Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky – January 19, 1862

Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky – January 19, 1862

Among the casualties of the Battle of Mill Springs was Cpl. Joseph Timmons of the 10th Indiana – my maternal grandfather’s great-uncle.  The 10th Indiana fought alongside the 4th Kentucky, famously led by Col. Speed Smith Fry and recruited largely from the area around Danville, KY.  Fry was born near Danville, educated at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and returned to Danville to practice law prior to the Civil War.  Fry ended the war a Major General (Brevet), and is buried in Danville’s Bellevue Cemetery.  Although disputed by some, Fry is credited in many early sources as personally killing General Felix Zollicoffer, a former newspaperman and three-term US Congressman from Columbia, Tennessee, and the commander of the Confederate forces at Mill Springs.  

Joseph Timmons was mortally wounded during the Battle, and died three weeks later. He is buried in the National Cemetery on the Battlefield.  These are personal details of long-ago historical “trivia” – unless the “trivia” affects your family, your grandfather, uncle, brother, with multi-generational impact.  On a broader scale, the Confederate retreat from Kentucky following the Battle of Mill Springs on January 19, coupled with Ulysses S. Grant’s conquest of Forts Henry and Donelson in western Kentucky on February 11-16, pushed Confederate forces out of Kentucky, allowed the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers to become superhighways deep into the Confederacy for Grant’s Union gunboats, and led to the occupation of Nashville by Union troops only a few weeks later. Of such “stuff” history is made.

Excerpts from the account at —

Kentucky Chaos



Felix Zollicoffer (Library of Congress)

Old ravines meandered through the chilly landscape.  They were filled with dense timber, the ground then rising sharply into scrubby hills, or leveling into farm fields with dark split rail fences.  Through it all ran the Cumberland River, much higher and faster than the man on the northern riverbank would like it to be.

Felix Zollicoffer was a dapper man, a former Tennessee journalist and U.S. Congressman who was not foreign to a pistol-duel.  He had briefly seen Indian combat as a militia captain in the 1840s.  That slim experience won him a brigadier general’s commission in the Confederate Army during the fledgling nation’s scramble to get on a war footing.  Here, in southeastern Kentucky in January, 1862, he was the right center of a Confederate strategic line that stretched from the Cumberland Gap to the Mississippi River.

More than 5,000 Southern soldiers were with him, scattered throughout the fortified winter camp that anxious locals referred to as “Zollicoffer’s Den.”  The camp sat in a horseshoe bend of the Cumberland River, surrounded by water on three sides with a 1,200-foot line of earthworks spanning the fourth.

His fleet sat near the riverbank: a small converted paddle-steamer, the Noble Ellis, and two wooden flat-boats.  Several other boats and a pontoon bridge had been swept away by a recent storm.  A few days later, Zollicoffer’s superior, Kentucky-born Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden, had crossed the river to give Zollicoffer a sharp dressing-down.  The horseshoe bend was not a fortress, he declared, it was a trap.  He had in fact been captured in a similar situation during the Mexican War—nowhere to run with an unfordable river in the rear.


The strategic situation in January, 1862.  Kentucky’s proclaimed neutrality was first violated by the Confederate seizure of Columbus.  After the Battle of Mill Springs, Union forces would use the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers to penetrate central Tennessee.  (Library of Congress)

Zollicoffer conceded that ferrying 5,000 soldiers, 12 cannons and all of the army’s horses, wagons, and supplies across the Cumberland with only three rickety boats would be essentially impossible.  Union forces were in the area and the cavalry had been skirmishing on-and-off for days.  His position was well-known to the enemy.  Surely a withdrawal would be discovered and exploited.  The Confederate generals estimated that they were facing between 6,000-10,000 Nationals.  The thought of a surprise attack by a force that size in the middle of the ferrying operation, the 5,000 Confederates substantially divided on either side of the river with no quick way of crossing to help their comrades, was too bitter to contemplate.

They could continue to fortify—Zollicoffer had been working on that landward-facing line of earthworks during the winter.  But Crittenden strongly doubted their effectiveness.  Federals could still cross the river and bombard the Southerners from any direction they pleased, rendering the position fundamentally untenable.  Unable to move backward, unable to stay where they were, the generals turned their plans toward the attack.


Zollicoffer led from the front, giving most of his attention to the 19th Tennessee on the far left of his line, and was thus unable to coordinate an overwhelming, all-in-at-once assault that almost certainly would have broken through the Union roadblock on impact.  His remaining regimental commanders were left out of his sight and without specific orders, resulting in piecemeal attacks that did not take full advantage of the brigade’s numerical superiority.

