Alvis Duncan Hicks in the Civil War

Garry D. Nation.

2010, 2011  All rights reserved.


Chapter VI

Mill Springs: Soldiers at Last

The Least Appreciated Union Victory of the Civil War

January 19, 1862


November was hard on the volunteer soldiers from Tennessee. The morale of the troops, so high after the victory at Wildcat, plunged drastically.  The weather was miserable, damp, and cold with no relief.  About a third of the men were sick, many critically so. The promised uniforms and arms were still inexplicably held up in a bureaucratic backwater. The Tennesseans, still clothed as civilians and equipped like a militia with old-model weapons and paraphernalia, stood out like misfits against the blue-clad Ohioans and Illinoisans.  Besides this, they were increasingly reinforcing the opinion of their regular Army superiors that they were clamorous, unruly, and unreliable.  From their own point of view, they were simply responding to an outrageous situation.

As citizens in a democratic society they were used to asking their leaders questions, receiving explanations from them, and requiring them to defend their decisions. Soldiers, however, don’t get explanations, only orders, and all their orders so far were perplexing to the point of madness: Move forward; make camp; be ready to march tomorrow; hold up, the new orders now are to wait.  Reinforce-ments will be coming in days—but reinforcements don’t arrive.  Now they are hearing every day about the dire situation of the patriots in East Tennessee, but not only are they forbidden to march to their relief, the army is ordered instead to pull back.

Regardless of Buell’s strategic intent for the pullback, it was widely regarded on both sides of the lines as a retreat.  When the Rebels heard about it they whooped and hollered, and called it “the Wildcat Stampede.” Union troops—and not just the ones from Tennessee—were disgusted and bitter, and despised the thought of giving up ground that they had paid for in blood.

By this point the murmuring had reached a fever pitch, and it is no exaggeration to say that the regiments were on the verge of mutiny.  In fact a near mutiny actually did take place on the night of November 13 when garbled orders mistakenly caused the Tennessee regiments to pull out from their London camp along with the rest of Thomas’s command. (Apparently it was Albin Schoepf’s mistake, but the men blamed Thomas and Buell.)  Furious with the order, many Tennesseans threw their guns on the ground and swore they would not obey it.      S. P. Carter wrote a week later to Horace Maynard, giving an understated description of that day:

I was intensely mortified at the hesitancy of some of our Tennesseeans [sic] to move on when they found they had to take that road leading to Crab Orchard. They had oft the impression we were returning to Camp Robinson to winter, but after I spoke a few words to them they obeyed the order to march.

What Carter calls “a few words” was actually a prolonged brigade meeting in which he stood before his men and brought to bear all his skills of persuasion to keep his regiments from falling apart then and there. Even after their brigadier prevailed upon their patience, an eyewitness account says “hundreds of them wept as they turned their backs on their homes.”1   Carter’s account continues:

Many fell out during the night and some deserted. Our losses amount to about 40 to 45. We were without transportation, and were forced to leave almost the entire camp standing and every one of

Brigadier General Samuel P. Carter

our tents behind. The roads were in a terrible state, and large numbers of men from the various regi-ments fell out on the way from sheer exhaustion. When I reached Dr. Josslin's I learned for the first time we were to return to this place.

Carter made sure Maynard understood that the unhappiness of his men had less to do with hardship than with the continuing frustration of not being permitted to march back to their home territory.  It was a frustration that Carter himself shared.

Our men are most anxious to return to Eastern Tennessee, not so much to see their families as to drive the rebels from the country. We are all inclined to think that help will be deferred until it is too late to save our people. This ought not to be so.

For several days the confusion and frustration continued, made worse by the sluggishness of communications.  The roads were so battered by rain and traffic that soon even lightly traveling couriers couldn’t get messages from one point to another earlier than the following day—and sometimes the day after that.

No sooner did the brigade arrive back at Camp Calvert than Carter received an alarm from Barboursville that a 5000-strong rebel force had advanced to Flat Lick, a mere thirty-two miles away.  Surveying his own force—barely 2000 able men occupying a vulnerable position with no artillery—he put the men on alert and determined to move toward Somerset before an attack came.  On the morning of November 19 he sent an urgent dispatch to Thomas

Brig. General George Thomas

informing him of the situation and his decision to withdraw. 

