume command.

Taking command, Confederate General Crittenden ordered a general advance at the Federals. Behind a split rail fence, the Federal left held their line against the fierce assault. At times, brutal close-quarters fighting ensued, with soldiers resorting to bayonets and fists. While the Battle at the Fence raged, more Federals joined on the right, pushing their enemy back and turning their flank. Rather than be captured, the Confederates at the fence withdrew, ending Crittenden's advance and the Confederate advantage. The Federals moved forward in a series of surges, one a bayonet charge, spurring the Confederate into a full-scale retreat.

Reorganized the Federal's pursued the remnants of the Confederate army. Cautious of potential ambushes, the advance was slow and methodical. Reaching Moulden's Hill, they faced light resistance and secured the position, then used artillery to bombard the Confederate camp at Beech Grove. Despite calls for an immediate attack, General Thomas opted to wait for daylight.

Believing they were out of options, Confederate General Crittenden decided on a nighttime retreat across the Cumberland River. When the artillery fell silent, the Confederates hastily crossed. At dawn, the Federal assaulted Beech Grove but found their foe had escaped. Having left almost everything behind, the Confederates began a starved, exhausted retreat back into Tennessee.

Last updated: February 4, 2024

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Contact Info

Mailing Address:

Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument
9020 West Highway 80

Nancy, KY 42544



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