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  • James Houser

January 19, 1862 - Battle of Mill Springs

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

George H. Thomas is one of my favorites. Mill Springs, though, is a forgotten battle.

January 19, 1862. Two small American armies clash on a cold, wet morning in Kentucky. The result is the first Union battlefield victory of the Civil War. The Virginian who led the Union forces, George Thomas, is one of the most underappreciated generals in the whole conflict.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the state of Kentucky had tried to stay neutral. Considering that it was right between the Union and Confederate states, and that any advance by the North would require it to advance through Kentucky, this was more or less a hopeless gesture. Neither side wanted to "violate" Kentucky's neutrality first, though, since any such move could drive the border state to join the other side.

Which is why the Confederates did the dumb thing and moved first. When Southern General Leonidas Polk moved north and seized the key city of Columbus, Kentucky in September 1861, he drove Kentucky into the Union. His opposite number, a little-known general named Grant, promptly occupied several key Kentucky cities as well. All across the state, Confederate and Union troops started moving in and squaring off. The struggle for Kentucky was on.

Civil War in the Western Theater, Sept 1861-Apr 1862. See Thomas up in the northeast for the location of Mill Springs

One of these forces, in eastern Kentucky near Lexington, was under the command of George Henry Thomas. Stout, calm, and quiet, Thomas was an anomaly in the Union Army. You see, George Thomas was a Virginian, and not just any Virginian: the son of a wealthy slaveholding family. As a boy, he and his family had nearly been killed by Nat Turner's slave uprising in 1831. While most Southerners took this experience as a warning about the dangers of freeing the slaves, young George took it as a sign of the evils of slavery and the need to end it. Angering his family and violating Virginia law, Thomas taught many of the family's slaves to read.

As a young officer, Thomas had been his future commander William T. Sherman's roommate at West Point, and fought with great distinction in the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War came, every Southern officer in the U.S. Army had a choice to make. Thomas refused to follow the example of his commanding officer, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd US Cavalry and instead joined the side of the Union.

General George Henry Thomas, USA

Thomas's family disowned him for his "betrayal" of Virginia. They turned his picture against the wall, destroyed his letters, and would never speak to him again. Even after the war, he tried to send some money to his poverty-stricken sisters, but they refused to accept it, claiming "they had no brother." J.E.B. Stuart, a fellow Virginian and famous Confederate cavalry commander, once claimed that he would kill Thomas if he ever saw him again.

Either way, Thomas was here in Kentucky now, commanding a small Union army pushing deeper into the state. He was opposed by a larger Confederate army under George Crittenden and Felix Zollicoffer, and he decided to wait for reinforcements near a place called Mill Springs due to the weather and the larger enemy force. The Confederates, instead, decided to attack him.

Marching all night through freezing rain and slippery mud, the Confederates arrived on January 19, 1862, but Thomas recovered quickly from the surprise. He immediately threw reinforcements into the battle and began to flank the Confederates. Having lost his home and his family due to his unshakable personal morals, on the battlefield Thomas was just as unshakable. Where other commanders would have panicked, he remained calm and serene.

Print from Currier & Ives, 1862

The Confederates quickly found out that Crittenden was drunk, so Zollicoffer was forced to take charge. Wearing a conspicuous white raincoat, Zollicoffer heard the sounds of Kentucky accents coming from a body of troops, and he rode over on his horse to give them orders. In the rain and fog, he did not realize that these Kentuckians wore blue. Several bullets felled him, and he died on the spot.

Battle of Mill Springs, via Hal Jaspersen for Wiki

With their command decapitated, the Confederates were confused. Thomas arranged for a double envelopment - a strike on both Confederate flanks - and the Southerners collapsed. Sprinting for Tennessee, they didn't stop until they reached Murfreesboro. Eastern Kentucky was safe for the Union.

This was the first of George Thomas's victories, but not his last. From this first great union victory in the west, Mill Springs, to his last and most stunning victory at Nashville in 1864, Thomas was one of the Union's best generals. He never got the publicity of Grant or Sherman, but unlike them, he never had a family to go home to, during or after the war. He died in 1870, never receiving true credit for his ability or his sacrifices.

For a modern biography of George Thomas, go with Brian Wills' George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012). For general histories of the Civil War, James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) is unbeatable.

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