On the 20th Thomas replied that he could give no support, explaining with suppressed chagrin that he was under Buell’s orders to fall back all the way to Lebanon and consolidate his command there. At this point all Thomas could give him was a measure of liberty to act: “You must exercise your best judgment.”

Later in the afternoon of the 20th, Carter received more accurate reports of the enemy force and advance and concluded that earlier alarms were “much exaggerated.” In his update he assured Thomas that he was no longer under duress and it would probably not now be necessary to withdraw immediately.  Even a more timely and orderly withdrawal, however, would require the destruction of food and supplies that could not be transported for lack of wagons.  He added this reminder for Thomas:

Recruits are arriving almost every day from East Tennessee. We have no arms to put into their hands. The Union men coming to us represent the arrival of the Federal forces. They are all ready to join them and do their part towards the deliverance of their native land. Union camps are already forming in some of the counties, and unless help soon reaches them, as they have but little ammunition, they will be scattered or destroyed.

Carter closed his letter expressing “the hope of seeing you soon here.”  Thomas, however, was occupied with fulfilling Buell’s orders—orders that seemed to have little to do with the situation on the ground.  He had planned to go by way of Columbia, but that route proved impractical.  Going north was not much easier, and he had only been able to make it as far as Stanford.  As of the 21st he was still expecting Carter to evacuate London by Saturday the 23rd, informing Buell that delays in their withdrawal were aggravated because roads were

Maj. General

D. C. Buell

“in wretched condition, and the animals are very much reduced.” 

On Thursday the 21st Carter sent a detachment of more than 600 men from the 1st Tennessee under Lt. Col. James Spears down the road toward Flat Lick to do reconnaissance, and if possible to intercept horse-mounted raiders on their “thieving expeditions.”

He also took time that evening to write to Horace Maynard the above-referenced letter in which he described the near-mutiny of the previous week.  “General Thomas has left Crab Orchard, and we are here to look out for ourselves,” he wrote forlornly.  “I have no information as to the plans of General Buell,” but he predicted they would soon be marching to Somerset, which means he already had some indication of Zollicoffer’s movements.  Always mindful of time slipping away from the patriots in East Tennessee, he pleaded, “Can you not get those in power to give us a few more men and permission to make at least an effort to save our people? It is our duty.”  Later that evening Spears returned with the report that the enemy had withdrawn from this section of Kentucky leaving only a token force at Cumberland Gap, the bulk of them having apparently moved west toward Jamestown, Tennessee.

If the Confederate pullback quickened any hopes of being able to breach the Cumberland Gap and begin the liberation of East Tennessee, they were dashed the next morning on receipt of the order from Thomas dated two days previous, directing Carter to break up camp in London and proceed to Columbia.  If Carter was perturbed, however, he did not complain to his superior, and—aware of his men’s growing reputation for crankiness—made sure Thomas had no doubts that his men were ready to move “to any point where there is a prospect of meeting our common enemy.”

On Friday Buell changed his mind and issued a communiqué instructing Thomas to let Carter’s regiments stay put “if they have not started to move.”  Thomas received it on Saturday and immediately forwarded the command to Carter, accompanied by a note that “the order to break up camp was based upon orders received from department headquarters”—an indication that Thomas was as irritated by all these changeable orders as his confused subordinates.

At last on Monday the 25th Carter received the dispatch that Thomas had relayed on the 23rd,  reversing the order to depart London.  “The order to remain was received with general satisfaction,” he reported to the general—another understatement by the acting-brigadier (elsewhere he says “all [were] elated”).  He added that most of the men who deserted on the night of the 13th were back in the ranks.  Hoping that there might still be an operation into Tennessee, he helpfully informed the general that the Cumberland Gap now had only a token force of rebels.  He also urged Thomas to hasten the paymaster forward—the single best way to restore troop morale.

