By Steven Wilson – Author of PRESIDENT LINCOLN’S SECRET
In the summer the land was beautiful, rolling like the swells on the sea, falling down to Fishing Creek which sometimes ran green from the thick foliage that hugged the banks, or blue from the clear sky that hung over it.
But it was not summer. The trees were striped of leaves with only dark skeletons remaining, the grass had fallen into a deep sleep with brown husks that crackled under footsteps, and the waters of the Cumberland River, Fishing Creek were an inhospitable gray, broken by white eddies, etched from the cold water by the shallows. In mid-January, 1862 the land prepared itself for war as much as men had, and Kentucky truly became a dark and bloody ground.
The Union troops were commanded by Brigadier General George H. Thomas. He was a career officer, solemn, stout, looking like somebody’s grandfather which his troops lovingly called him “Pap.” He should never have been mistaken for a kindly, befuddled elder. Buried in that broad chest was an iron heart, and when he swung that mighty right hand of his, bearing all the power of Zeus, he could drive his army straight through his opponent’s body. He had been ordered to break up Major General George B. Crittenden’s Confederate army.
The prize, of course, was Kentucky, but not just Kentucky but a good portion of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers over which the border state loomed like a hungry bear. That was the Kentucky that gobbled up rivers, but the other Kentucky was gentle hills, and farmlands from Cincinnati to central Tennessee, a perfect avenue of invasion.
The politicians of Kentucky, in a vain effort to tread water safely between two huge ships, declared they would side neither with the Union, nor the Confederacy. Their attempt at neutrality lasted less than a year.
Felix Zollicoffer had been a soldier, and newspaperman, politician, and comptroller of the State of Tennessee before the war. His appointment to the rank of brigadier general by Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee was only logical. He had served on an early peace commission, hoping to prevent war but that effort was its own lost cause. Zollicoffer raised troops in Tennessee, commanded the District of East Tennessee, and contained the pro-Unionist activities in that region. He levied harsh measures against Union guerillas operating against Confederate authority, fought the battles at Barbourville, and Wildcat Mountain. These were minor events, the first a victory, the second a defeat, but they might have got his blood up.
Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer, commanding the 1st Brigade of Crittenden’s army, and was under orders to hold the Cumberland Gap, preventing Union forces from striking north into the interior of Kentucky. To hold, possess, and otherwise occupy a territory that offered nothing but hardship, was not to Zollicoffer’s liking. The Cumberland Gap was a historic pass, Daniel Boone and all, but it was a miserable location for a garrison and an ambitious brigadier general saw opportunities elsewhere. By the end of the year, 1861, feeling the Gap was amply fortified, Zollicoffer and his army set off for the more civilized realm of western Kentucky.
When Zollicoffer moved his brigade to the banks of the Cumberland River he chose to defend the northern bank, feeling if offered the best opportunities to withstand an attack by Union forces. He was ordered by Crittenden to take his brigade to the more defensible southern bank, and prepare to meet the enemy. Zollicoffer was unable to comply. Very well then, Crittenden ordered, attack Thomas and his Union soldiers at Logan’s Crossroads.
January 19, 1862 was cold, wet, muddy, and generally miserable. The sun was hidden in a slate gray sky, and Zollicoffer’s amateur soldiers were mostly armed with obsolete weapons, led, however bravely, by a neophyte.
Dying on the battlefield at the head of your troops offers up hopes of a heroic eulogy when you death is mourned. Being shot because in the heat of the battle, near dark, because you mistakenly rode into enemy lines, is unfortunate. Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer, suspended, as it were, in the gloom of confusion, mistook Union troops for Confederate soldiers, and forfeited his life.
The Battle Mill Springs, a victory for the Union, resulted in approximately 750 casualties, a number among Civil War battles, is practically negligible. For the unfortunate Zollicoffer, such points hardly matter.
THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF TRAVEL
Capital Plaza Tower 22nd Floor, 500 Mero Street, Frankfort, KY 40601