At the Jan. 17 meeting of the Madison County Civil War Roundtable, author Stuart Sanders presented an inspiring perspective of battlefield decisions by generals at the Battle of Mill Springs.
The former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association, Sanders is the author of “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle” as well as a contributor to multiple Civil War history volumes.
Confederate Maj. Gen. George Crittenden made a tragic decision prior to the battle near present-day Nancy in Pulaski County.
Born in Russellville, the general was a son of Kentucky statesman John J. Crittenden.
George Crittenden learned that Federal forces under Maj. Gen. George Thomas were coming together at Logan’s Cross Roads. The Confederate commanders decided their best strategy was to strike immediately, before additional Union troops arrived. If they waited, the Union would attack the Confederate defenses set up near the community of Mill Springs.
The southern forces desperately needed to hold their line, because a loss would allow the Union to gain control of the Cumberland Gap, the main route into southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee.
Most of Crittenden’s men were equipped with obsolete flintlock muskets that rainy winter morning of Jan. 19, 1862. Only the 15th Mississippi, 16th Alabama, and 29th Tennessee were partially armed with percussion muskets and rifles. One battlefield participant estimated that only a fifth of the Confederate muskets could fire. In their frustration, many of the Tennesseans were seen to smash their useless flintlocks against trees.
For more than an hour during the battle, the 15th Mississippi and 20th Tennessee battled the Federals nearly alone.
Rutledge’s Confederate artillery fired a few rounds, and the 25th and 28th Tennessee regiments moved up to reinforce the troops fighting on the front line. However, Crittenden was never able to bring up all the rest of his infantry or bring all of his forces to bear. And he made no use of his cavalry for flanking movements.
Realizing that his position was indefensible, Crittenden ordered a withdrawal across the river that night. The Confederates left behind all of their artillery pieces and wagons, and most of their horses and camp equipment. On Jan. 20, when the Federals moved against the Confederate encampment, they found it abandoned and Crittenden’s force safely across the river. The general later would be harshly criticized for his handling of the battle, and he resigned his commission later in 1862.