Carter again mentioned the plight of the bridge burners.  His concern for them was genuine and personal, and also reflected the heart of his Tennesseans.  On that same Monday he wrote to Horace Maynard:

If something is not done, and that speedily, our people will be cut up and ruined. A column should be ordered to move into Eastern Tennessee, one detailed for that purpose and no other, to go without reference to any other movement, with the specific object of relieving our people, simply on account of their loyalty and as though it were entirely disconnected with any military advantages.

As for the men, “many would sooner perish in battle than turn their back towards the Tennessee line again.”

Their impatience for a move on East Tennessee was mirrored in Washington.  On the 27th Buell received a wire from a perplexed McClellan, demanding, “What is the reason for concentration of troops at Louisville? I urge movement at once on Eastern Tennessee, unless it is impossible.”  McClellan’s follow-up letters were more expansive, using every means short of preemptive command to urge Buell toward making this move.  He even included copies of the letters Carter had sent to Maynard—which he had received from the hand of Lincoln—with notes to “please read and consider.” (This could not have endeared the brigadier-in-waiting to his commanding general, but there is no direct evidence that Buell retaliated against his junior officer—or that he reacted at all).

Buell, however, was a master at parrying pointed questions and advisory directives with long, foggy, detail-packed replies in which he led the challenger to believe he had won his point, while he continued to follow his own course regardless.  He had no intention of invading East Tennessee, but it was not politically expedient to say so explicitly. Instead he experimented with different ways of explaining his plans without actually saying that they didn’t include the immediate liberation of East Tennessee.  His eyes were firmly fixed on Nashville and he did not want to be sucked into letting his army be a mere support vehicle, whether for McClellan in the East or Halleck in the West.


In the meantime Zollicoffer had regrouped from his setback the month before, and had shifted his attention westward.  The Wilderness Road was effectively blocked, so he would take a way that would bypass the wilderness altogether. Since Buell had pulled his command north of the Cumberland River, Zollicoffer could take his forces fairly deep into Kentucky west of the mountain ridge with little or no resistance.  From November 20 on there were steady reports of threatening movements, and as early as the 27th his

Brigadier General

Felix K. Zollicoffer

advance cavalry had made camp in the neighborhood of Mill Springs.

At this point there was only one regiment standing in his path, W. A. Hoskins’ 4th Kentucky Volunteers, camped outside of Somerset.  Thomas asked for Buell’s permission to send Schoepf with a half brigade from Lebanon to reinforce Hoskins.  He got it, along with vague instructions to “be at all times ready to advance.”  Meanwhile Hoskins was feeling the urgency—very much like Col. Garrard at Wildcat, only with not nearly as defensible a position. Not only did he send repeated requests to Thomas for artillery, but he also sent a request for reinforcements directly to Carter in London. Carter, of course, could not relieve Hoskins without orders, and requested them from Thomas.  Thomas, in turn, had to get permission from Buell for every move outside of the standing orders.

Buell got it fixed in his mind early on, however, that Zollicoffer was headed to Bowling Green to link up with Buckner, although he did acknowledge that the Confederates might “try by demonstrations to drive us from Somerset, or even attack there if we are not watchful.” He had placed Thomas in command of a division and a territory, but forbid him to move his forces without orders from Louisville.  For the time being his division was little more than a list of active units, widely scattered and lacking cohesion. 

In the midst of this, the Tennesseans’ situation could hardly have been more confused.  Although Carter’s brigade (now identified as the 12th Brigade and including the 31st Ohio and 6th Kentucky regiments along with his 1st and 2nd Tennessee Volunteers) was under Thomas’s command, yet as late as December 2 Buell was sending independent orders directly to Carter, essentially anchoring him as a sentry along the Wilderness Road, out of the way of any significant action. (Perhaps this was Buell’s disguised way of retaliating against Carter for going over his head and complaining to Lincoln and McClellan via Maynard. Even so, Carter did not mind because he hoped to march from there into East Tennessee.)