The Federals held out for the better part of an hour before the Confederates managed to use nearby ravines to outflank the position.  They withdrew “Indian style,” falling back and firing from tree to tree, using the road as a guide, as more Union troops, Col. Speed S. Fry’s 4th Kentucky Volunteers, began to move to the front.

Fry’s Kentuckians met the 10th Indiana and 1st Kentucky Cavalry at the crest of a ridge just south of the main Federal campground.  240 Indianans formed a new line astride the road.  Fry’s 400 deployed behind a split rail fence on their left, facing a belt of cleared ground that dipped quickly into a wooded ravine before rising again into a scrubby ridge some 250 yards down-range.  The remaining cavalrymen formed in a cornfield on Fry’s left flank.


Confederate bullets began to pepper Fry’s position before the battle line was fully formed.  The 15th Mississippi pressed forward into the ravine while the 20th Tennessee kept up a covering fire from the ridge.  Unable to see anything more than scattered musket flashes through the fog, Fry ordered his men to advance over the fence and down the ravine slope.  The Confederate shooting intensified as the Federals moved into the open. Fry quickly realized that he was outnumbered and that behind the fence was a good place to be.  He directed a hasty withdrawal which his men executed in style.

Thinking that the withdrawal signified a disorderly retreat, the Mississippians in the ravine unsheathed their long cane-knives and charged uphill after the Kentuckians.  The limited visibility worked against them now, and they scrambled to within mere yards of the fence before the deafening boom of a Kentucky volley tore through the smoke and fog.  “Our bullets were sent with unerring aim — many rebels shot in the forehead, breast, and stomach,” remembered one Union infantryman.

The surviving Mississippians tumbled back into the ravine as Fry shouted exhortations to his men along the fence.  The 20th Tennessee began to move into the ravine as well, crouching and crawling to avoid the Federal fire.  At this, Fry climbed onto a fence rail and shook his fist at the Confederates, demanding that they stand and “come forward like men!”

The secessionists charged again, with portions of the 20th Tennessee sweeping eastward to strike the Union cavalrymen as the 15th Mississippi hit Fry’s infantry.  The attackers reached the split rails and for desperate moments the two sides poured point-blank musketry into each other from either side of the fence.  The Confederates fell back, reformed, charged again, and were repulsed again.  They took cover in the ravine and kept up a hot firefight with the Kentuckians.


Gen. Zollicoffer struggled to make headway against determined Union resistance.  (Hal Jespersen)


Gen. Zollicoffer was still hanging near the 19th Tennessee during the struggle for the fence.  The 19th was fighting the remnants of the 10th Indiana on the road, but the Southerners could barely see the force opposing them.  When a new group of men came into view roughly 100 yards ahead and to the right, Zollicoffer thought that they represented the left flank of the 15th Mississippi, although the direction of their shooting came dangerously close to the 19th Tennessee.  The general, concerned about friendly fire and perhaps recognizing that his offensive was sputtering, rode through the smoke to reconnect with the wayward regiment and renew the attack.

Speed Fry
Col. Speed Fry (Library of Congress)

The mysterious soldiers were not Mississippians—they belonged to Fry’s 4th Kentucky Volunteers.  Fry himself rode out to greet Zollicoffer, whose Confederate uniform was concealed by a long rain jacket.  Zollicoffer drew rein about thirty yards from the Union line and the two officers came so close that their knees touched.

“We must not shoot our own men,” Zollicoffer told the Union colonel.  Fry was plainly wearing a Federal uniform, but Zollicoffer was near-sighted.  Or perhaps he had realized his mistake, and was now bluffing for time.

“Of course not,” Fry replied, “I would not shoot our own men intentionally.”  He did not recognize Zollicoffer, but thought him to be an unmet officer from Sam Carter’s brigade, which had only recently arrived.

“Those are our own men.” Zollicoffer pointed towards the 19th Tennessee.

Now somewhat suspicious, Fry rode twenty or thirty yards past Zollicoffer to examine the situation for himself.  As he peered through the smoke, a Confederate staff officer dashed from behind a tree and called to Zollicoffer, “it’s the enemy, General!”

The unknown officer drew his pistol and shot Fry’s horse before turning to make his escape.  A Kentucky rifleman shot him down.  Zollicoffer pulled out his pistol and emptied it in Fry’s direction.  Unscathed, Fry shouted, “that’s your game, is it?” and returned fire with his Colt Navy .36, striking Zollicoffer in the chest.  Two more bullets from the Kentucky infantry killed him.

Read the complete article, with other maps and photos, at


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