On January 19th, 1862, the Confederacy suffered its first significant loss of the Civil War.
In 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer – a former Tennessee Congressman who had initially been opposed to secession, but whose loyalties to his home state had led him to volunteer for military service – had been given the responsibility of guarding the Cumberland Gap, which sits in the Appalachians at the junction of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Around November of that same year, he decided to move ahead into neutral Kentucky, to the area around Somerset, in south-central Kentucky. Finding a good defensive position at Mill Springs, he fortified his army there on the banks of the Cumberland River, intending to use it as his winter quarters.
The Union didn’t take too kindly to this movement, so Union Brigadier General George Thomas was given orders to drive the Confederates back across the Cumberland River.
By this time, command of Zollicoffer’s army had been taken over by Major General George Crittenden, of Russellville, Kentucky, who had arrived at Mill Springs sometime earlier. Knowing Thomas’s Union troops were in the area, Crittenden decided to attack first, figuring it was the last thing Thomas expected. What Crittenden did not know was that Thomas’s troops had been reinforced with another Union army under the command of Brigadier General Albin Schoepf.
The two armies met near Nancy, Kentucky in Pulaski County, on the morning of Sunday, January 19th. The initial Confederate attack repulsed the Union army, but a swift counterattack by the Union troops cut deep into the Confederate line. Fighting became disorganized toward the end of the day, and General Zollicoffer, attempting to reorganize his troops, approached a Union regiment under the command of Danville, Kentucky native Colonel Speed Fry. Thinking Fry’s troops were his own soldiers, Zollicoffer ordered them to cease firing. At that moment, Zollicoffer’s aid, seeing the mistake, came riding toward the general, and fired a warning shot toward Fry’s troops. At being fired upon, Fry, along with several of his soldiers, fired shots at Zollicoffer. Zollicoffer toppled from his horse, dead from several gunshot wounds.
The Confederate army was forced to retreat all the way back to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and the Battle of Mill Springs proved to be the first major Confederate loss of the war, and inversely, the first major Union victory. Along with the Battle of Middle Creek (a minor skirmish a week earlier in Floyd County, Kentucky), The Battle of Mill Springs helped stop the Confederate advance into Kentucky.
General Zollicoffer was the first general killed in the Western Theater of the Civil War, and outrage followed his death. Although Colonel Fry himself never claimed to have fired the fatal shot, many southerners accused him of murder – evidence of the “gentleman’s war” idea that was still such a strong concept in the 19th century.
A tree near where Zollicoffer died became a sort of Confederate shrine, known as Zollie’s Tree. The tree no longer exists, but a nearby Confederate cemetery containing a mass Confederate grave was named in his honor – it is known as Zollicoffer Park to this day. Additionally, the Mill Springs battlefield, where the Union dead were buried, has been designated a national cemetery, and it is the second oldest national cemetery still receiving burials (second only to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.).
Zollicoffer himself is buried in Nashville.
Interestingly, today is also the anniversary of Robert E. Lee's birth. It is also the birthday of Edgar Allen Poe.
Additionally, on this date in 1915, the first German zeppelin air raid on England was carried out, causing the deaths of twenty civilians.
Two years later, on this same date, the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, proposing a German-Mexican alliance against the United States, and proposing to restore much of the American southwest to Mexico. The telegram was intercepted by the British and became one of the primary reasons for America's entry into World War I.
Finally, on this date twelve years ago, I awoke in my dorm room inside Anderson Hall to find that the temperatures had plummeted to record lows, near negative 20 degrees, and the school's generator and power was out, thanks to a near two-foot snowfall we had gotten two days earlier. The temperature inside my dorm room that morning was in the 40's.
That week was supposed to have been the first full week of classes, but we ended up being off school all week, more or less trapped at the school, with no power, and record low temperatures. The previous day, we had had a huge snowball fight, and everyone had been excited at the prospect of a few days without classes. But when the temperatures suddenly plummeted, guaranteeing that the snow would not melt, and we had no power, and thus no heat and no hot food, we were all considerably less thrilled. By Friday, full-fledged cabin fever had set in, and I made probably the worst driving decision of my life, and decided to head up to Cincinnati with Melanie for the weekend, where there was less snow, and a warm house with warm food. The interstates had only just been reopened that day, and they were treacherous. I have never been so scared in my life.
Somehow, we made it safely.