Thomas commended Carter’s restraint and adherence to the chain of command, and acknowledged Buell’s intention to keep the 12th Brigade at London for a while longer. He also assured Carter that if his men were moved it would not be to the rear, but laterally to Somerset, which was increasingly becoming a point under threat.  Meanwhile Carter wrote again to Thomas, who was now at Lebanon, now requesting to move to Somerset—for a number of reasons.  The chief, of course, was the massing of Rebels in that zone, but there were others, including “the sickness of our men and the increased malignity of disease.”  Finding forage for animals in the exhausted region of London was also rapidly becoming a critical issue.

In the same letter he noted that earlier in the day (Wednesday, December 4) his brother Col. James P. T. Carter, the commanding officer of the 2nd Tennessee, had departed for headquarters at Louisville “to see if he can get arms for the recruits of his regiment.”  While there he sought a meeting with the commanding general regarding the status of the plan for East Tennessee.  On the 8th Buell acknowledged in a wire to Horace Maynard that he had personally met with Carter, and hoped that the colonel was “satisfied” of his concern for the patriots of East Tennessee.  It is probable that the colonel’s hopes for his long ride to Louisville exceeded what he came away with.2

At Camp Goggin southwest of Somerset, Albin Schoepf was on edge. The Confederates began shelling Hoskins’s camp from across the river at Somerset in a fairly obvious move of misdirection, and Schoepf realized they would not attempt a direct attack but would cross further downstream. He now had reliable information that a large Confederate force was massing at Mill Springs, accumulating boats and barges, and was preparing to cross the river. As early as Monday December 2 he began taking steps to block such a move, dispatching a company

Brigadier General

Albin Schoepf

from the 1st Kentucky Cavalry to a point opposite Mill Springs.  They were to monitor Zollicoffer and send a report immediately if a crossing should be attempted.  He then ordered a regiment of infantry, the 17th Ohio, and a battery of artillery to get a head start in that direction while he prepared to bring the 38th Ohio down to Somerset. The 38th, as it turned out, was woefully short of ammunition, so he began to look around for alternatives.
Zollicoffer was indeed determined to send his forces to make camp on the
north bank of the Cumberland, much to the surprise of the Federals—and to the consternation of his immediate superior Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden.  Zollicoffer’s brigade had been consolidated with a division under the command of this hard-drinking Kentuckian, a West Point-graduate who was the elder son of a U.S.-loyal politician.  Zollicoffer had already marched his brigade up from Jamestown, Tennessee to the hamlet of Mill Springs.  Crittenden approved of Zollicoffer’s position, directed other regiments his way, and ordered him to hold there.  His evident intention was to

Maj. General

George B. Crittenden

follow A. S. Johnston’s strategy of drawing the Federals into making a first strike across the river, so that they could trap them with the river at their back.  Mill Springs provided a commanding view and good lines of fire from a bluff overlooking the river. 

The journalist-turned-general, however, disliked the hilly environs of Mill Springs.  He thought the level ground on the north side of the Cumberland would provide a better winter camp, so he ignored the order and decided to cross anyway.

Schoepf’s plan to intercept Zollicoffer and disrupt his river crossing was already behind the pace, but it was rendered completely hopeless by the cowardice of the captain who was in command of the cavalry company.  After running into some scout pickets from the Rebel army, Captain Dillon decided that his assignment was unreasonably hazardous and made camp barely two miles south of Fishing Creek, not less than six miles away from where he was supposed to go.  Not only did he not fulfill his reconnaissance mission, he did not even send out security pickets. 

By the time the infantry caught up with them on the morning of the 5th, Zollicoffer’s brigade had already crossed in force.  Schoepf himself showed up before noon with his captain of engineers, intending to see where he needed to set a battery to prevent the Rebels from crossing.  Instead he was shocked to see the 17th Ohio retreating across the creek without having fired a shot, with Zollicoffer safely across the river and setting up a perimeter at Beech Grove.  Furious, he blamed the cavalry officer for his predicament, put him under arrest, and sent him to Louisville for court martial.  He could not now attack Zollicoffer with the force at hand, however.  He would have to remain encamped at Somerset and wait for reinforcements.  

