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


In 1860, after decades of political controversy, the nation began to fracture. Kentucky, a slave state, stood at a crossroads. Would its citizens proclaim secession or support the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln

On April 12, 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter occurred, signaling the start of the American Civil War. Three days later, in a proclamation, President Lincoln requested aid from all states: 

"I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs, already too long endured."

Kentucky's Governor, Beriah Magoffin, refused the request. Although a supporter of the Confederacy, he viewed it as too risky to choose a side. Kentucky, due to its location, was a social and economic crossroads and could easily become a battleground. On May 16, 1861, the pro-Unon legislature supported Magoffin's decision. 

"Resolved, by the House of Representatives, that this State and the citizens thereof should take no part in the civil war now being waged, except as mediators and friends to the belligerent parties; and that Kentucky should, during the contest, occupy the position of strict neutrality."

President Lincoln reluctantly accepted Kentucky's neutrality rather than lose it entirely. In a letter to O.H. Browning, Lincoln later expressed his thoughts about his birthplace.

"I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol."  

With Kentucky proclaiming neutrally, Lincoln's attention shifted to Tennessee. On June 8, 1861, Tennesseans had narrowly voted to secede; however, pro-Union East Tennessee disputed the results. In a resolution to the state, they wrote:

"...we do earnestly desire the restoration of peace to our whole country, and most especially that our own section of the State of Tennessee shall not be involved in civil war... That the action of the state legislature in passing the so-called 'Declaration of Independence,' and in forming the 'Military League' with the Confederate States, and in adopting other acts looking to a separation of Tennessee from the Government of the United States, is unconstitutional and illegal, and therefore not binding upon us as loyal citizens."

In aid, Lincoln sent two Navy Lieutenants in early July of 1861, Samuel Carter to East Tennessee and William "Bull" Nelson, to Southeast Kentucky. Their assignment was to muster troops as a part of the Kentucky Home Guard, a military group designed to protect Kentucky's neutrality and its pro-Union interests; it was the counterpart to the pro-Confederate State Guard. When the time was right, Lincoln planned to use these soldiers to liberate East Tennessee.  

Fearing the volatile situation in East Tennessee, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate War Department appointed Felix K. Zollicoffer, a local, to command the newly created District of East Tennessee on July 26, 1861: 

"The President directs that you repair to East Tennessee and assume command of that district. Preserve peace, protect the railroads, and repel invasion." 

Many Tennesseans and Kentuckians saw this as an occupation by the Confederates. Despite open hostility, Zollicoffer became aware of Nelson and Carter's actions and wrote to the War Department: 

"A Kentuckian named Nelson, late a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy... is the most prominent man in getting up the threatening invasion of East Tennessee. My information goes to show that they contemplate a movement very soon, but I am not sufficiently advised of their state of preparation. It is becoming difficult to command reliable information, on account of the apprehension felt by spies in that region."   

Before being barred from the region, Carter, with the support of locals, initiated a plan to burn critical railroad bridges. This final action did little harm to the Confederate rail network but spoke volumes about East Tennessee's support of the Union. 

Lincoln's Plan was no longer secret. Pro-Southerners and Conservative Unionists in Kentucky voiced their concerns; however, due to the Confederate's actions, support for neutrality and the Confederacy had faded. A pro-Union majority had been elected into the Kentucky Legislature. 

On August 30, 1861, all progress made by the Union in Kentucky was almost undone. Without President Lincoln's consent, Major General John C. Frémont issued a proclamation placing Missouri under martial law and declaring that all property of those in rebellion would be confiscated. This property included enslaved peoples, who would subsequently be declared free.  

Fear spread through the slave state of Kentucky; however, on September 4, 1861, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk, despite orders to withdraw, ordered Brigadier General Gideon Pillow to take Columbus, Kentucky. Polk wrote to Jefferson Davis, defending his:

"The enemy having descended the Mississippi River... seated himself with cannon and intrenched lines opposite the town of Columbus, Ky., making such demonstrations as left no doubt upon the minds of any of their intentions to seize and forcibly possess said town... It is my intention now to continue to occupy and keep this position."

The enemy force was a brigade under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. Two days later, in response to Polk's actions, Grant took possession of Paducah, Kentucky. In both instances, citizens of Kentucky had asked the occupying force to enter the town in protection from the other. With the occupation of these cities, Kentucky's neutrality officially had been broken, and more Confederate and Federal troops were entering the state by the day. Kentucky had to make a decision.

While Governor Magoffin and the Kentucky Legislature met, President Lincoln addressed the repercussions of the Frémont Emancipation. Although he was against slavery, Lincoln understood the delicate balance the nation was in. In a publicized letter, Lincoln wrote:    

"The particular clause, however, in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberation of slaves, appeared to me to be objectionable, in it's non-conformity to the Act of Congress passed the 6th of last August upon the same subjects; and hence I wrote you expressing my wish that that clause should be modified accordingly -Your answer, just received, expresses the preference on your part, that I should make an open order for the modification, which I very cheerfully do."

Word from the letter spread, calming many and alleviating the situation. Lincoln learned a lot from the crisis that he would later apply to his Emancipation Proclamation.  

On September 18, Kentucky declared the South had broken its neutrality act and that General Grant had responded to the invasion. It would enter the war on the side of the Union. Despite Pro-southern opposition and a veto by Governor McGoffin, a majority decision still passed the resolution.

Last updated: November 22, 2023

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