At Beech Grove Zollicoffer began to fortify and make winter camp.  He was confident of his decision. "From this camp as a base of operations, I hope in mild weather to penetrate the country toward London or Danville," he wrote Johnston, seemingly unaware that he had just made a terrible blunder.  He had violated not only his orders, but also every sound military doctrine of deployment.  With the river at his own back and with limited exit routes he risked being cornered.  Moreover, he assumed that the river would be a channel of ready supply, but the unusually heavy early-winter rains soon brought the river to flood stage and made it impassible.  Cut off from their supply line, Zollicoffer’s troops soon had to scavenge for food.  That did not endear them to the locals, whose livestock, laid-up stores, and miscellaneous tools and supplies were taken.  The neighbor folk also did not appreciate the preachy propaganda sent out by the former newspaper editor from Nashville.

Zollicoffer’s Camp at Beech Grove opposite Mill Springs

Why Zollicoffer made his decision has been the subject of a good deal of speculation.  Some have suggested that he was still stung by “Zolly’s Folly”—the Wilderness Road invasion that was stopped at Wildcat—and had something to prove.  Others speculate that he resented the promotion over him of someone he probably regarded as a drunkard, and wanted to make his own move before Crittenden arrived to countermand him.  Still others observe that he had little experience as a soldier, let alone as commander, and despite his zeal was out of his depth.  There is perhaps some truth in all of these points.  Certainly his decision to cross was consistent with the aggressive character he had already shown in his months-long career as a general.  Crittenden heard about it in Knoxville while in transit to his new commission and was appalled.  He ordered Zollicoffer to withdraw back across the Cumberland to Mill Springs, but Zollicoffer decided to wait until he arrived so he could talk him out of it.

The generals opposing him were unable to capitalize quickly on Zolly’s new folly for a number of reasons. The inclement weather was a large factor.  It rained almost every day, and on some days it stormed, and that impeded not only the movement of the army, but also communications and intelligence gathering.  It took several days and multiple reports to convince Buell of the size and seriousness of Zollicoffer’s threat.  Meanwhile Buell was still tinkering with his command structure.  Thomas’s 1st Division was not even a week old, when on December 5 Buell issued a special order detaching S. P. Carter’s 12th Brigade from Thomas with instructions to report directly to Buell’s headquarters. 

Albin Schoepf, however, continued to send pleas for reinforcements to Thomas.  Reverting to the former chain of command, Schoepf actually directly ordered Carter to come from Lebanon.  Carter, however, under orders from Buell to stay put in London, prudently waited to be released before he moved.  Due to the difficulty of communications, there was confusion between the commanders regarding who was moving and who was not.  Adding to the confusion were rumors that a large Confederate force was massing at the Cumberland Gap preparing for a major invasion of eastern Kentucky.3

Wires passed between Thomas and Buell, and finally Buell permitted Thomas to release Carter’s brigade to Somerset, but to send no more “until you report to me; [Schoepf’s] force was sufficient at first.”  Reversing the previous day’s directive, the 12th Brigade (which included the 2nd Tennessee) was re-attached to the 1st Division of the Army of the Ohio under Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas. (Adding to the confusion, Carter did not receive the original order detaching the 12th until a full week later, well after he had deployed to Somerset.  Then the brigade was detached again on 19 December! It is not clear if that last order went through, or when the 12th Brigade was finally reattached to the 1st Division.)

By Saturday the 7th the Tennesseans started out on the muddy westward road to Somerset, a march of about thirty-five miles.  Thomas had also previously ordered the 31st Ohio to Schoepf’s aid, but Buell held them up and they remained at Camp Dick Robinson.  He still did not regard Zollicoffer as a serious threat, just one of many “roving bugbears.”  His message to Thomas was, “The affairs at Somerset are annoying, but I do not intend to be diverted more than necessary from more important purposes,” namely the massing of his forces for a major offensive focused on Nashville.

According to Jack Snow’s account the 2nd Tennessee’s A Company was one of the advance units of the brigade, so the road Alvis and Will Hicks trod was not as spoiled as it might have been for those further back in the column.   It was not a pleasant march, but neither was it totally miserable.  The weather was cloudy and chilly but the rain had let up, and the road, though muddy, was passable.  There were some steep and rough hills to cross, but they were hardly comparable to the arduous ascent to Wildcat.  The only real delay was crossing the Rockcastle River, whose swift flow and narrow ford made crossing slow and hazardous and stacked up the column for many hours. On Monday afternoon Carter’s Tennesseans arrived at their destination and made camp about three miles east of Somerset.  Schoepf was not satisfied, believing that he was still outnumbered by as much as two-to-one.

Zollcoffer, meanwhile, spent the days building a secure winter camp with breastworks on the perimeter field position, and with sturdy log cabin barracks for the men.  His pickets regularly tested Shoepf’s and there were small skirmishes, but no major movements.  Communication and supply became acute problems for Schoepf, partly because of weather and road conditions, and partly because of interference from enemy patrols.  Messages sent to Thomas took up to four days.

Among the problems that had to be dealt with in the camp was the issue of “contraband,” i.e., fugitive slaves.  Occasionally one came in who supplied accurate intelligence regarding enemy numbers and position.  Most were simply supplicants for food and shelter.  Sensitive to the fact that Kentucky was a slave state, Thomas’s standing order was to forbid the acceptance of fugitive slaves into a Union camp.  Carter, however, was receiving some who had escaped from secessionists and Rebel officers, and were being employed as servants by his own officers.  He sent for and received clearance from Buell’s headquarters for “exceptions.”

After many conflicting reports of Confederate numbers and position, on December 18 Schoepf determined to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force, with his own brigade taking one road and Carter’s taking another.  Both columns had clashes with cavalry pickets about 2 ½ miles from the Rebel camp, but no tactical advantage was gained.  The exercise was not without worth, however.  Schoepf and Carter learned that the terrain greatly limited the usefulness of artillery, and saw firsthand that Zollicoffer was well-fortified and could not be easily dislodged.  Also, the Tennessee volunteers got to participate in a maneuver with a potential for battle—although the long day of marching out and back with no engagement probably did little to relieve their pent-up frustrations.

The week leading up to Christmas was quiet in the Somerset/Fishing Creek area. There were occasional visual contacts with the enemy on scouting rounds, but little or no shooting.  Two days before Christmas Carter wrote to Thomas concerning a still-absent company commander from the 2nd Tennessee, Captain David Fry,

… detailed for special service in October last, by your orders, and left for Tennessee in company with my brother, Rev. W. B. Carter. I fear that he has been captured by the rebels, and if not, that he is so enveloped by them as to leave but little hope of his being able to return to his regiment. His company is of course still without a captain. I wish your advice as to whether it will or will not be advisable, under the circumstances, to have the position filled by a new appointment. I write at the request of the colonel of the Second Regiment [viz., James P. T. Carter].


The 2nd Tennessee celebrated Christmas at their camp near Somerset.  On this first Christmas of the war the mood was melancholy, but not terribly tense.  The camp was not on high alert and the men not on duty wandered about the neighborhood more or less freely.  Paul Grogger retained a vivid memory of that day.

On Christmas day I felt somewhat lonesome, as I had always enjoyed myself at home with my friends before.  So to pass time I went to town, where I saw a great crowd of soldiers thronged at the whiskey cellar.  They demanded the owner to open it, to which he did not comply but reported the impetuosity of the soldiers to the officers, upon which they immediately ordered the liquor to be poured out.  So I saw nineteen barrels of whiskey emptied and running down the streets like a branch in wet weather, and the soldiers was again knocked out of their Christmas treats, only what few filled their canteens as it run down the streets. [sic]

He wryly adds, “I myself didn’t fall short by it, as I got what I wanted from a citizen who had just come in from the country.”

That same Christmas Day the commander of the Confederate army, A. S. Johnston, wrote with evident chagrin, "The position of General Zollicoffer on the Cumberland holds in check the meditated invasion and hoped-for revolt in East Tennessee; but I can neither order Zollicoffer to join me here nor withdraw any more force from Columbus without imperiling our communications toward Richmond or endangering Tennessee and the Mississippi Valley." His best hope was that Crittenden would find some way to remedy Zollicoffer’s mistake, perhaps by exploiting the sluggish consolidation of Union forces.

Schoepf continued trying by various moves and probes to draw Zollicoffer out of his fortified position and into an open engagement, but without success.  Buell was not impressed with the Hungarian-born general’s performance and confided to McClellan, “Schoepf is not incompetent, but has not shown much enterprise at Somerset. I must reserve my judgment about him.”  Buell might have developed a more favorable impression of the brigade commander if he had approved a hammer-and-tongs attack plan Schoepf had proposed about two weeks earlier.  It would, however, have required the participation and movement of Thomas’s full division, and Buell was not ready to commit to that.

Finally, however, Buell did decide that Zollicoffer had led himself into a trap and that it would be a shame to let him get out of it.  (John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry raids and bridge-burning in mid-December helped him make up his mind regarding the seriousness of the Rebel encroachment in that sector.) He released Thomas to move, and also handed his division commander a pre-drawn plan of attack. It included the advice that “the move should be made rapidly and secretly” and “without any tarrying on the road.” He was looking for a way to make Thomas’s attack on Zollicoffer the beginning of a coordinated movement, while appearing to be only an isolated strike.

Such plans made so remotely from the action invariably run into trouble as soon as they reach the place of battle, but in this case Buell’s plan had problems even making it to the battlefield.    Thomas set out from Lebanon, Kentucky on New Year’s Day.  The bone-chilling rain seemed to have no letup. The weather and the awful road conditions conspired with the enemy to turn a march of a few days into a slog that consumed the better part of a month. 

Even an experienced army would have had a difficult time making that march, but many of the troops and even the animal teams were “raw” according to Thomas’s own description, and it would have been difficult to move them under good conditions.  Wagons and cannons sank up to their axles.  Supplies could not catch up to the infantry and the men often suffered through cold days and nights without rations. A pot of hot coffee was precious treasure. The men could not help but notice that the gray mud they scraped off their boots was the same color as the soap they were issued, and the common joke was that they were marching to protect the army’s supply of soap.   One forty-mile stretch alone took eight grueling days.  On the 13th Thomas wrote to Buell, “The road, which has been represented as good, is the worst I ever saw, and the recent rains have made it one continuous quagmire.”  The road ahead, he added, “is represented by my scouts as much worse than the roads the command has already passed over.”

To be continued: “Logan’s Crossroads”


  1. 1.R. M. Kelly, “Holding Kentucky for the Union” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

  2. 2.It is also possible that Buell did not understand with which Carter brother he was conferring and thought he had spoken to S. P. Carter.  The idea is not farfetched.  Many generals kept a professional distance from their subordinates, but Buell engaged in that practice to an extreme.  He seldom saw anyone below his division commanders, and kept such meetings as he had with them cordial but brief.  If Buell and his staff in fact confused James P. T. Carter with Samuel P. Carter, it would explain a minor mystery.  Buell’s official records of the battle of Mill Springs refer to the commander of Thomas’s 12th Brigade as “Col. Samuel P. Carter.”  S. P. Carter never held the rank of colonel, either officially or informally.  He entered the war as a U. S. Navy lieutenant on special duty, and in January 1862 was still awaiting official confirmation of his rank as brigadier general of volunteers.  In the meantime he was acting presumptively in that rank, and was so recognized by his subordinates and peers, and by his immediate superior George Thomas.  It would seem that Buell and/or his staff was either ignorant or disdainful of his rank, to the point of ignoring statements in his reports and in those of others.  The most generous interpretation of this slight is that there must have been a misunderstanding somewhere in the Army of the Cumberland headquarters.

  3. 3.There actually was a brigade under Humphrey Marshall that threatened as far north as the Big Sandy River. To counter the threat Buell sent a brigade under an up-and-coming young colonel named James A. Garfield.  Garfield defeated Marshall in a small-scale battle at Middle Creek on January 10, securing the left wing of Buell’s line.

  4. 4.Cited in Christopher Einolf, George Thomas, Virginian for the Union, p. 115.